January has always been one of my favorite times of the year for bonsai. Full of repotting and show prep, wiring and cutback, the month entails some of the hardest and most rewarding work of the year. It also fills me with optimism for all of the bonsai work the year will bring.
For all of this, I’m grateful. Bonsai has enriched my life and led me on wonderful adventures around the world. Through it, I have made lasting friendships and learned to appreciate some of the more subtle beauties nature has to offer. I expect this year will be no different.
Years ago, I came across a flyer that provided a good summary of what makes a bonsai special. Age, character, and beauty, it asserted. I’ve used the definition often. If a tree lacks age, it cannot demonstrate its relationship to the environment. If it lacks character, there is nothing to distinguish it from the next tree on the bench. And if it lacks beauty, whether the elegance gained over time or the heart-rending tenacity that keeps it alive, the tree will fail to move us.
Full of age, character, and beauty, the Bristlecone Pines never fail to move me. The following grow along the Discovery Trail in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.
One of the more famous trees along the trail. It lived for over 3,000 years.
It’s neighbor is still alive – it too has celebrated more than 3,000 new years.
John next to a huge Bristlecone pine.
Maybe the most photographed branch in the grove. The natural twists are outstanding.
A proud tree on the west edge of the grove.
Two Bristlecones catching last light.
By far the best Bay Island Bonsai field trip of the year was our visit to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in California’s White Mountain range. The slow-growing Bristlecone Pines are a marvel – and this is the best place to see them. Along the Methuselah Trail alone, 11 of the 19 known 4,000+ year-old specimens continue to grow, including some of the very oldest (see Anne Johnson’s The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, 1999).
Really old Bristlecone Pine grove.
A combination of factors lead to such long lives, many of which are attributable to the locale. The growing season is short at 10,000 feet – two months give or take – and the weather is harsh. Summers are warm and dry. Overnight freezes mark spring and fall; winter is bitter cold. And unlike the Sierra Nevada range to the west, the White Mountains get relatively little precipitation, 80% of which comes in the form of snow.
It turns out that this is exactly what helps the Bristlecone live as long as they do. While these conditions make it hard for Bristlecone’s to thrive, they make it even harder on any pests or fungus that might give the trees trouble in more hospitable climes. Bristlecone growing in better soil with more precipitation grow larger and more quickly but die much younger.
Walking past a large Bristlecone
Many of the older Bristlecone sport dead roots that sit on top of the ground. This is due to erosion. The soil here typically washes down the mountains at a rate of about 1 foot per millenium. Gauging the original soil line is a good way begin estimating the age of a tree. When over a foot of roots are exposed, the tree is likely over 1,000 years old.
Erosion at the base of a Bristlecone
The Methuselah Trail itself cuts right through the most fascinating groves. Visitors are warned not to veer from the trail to protect the trees. As the soil is mostly loose rock and dust, wandering about can hasten erosion. Fortunately for visitors, there’s plenty to see at almost every turn.
Trompe l’oeil – the tree is big, but not that big. The photographer is shooting a subject behind the pine in the foreground.
Most of the oldest trees grow in a swath of particularly dolomitic soil, identified by the white band in the photo below. This is the Methuselah Grove. In it is the Methuselah tree, a 4,841 year-old specimen, and the world’s oldest known tree.
The trees in the Methuselah Grove are smaller than the surrounding trees. Most are odd arrangements of deadwood with occasional younger shoots indicating that a tree is still alive. Several have fallen as erosion claimed the ground beneath the roots yet continue to grow upwards. The tree in the photo below is typical of the area. It is likely between 4,000 and 5,000 years old.
Very old Bristlecone
The Methuselah tree itself is unmarked to prevent unwanted attention. Curiosity rankles many visitors to the area, and the tree’s exact location is the subject of many questions put to on-duty rangers.
Awesome roots in the Methuselah Grove
After spending a day in the area I became very comfortable with the Methuselah tree’s secret. It’s neat to know how old the trees really are – and fascinating to know down to the year, thanks to dendrochronologists – but a tree’s exact age isn’t apparent to the human eye, and in the big picture, it actually counts for very little. I took as much time as possible to simply study the trees, to see how they grow, to follow the curves of their deadwood and to appreciate their unique characters. I think this is why the area has such appeal to bonsai folk – it’s an outstanding place to see age, character and beauty in nature.
A small Bristlecone
Of course, seeing smaller Bristlecone that exhibited characteristics sought after in bonsai brought big smiles to our faces. Some trees, like the one pictured above and below, received a lot of attention from our group as they were very understandable through our bonsai-tinted lenses.
Same tree from the side
This was my second trip to see the Ancient Bristlecone Forest. I think next time I’d like to spend more time in the area and explore the Patriarch Grove, home to the world’s largest Bristlecone Pine. Like a large bonsai exhibit – think Kokufu – it’s both wonderful and a lot to take in for one day.
Formal upright Bristlecone with hollowed-out trunk.
Our day ended with rain. It made the view more striking and it brought out the unique desert aroma of sage and sand. Driving down from the mountain we appreciated dramatic rays of light striking the Owens Valley below. The trees above, I am sure, were appreciating the fresh water.
The name “Bristlecone Pine” refers to a cluster of slow-growing pines with bristles on their cones. The longest lived of these, the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, Pinus longaeva, is native to isolated patches in Nevada, Utah, and California. Many of the most ancient cluster in the White Mountain range, east of the Owens Valley and close to the Nevada border where conditions are conducive to long life and great size.
Like its closest relatives, the Rocky Mountains Bristlecone Pine and the Foxtail, the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine’s short needles grow in clusters of five. Unlike most pine needles, however, Bristlecone needles can live up to 20 or 30 years.
Bristlecone Pine foliage
Bristlecone pine cones mature over two years. The first year cones are small and blue with relatively long bristles.
Bristlecone Pine cone – first year
Second year cones are much longer longer and darker and are frequently covered with sap. The cone in the photo below is uncharacteristically free of sap.
Bristlecone Pine cone – second year
Male flowers cluster below new growth like tiny raspberries on the trees’ lower branches. Female cones typically develop near the top of Bristlecone pines. This helps maintain a grove’s genetic diversity. Were the catkins directly above the cones, the odds would be greater that a tree would self-pollinate. Reversing this encourages cross-pollination and places the female cones where they’ll catch the most pollen from other trees in the wind.
Bristlecone pine – male flowers
Bristlecone pines produce viable seeds long into old age – there doesn’t seem to be a limit on their ability to parent new trees.
First, second, and third year cones on the same branch.
Bristlecone growth habits vary greatly. Occasionally they grow quite rangy, as demonstrated by the tree below.
Rangy growth habit
More commonly, Bristlecone produce very symmetrical growth with increased branch density near a tree’s base. While it’s hard to tell from the photo, the shoots above John’s arm represent at least 20 years of growth.
Bristlecone pine – typical growth habit
The Bristlecone are not, however, sought out for the details mentioned above. The isolated groves in the White Mountains are a global destination due to their unparalleled character obtained at very great age.