Meet the oldest tree in Europe

A Heldreich pine discovered in southern Italy has been thriving for more than 1230 years.

Sure, it’s seen some better days, but this pine is still alive and kicking — it’s actually doing quite fine: a thorough examination showed that it’s been having a growth spurt in recent decades, with larger and larger tree rings being added to its trunk.

The discovery was made by Gianluca Piovesan and his fellow researchers at the Università della Tuscia. They spent three years sampling trees in Pollino National Park, which is located in a remote region of southern Italy that is home to thousands of Heldreich’s pine trees (Pinus heldreichii).

This species, often referred to as the Bosnian pine, is native to mountainous areas of the Balkans and southern Italy. The species has been known for its longevity for a while, and in 2016, a tree in northern Greece was dated as 1075. Another notable specimen from Bulgaria, known as Baikushev’s pine, is estimated to be over 1,300 years old, though this has not been confirmed.

Establishing the pine’s age wasn’t easy. When researchers tried to collect a sample from its trunk, they found that the central part of the tree, which contained its youngest years, was almost completely missing.

“The inner part of the wood was like dust—we never saw anything like it,” says team member Alfredo Di Filippo. “There were at least 20 centimeters of wood missing, which represents a lot of years.”

Since dating it only from trunk rings was out of the question, researchers turned to another part of the tree: its roots. Its roots were in much better shape, and they also produce annual rings. However, the rings of the roots and those of the trunk don’t always correlate. Thankfully, researchers were able to use radiocarbon dating and assess when the tree first germinated: 1,230 years ago. Using this information, they were able to cross-correlate the root rings, and assess the years which were missing from the trunk, and the timeline of the pine tree was established much more precisely, Piovesan says.

While it may not seem in optimal shape, the tree is doing quite well. In recent decades, its rings have gotten wider, which signals suitable environmental conditions. This also suggests that the tree has gotten significantly larger recently.

The rings can further be used to gain information about how the tree’s environment changed over the centuries, and how trees can survive periods of extreme droughts or flooding, as well as climatic shifts. It’s not clear exactly what allowed this tree to thrive for so long, but scientists have a few ideas. Mountains have their own microclimate, where temperatures remain cooler and tend to exhibit smaller changes. Piovesan also believes that recent pollution reducing and rewilding policies implemented in Europe helped. Biologically speaking, trees (and especially conifers) are more or less immortal and can go on living indefinitely. Extremely old trees are often toppled by external events, such as strong winds.

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