Saturday, May 09, 2015

Meet Your Forest: The mighty and ancient bristlecone pine

#Summit County, Colorado.

Summit County forests are home to one of the oldest and longest-living trees in the world, the bristlecone pine. Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine is a native conifer found in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona from 7,000 feet to tree line in montane and subalpine life zones. The scientific name is Pinus aristata Engelmann, from arista meaning beard, which refers to the bristles on the cones. Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine can often reach 40 feet in height at low elevation. It grows as a small tree at upper subalpine elevations and at tree line forms krummholz (crooked, bent, twisted deformed trees). Some are thousands of years old!
You can distinguish the bristlecone pine by the beautiful, dark-purple cone, although the color varies from green or rust when young to gray-brown or dark brown as they age. The cones are long, with sharp, hooked spines and covered with sap. Be careful when touching because they are sharp and the sap is very sticky and hard to remove from skin and almost impossible to remove from clothing. My sweatshirt still has some imbedded from two years ago. But it’s hard not to want to touch these amazing cones.
The needles are 1 to 2 inches long, mostly crowded toward the ends of the branches, giving a bottlebrush appearance, and they can be retained for as long as 20 years — and again, sticky and resinous. The branches form a densely conical crown, and the bark of bristlecone pine is thin and reddish-brown with deep fissures. The bristlecone pine’s root system is mostly many branched shallow roots, with a few large, branching roots providing support. The bristlecone pine is extremely drought tolerant due to its branched, shallow root system.
The trees grow in soils that are shallow, generally dolomite and also possibly limestone, sandstone or quartzite. The bristlecone pine grows very slowly, and even though the wood is very dense and resinous, and thus mostly resistant to invasion by insects, fungi, and other potential pests, there is some concern for its survival. The species are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, which encourages education and maintaining a no-cut perspective across its few growing regions.
So, when you look to the start of tree line and you see what looks like a graveyard, look closer: It’s actually bristlecone pine stumps. The stump can also tell the story of its own demise, the height of the snow, waterfall of its years and the age of its grove. In the few remaining groves of trees, the branches twist and turn in every direction. Parts of the trees look almost dead, and other parts are very alive and full of needles.
So enjoy these age-old trees in Summit County on Boreas Pass or Mount Royal near Frisco. Another great place to visit is just south of Breckenridge at the Windy Ridge Bristlecone Pine Scenic Area near Alma, which is reached by four-wheel-drive vehicle or a great hike. A dozen Rocky Mountain bristlecone pines in the South Park area of Colorado are documented as more than 1,600 years old.
Now that you know about the oldest living trees, take some time to peruse and purchase old, but probably comparatively younger, treasures that will help to sustain our forest. The Friends of the Dillon Ranger District is holding its annual Big Yard Sale on Saturday, May 16, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Dillon Ranger Station parking lot in Silverthorne (across from Target). All proceeds go toward preserving our Summit County forests.
Jasmine Hupcey is the office and volunteer manager for Friends of the Dillon Ranger District. She can be reached at For more information on the organization and volunteer opportunities, visit
Courtesy of the Summit Daily News.