We don’t often think about how long a tree can live. Many of our customers tell us about their kids who planted the apple tree in the front yard, or about the ash tree in the backyard that we are treating that their mother planted just before she passed. Many of us however have not been lucky enough to plant a tree ourselves in our yard. Because of that, most of us don’t know how old our trees are.
But just how long can a tree live?
The answer depends. Certain species of trees have the potential for longer lifespans. Even more important is the location of the tree. The sad fact is that trees that are far away from humans are more likely to live longer.
So how long could a tree that is predisposed to a long lifespan and that is in a relatively isolated location live for?
Well, we don’t know exactly. There is no known “maximum lifespan” for trees. But one such tree that fit the above criteria for a long life was a bald cypress tree in Florida that was named The Senator.
In 2012 The Senator was 125 feet tall and had a trunk diameter of 17.5 feet. The top of the Senator was destroyed by a hurricane in 1925, which reduced the height of the tree from its original 165 feet tall. The tree had been used as a landmark for Seminole Indians for centuries, and it is even reported that former President Calvin Coolidge visited The Senator in 1929 and commemorated it with a plaque. The Senator was estimated to be 3,500 years old.
So why is this majestic beauty being referred to in the past tense?
It was a dry night for mid-January, when firefighters we called to a reported fire at the top of The Senator. By the time the firefighters arrived the top of the tree was burning from the inside out. Seminole County Fire Rescue spokesman Steve Write described the burning as “almost like a chimney”. The fire was so intense that The Senator collapsed before firefighters were able to stop the blaze. The charred remnants of The Senator now stand a mere 20 feet high.
The fire the killed The Senator was initially believed to have occurred naturally, possibly by lightning. However a few weeks after the fire, the Florida Division of Forestry arrested a woman named Sara Barnes. Barnes admitted she regularly ventured out to The Senator to smoke methamphetamines. After police found photos on Barnes’ phone and computer of the fire being started, she admitted to burning down The Senator while she was high on meth. Barnes said that it was dark, so she lit a fire in the tree so that she could see the meth she was trying to smoke.
Barnes, the self-described “nature enthusiast”, pleaded no contest to unlawful burning of lands and was sentenced to 250 hours of labor and must pay $12,000 in restitution.
Sadly there are other instances of human beings destroying trees that were thousands of years old, though most aren’t as infuriating as what happened to The Senator. In 1964 a geography professor named Donald Currey along with a park ranger, unwittingly cut down a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine tree in eastern Nevada. Currey had gotten his tree corer stuck in the trunk of the tree, and it wasn’t until after the tree was cut down did he and his partner realized what they had done. The tree, now known as Prometheus, was over 5,000 years old. It was the oldest tree ever recorded.
The dating of trees is a relatively new science, and it is much more complicated than simply counting rings. There are many techniques that go into determining the age of a tree, and scientists have been making a better effort to identify, date, and protect these trees.
Since the cutting of Prometheus, older living trees have been discovered. There is even what are known as “clonal colonies” of trees. Trees in a clonal colony are often connected via their root systems, and while no individual clone tree in the system lives for a substantial amount of time, a continuous colony of trees can live for tens of thousands of years. Pando, a clonal colony of male quaking aspen is estimated to be around 80,000 years old and is among the oldest known living organisms.
Despite our newly acquired knowledge about these incredibly old trees, it doesn’t change the sadness and anger that one feels when they think about the fate of The Senator. Yes, The Senator was just a tree. Are there greater problems in the world than the death of a 3,500-year-old tree? Sure. But The Senator was born when Hatshepsut was reigning as the first female Pharaoh of Egypt. It shared the Earth with Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and George Washington. The Senator shared the Earth with Jesus Christ, Muhammad, The Buddha, and almost every major religious figure. This single organism that outlived countless civilizations, was destroyed in a matter of hours because of the actions of a drug addict.
We need to do better. It isn’t enough to just not be the person who burns down the tree. We need to truly care about these trees. They not only hold scientific significance, but they are perhaps our greatest link to our past. Their symbolic importance is even bigger than the diameter of their trunks. To respect and protect these ancient organisms is to respect all of humanity and our one home that we all share, the earth. To care about The Senator, Prometheus, and Pando is to be better human beings.
Today artists create a variety of items such as vases and sculptures are using the charred remains of The Senator. Many of the items have been made available at art shows. There is also an effort to create a travelling art exhibit of the artifacts that have been made out of wood from The Senator. In 2014 the park that was home to The Senator reopened. There is a memorial at the site of the fire, and a 60-foot tall clone of The Senator has been planted. The clone was created thanks to an effort by a team of foresters who had attempted to clone The Senator 16 years before the fire. The new tree has been named The Phoenix.