Bristlecone pines are the oldest single
living organisms ever discovered on earth. The oldest
living trees are nearly 5,000 years! It seems likely some of them exceeding that
age exist. The oldest individuals are older than Stonehenge and Egyptian
Pyramids, and is still alive today. The species has been discovered not long ago
though. Bristlecone pines struggle extremely harsh weather conditions and form
groves, ancient mysterious settlements, high in the mountains at the very edge
of timberline. However, they occupy some special locations in western U.S.
It is likely that the species was discovered by
no one man. For an obvious reason some discoverers remain unknown or pass out of
history while others become a part of it. As regards the bristlecone pines, it
is quite a tangled affair. Later it turned out there is a completeness of three
subspecies of foxtail bristlecone pines (Pinus balfouriana, Pinus
aristata, and Pinus longaeva)
within single species named Pinus
balfouriana (named on the basis of priority)
and no two of them have been ever traced growing intermixed. The latter brings
in some more of blur. Moreover, it was proved in 1970 that the difference
between bristlecone pines (known as Pinus aristata)
that grow in the eastern territory and their western congeners is enough to
assert of two relative but different
subspecies. Western trees have been named Pinus longaeva
and have a starring role for a variety of reasons both in this site and on the
the Scottish explorer has discovered foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana that
acquired its name from John Hutton Balfour who described J.Jeffrey's sample
branches) on Scott Mountains, CA in 1852.
Further J.Jeffrey's fatal fate is not clear. He left from San Diego to cross the
Colorado Desert searching for unknown plants. According to Donald Culross
he was either killed by Indians or died of thirst. Jeffrey had no but a few
friends and nobody missed him when he did not return for quite a long time.
Dramatic scene of discovery of bristlecone pines did not finish with that.
It was late August of 1853 when Frederick Creutzfeldt,
a German botanist, collected a few branches from a pine he has never seen
before. The tree grew near Cochetopa Pass, CO. Today we know Creutzfeldt cut
branches of Pinus aristata. The botanist was a member of the
ill-fated Gunnison expedition of 1853-54 whose duty was to survey a route for a
railroad to the Pacific. The scientist was killed along with Captain John
Williams Gunnison, commander of the expedition, and most of the others of
the party in an ambush near Delta on October 26, 1853. Durwood Ball
describes that brutal murder also known as Gunnison Massacre in his book
"Army Regulars on the Western Frontier, 1848-1861". However, it's
controversial as varying accounts accuse Pahvants
(Ute Indians), the Mormons, or both of murdering the party. One way or another,
the collected pine branches were looted after they have committed the deed.
Soon, the Mormons made a deal and shipped the recovered branches east to the
botanists. For classification reason it is necessary the branches also have
cones and scientists need to know the exact location where the samples came
from. The latter two factors were missing in that case.
Branches and deadwood of bristlecone pines. Snake