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The Oldest Tree in Europe has been Discovered in Italy

In Italy, researchers have found what they believe to be the oldest living tree in Europe, having calculated its age to be approximately 1230 years old, according to a report from Discovery.  The tree was located in Italy’s Pollino National Park and it is a Heldreich’s pine tree. The conifer is believed to be 150 years older than the pine found in Greece that was previously believed to be the continent’s oldest tree. This tree could help to answer many questions about the environment in the past and how climate change might impact on forests in the future.

A Shoot in the Dark Ages

The pine germinated during the 9 th century in Europe, during the Dark Ages - the period after the Fall of the Roman Empire. It began to grow at a time in Italy that was marked by war, famine and the collapse of social order. The Lombard tribe had invaded the Peninsula and were waging a brutal war with the Byzantines for control of Italian territory. Elsewhere the Vikings were ravaging much of western Europe.

The Oldest Tree

The Pine, which has been nicknamed Italus, was discovered by a team led by Gianluca Piovesan from the Università della Tuscia. They have been sampling the thousands of Heldreich’s pines, in the remote Pollino National Park, in Calabria for over three years. The team has discovered several pines that are a thousand years old.

Compared with the current oldest tree in the world, a bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeve), this tree is a relative adolescent. This is located in the White mountains and has been aged by the Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research Group as over five millennia old – 5062-years-old to be precise.

Other trees do exist in Europe that are believed to be much older than this but it has not been possible to age these with current aging techniques. For example, the Llangernyw Yew in a graveyard of North Wales is estimated to be at least 4,000 years old, meaning it began its long life sometime during the Bronze Age.

Bristlecone Pine Forest of the White Mountains in California. This particular grove of bristlecones are the oldest living things on the planet. (CC BY 2.0)

Bristlecone Pine Forest of the White Mountains in California. This particular grove of bristlecones are the oldest living things on the planet. ( CC BY 2.0 )

The Search for Europe’s Oldest Tree

As the team was exploring the National Park, they saw a sparse pine tree on a height. Parts of the tree were dead. It had a dead crown and its trunk was decaying. The conifer that was jutting out from a high cliff in the mountains and was difficult to access. The aged state of the tree aroused the curiosity of the team and they climbed up to investigate it. In a preliminary investigation, the researchers found that  “the inner part of the wood was like dust” according to Smart News . About 20 centimeters of wood was missing because of decay.

This meant that vital information about the age of the tree was absent and made dating challenging. There were not enough tree rings to help the researchers to determine the age of the conifer. However, the team knew that the tree was probably very old based on its physical state and decided to have it carbon dated.

The Heldreich’s pine found in Pollino National Park and dated by Gianluca Piovesan of Università della Tuscia in Italy and colleagues. (Image: Gianluca Piovesan)

The Heldreich’s pine found in Pollino National Park and dated by Gianluca Piovesan of Università della Tuscia in Italy and colleagues. (Image: Gianluca Piovesan)

Studying the Tree

According to their study published in Ecology, the team conducted radiocarbon dating on some exposed roots of Italus, which were in relatively good shape and this enabled them to discover when the tree germinated. They also examined the surviving tree rings and those in the roots. The carbon dating and the remaining tree rings allowed the researchers from Università della Tuscia to date the tree with a high degree of certainty. The team’s findings concluded that the tree was remarkably 1230 years old and this was even older than they had expected.

Further studies were conducted by the team and to their amazement, the rather decayed looking tree was in better condition than it looked. However, Italus’ tree rings have been widening over the past twenty years and therefore it has resumed growing. It is believed that the microclimate in the National Park has allowed the ancient pine to flourish, while elsewhere ‘trees in the Mediterranean region have been experiencing a decline in growth’ because of drought according to the National Geographic . It is possible that new European Union pollution rules are beginning to improve the environment for trees in Italy.

An Environmental Indicator

Italus is an exciting find because it can help researchers to understand the many dramatic shifts in the temperature down the centuries. The multi-centennial tree could even provide information on the environment from as far back as the 9 th century A.D. The tree has survived cold periods in the Middle Ages and the 17th Century and many droughts. It can help us to understand how trees can adapt to climate change.  Italus could also tell us how trees will adapt to the rise in temperatures, expected because of global warming.

Top image: A 1,230-year-old pine tree from Italy who just became the oldest scientifically-dated tree in Europe. Credit: Gianluca Piovesan (Fair use)

By Ed Whelan

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