Pinus longaeva / Great Basin bristlecone pine

subgenus Strobus (Lemmon), section Parrya (Mayr), subsection Balfourianae (Engelmann).

Pinus longaeva was first described in 1970 by D.K. Bailey in Phytogeography and taxonomy of Pinus subsection Balfourianae. ©Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Common names include Great Basin bristlecone pine, as well as intermountain bristlecone pine. These are the world's oldest known living trees, hence the species name.

U.S. Postage stamp from 2006
U.S. Postage stamp from 2006

Description. Great Basin bristlecone pine is an evergreen coniferous species of tree that grows to mature heights of 65 feet (16 m) with a trunk up to 80 inches (200 cm) in diameter, measured at breast height; and rounded or irregular crown, sometimes forming krummholz at the alpine timberline.

  • Bark is colored red-brown, fissured with thick, scaly, irregular, blocky ridges.
  • Branches are contorted and pendent; twigs are puberulent, pale red-brown in color, aging gray to yellow-gray. Young branches resemble long bottle-brushes because of persistent leaves, closely spaced needle whorls, and uniform needle insertion angles.
  • Foliar buds are ovoid-acuminate shaped, resinous, colored pale red-brown and measure circa 0.4 inch (1 cm) long.
  • Leaves (needles) are borne mostly 5 per fascicle, upcurved, persisting 10 to 43 years (among the longest persistence times known). Each needles measures 0.6 to 1.4 inches (15 - 35 mm) long by 0.032 to 0.048 inch (0.8-1.2 mm) thick, colored deep yellow-green, with few resin splotches, but often scurfy with pale scales. Abaxial surfaces lack median grooves but has 2 sub-epidermal bands of resin. Adaxial surfaces are conspicuously whitened with stomata. Margins are entire or remotely and finely serrulate distally, with bluntly acute to short-acuminate apex. Foliar sheaths measure circa 0.4 inch (1 cm), forming a rosette soon after needle push, then shed early.
  • Pollen cones are cylindro-ellipsoid shaped, colored purple-red, and measure 0.28 to 0.4 inch (7 - 10 mm) long.
  • Seed cones mature 2 years after pollination, shedding seeds and falling soon thereafter. Each cone is spreading, symmetric to lance-cylindric shaped with a rounded base before opening; lance-cylindric to narrowly ovoid when open, purple colored, aging red-brown, nearly sessile, and measuring 2.4 to 3.8 inches (6 - 9.5 cm) long. Apophyses are thickened, sharply keeled; umbo is central to the seed scale, raised on a low buttress, truncate to umbilicate, abruptly narrowed to slender but stiff, including a variable prickle measuring 0.04 to 0.24 inch (1 - 6 mm). Cones exude pale resin.
  • Seeds are ellipsoid-obovoid shaped with a body colored pale brown, mottled with dark red, measuring 0.2 to 0.32 inch (5 - 8 mm) long with a 0.4 to 0.48 inch (10 - 12 mm) wing.
natural range of <em>Pinus longaeva </em>
natural range of Pinus longaeva

Distribution. This species is native to USA — California, Nevada & Utah. Growing at subalpine and at the upper (rarely, lower) treeline; typically at elevations of 5,600 to 11,000 feet (1,700 - 3400 m) above sea level.

In many sites it shows a distinct preference for carbonate (limestone, dolomite or marble) substrates. In California's White mountains, for example, the limit of the bristlecone grove coincides with a dolomite/sandstone contact. Bristlecones grow at remarkably high elevations. For example, on Wheeler Peak, Nevada, there are four timberlines - a lower timberline set by the heat and aridity of the valley floor desert, and above that, a timberline set by cold that defines the upper limits of piñon pine (Pinus monophylla) and juniper (Juniperus osteosperma). Still higher, there is a lower timberline of bristlecone pine defined by its tolerance of heat and drought, and above that is a final timberline beyond which winter's cold prevents even bristlecone from growing.

Hardy to USDA Zone 4 — cold hardiness limit between -30° and -20°F (-34.3° and -28.9°C).

Attribution from: R. Kral, Pinus. Flora of North America Editorial Committee (editors); Flora of North America North of Mexico, Vol. 2; ©1993, Oxford University Press.

Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) at the Patriarch Grove of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains, Inyo National Forest, California, USA.
Photo by David Rasch
Pinus longaeva — an extraordinarily gnarled tree, in California's White Mountains.
Photo by Rick van Pelt
A typical P. longaeva forest on Duckwater Mountain, Nevada.
Photo by C.J. Earle
Pinus longaeva — bark detail.
Photo by C.J. Earle


Roger Zielinski

Do you know of a nursery that sells Pinus longaeva bristlecone pine?

Dan and Bonita Spear

Roger, an internet search shows multiple companies selling this pine. Even Amazon. I’m guessing the difference would be size of the plant.

Tabbatha Cavendish

I have a bristlecone pine that I bought from a "discount nursery." I don't know what cultivar it is. I bought it in western Washington. I live in zone eight and receive a lot of rainfall in the winter but really dry summers. Obviously this is an experiment I have no idea if it will live. I have searched high and low for anyone else who has done this but can't find any information. also would love to be able to tell which cultivar this is but I haven't done my research yet on that so maybe I can figure that out myself. Any comments?

Maxwell Cohn

Hi Tabatha ... since you bought your plant from a "discount nursery," there's no reason to assume that it's a cultivar at all ... probably straight species. Also, Pinus longeava isn't the species that's usually offered. It's most likely going to be aristata. If there are resin flecks on the needles, it's definitely aristata.