The Secret That Helps Some Trees Live More Than 1,000 Years

By comparing very old and young ginkgos in China, scientists found an explanation for their longevity.

Comments: 51

  1. “It’s kind of a way of calibrating how quickly our world is changing and reminding us that we shouldn’t always be thinking of the short term.” Seems a bit late for that already.

  2. In the town where we live, there is an old lady gingko that I always admire. There must also be some male partners in the vicinity, alas unseen.

  3. Comment from a scientist: Cellular senescence doesn't mean death -- it means the cell stops dividing

  4. @J Calling yourself a "scientist" doesn't make you right. It also sounds pretentious. Most people that make such pronouncements are usually not scientists. Just because you employ the findings of a scientific process doesn't make you a scientist. Unless your discipline requires and encourages rigor, a process of validation, evaluation, testing and reformulation, it's not science.

  5. @J Agreed. The sole claim is "the genes in the cambium contain no program for senescence, or death, they say, but continue their program for making defenses even after hundreds of years." Genes are not "programs", nor does genetic analysis prove much about behavior. Observing "defenses" in an old tree would prove behavior; what exactly were those? Not finding a gene we expect for senescence typically means we don't yet understand the organism's process. Nothing in the article really flows from genetic analysis. Now, if there were some new mechanism for DNA repair, or some redundancy in cellular signaling, that would be interesting. Or, if the Gingko is relatively slow-evolving (i.e., unchanged over geological time scales), it may indicate a relatively mutation-free germ cell division process. I would be surprised if the bristlecone pine had the same anti-aging mechanisms; it seems to be incredibly slow-growing in an incredibly consistent (and dry) environment. (In any case people should forget about visiting them; tourists and even scientists typically do them more harm than good.)

  6. I think I learned quite a bit reading this thanks

  7. Nature is beyond, way beyond, our imagination.

  8. @RonRich Truly. Reminds me of a quote by an excited Neil deGrasse Tyson who in responding to the fact that all living things possess molecules traceable to cosmic phenomena said: “That makes me want to grab people in the street and say, have you heard this?!” Yes, nature really is that amazing.

  9. @RonRich Nature is always way beyond our skillset. We should be grateful that we even have the brain capacity to understand the many miraculous things that occur in Nature on a daily basis.

  10. If you think of each reproduced organism as a tick of the genetic clock, these trees have evolved fewer generations per astronomical year than we who are new in having developed: 1, instant behavioral adaptability; 2, ability to change the world environment; 3, and now the chance to choose to change our DNA by ourselves. Leaping lizzards! Let's hope we don't blow this chance.

  11. @J Calling yourself a "scientist" doesn't make you right. It also sounds pretentious. Most people that make such pronouncements are usually not scientists. Just because you employ the findings of a scientific process doesn't make you a scientist. Unless your discipline requires and encourages rigor, a process of validation, evaluation, testing and reformulation, it's not science.

  12. What? I have a PhD in Biomedical Science and it's my job to be precise in wording. I noticed that the article was equating death with senescence as a way to explain this word to the reader and I thought it was important to comment that these concepts aren't the same thing. I have no intention to be pretentious, just explaining who I am.

  13. Three cheers for science, nature and the scientific method ! Nature and Mother Earth are AWESOME ! Time for more green energy.

  14. The Bristlecone pines, including Methuselah, are amazing and I visited them many times while living in CA. It's just hard to believe they are that old but then plants of all kinds are unique and wonderful to behold. They still have many secrets we have yet to discover.

  15. @Jacquie I say let the secrets be.

  16. This piece is not particularly well written; and hopefully nature never reveals all her secrets...

  17. Another aspect to consider is that these trees are integral to their ecosystem and therefore contribute to each other's well-being. The tree can live 1,000 years because it enriches its surrounding, and the surrounding nourishes it. That is the lesson we can, should, and must learn if we are to exist for the long term.

  18. @wlieu Well, the ginkgo's ecosystem is in China, and perhaps it contributes something there. In California (and perhaps all of North America), no bugs call it home, and so no birds are nourished there. It is an undeniably strong tree, but I think it has actually outlived its ecosystem.

  19. Fascinating trees that are pretty common in America. But obviously not that old here. I enjoy pointing them out to people. There is no leaf like that.

  20. Your article, being a focus of botanists, is ideal for me to share my theory of gravity. It is simply the magnetic forces of the small acting in combination as a big force. All atoms have electrons, or packets of energy as defined by strings theory, but that rotating energy in motion creates a magnetic force of a frequency determined by it's diameter of rotation. There are many frequencies depending on shell sizes and changing partnerships in motion. Perhaps multiple frequencies appear as another. So here is a simple way to test my theory with botany; study why Corn plants and pine tress grow exactly vertical in opposition to the force of gravity. It's a chemical susceptibility to magnetic flux is my claim.

  21. Consider this as well; Oxygen, a part of so much, is paramagnetic meaning it reacts partially to a magnetic field. I learned it 39 years ago studying for work as well as a curiosity about Nikolai Tesla's work. I believe in Tesla's quest for free energy, he resonated the atmosphere with his generator that lit a wireless bank of bulbs in Colorado with his generator twenty miles away. He was ruined by big money and died penniless in a New York Hotel room.

  22. Look at a photo of the full moon. Most craters are situated about the north and south polar regions, or the magnetic poles. Like a magnet with poles, meteors were drawn into those regions more than the equitorial expanses. Gravity is magnetic force

  23. Loved this article, thank you! It's a reminder of the many wonders of the universe, and every time I see a Ginkgo now, I will have a new found respect and admiration for it. These trees have been around for 200 million years? How miraculous! . . . So after mankind destroys the planet and/or we blow ourselves up, the mighty Ginkgo will remain. Nature and Mother Earth will outlast us all, for sure.

  24. @Kathy Wyer The humble little ferns you see growing on edges of woods are even older--over 300 million years in some cases.

  25. I lived in Inwood, the most northern neighborhood in the island of Manhattan, and I came to appreciate a very large old ginkgo at the southeast corner of Isham park. Its golden autumn leaves are simply gorgeous. I heard this tree was more than 400 years old. That was a time the isle of Manahatta was occupied by native Americans who thrived along the Harlem River and salt marsh. It was in Inwood that Dutch traders purchased Manhattan from the locals. Pretty cool to think this tree was alive at that time. A direct link to our history.

  26. @Lorna Dolci, Ginkgo trees are not native to North America and weren't known to native Americans. Realistically the tree you mention was probably planted by a somewhat esoteric arborist in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. I nurtured a Ginkgo for twenty-plus years and eventually gave it to a good friend to plant in her yard in the country. I have another ginkgo in a large pot that I intend to plant at my retirement home. They really are special!

  27. @T L Brown - Bartram Gardens in Philadelphia has a gingko tree that was planted in 1785. It may be North America's oldest.

  28. I used to live in Inwood and loved all the trees there! Some of the trees were from before Europeans came to the Americas, and walking among them gives you such a sense of place. Thanks for reminding me!

  29. Learned something I could never have imagined! Ginkgo has learned how to coexist in harmony with nature. If we humans can learn the same lesson of how to coexist with nature we would not rush towards bringing about the end of our own existence.

  30. After my best friend died at 49 of colon cancer, a mutual friend, who runs an organic nursery down the road from my best friend’s farmhouse in Western Massachusetts, gave me a sapling ginkgo in a gesture to soothe my broken heart. It was August of 2000 and I was about to get on the road to move back to Los Angeles. It traveled over 3000 miles in my jam-packed car and I then planted it in a clay pot. It did well on the south-facing balcony of my apartment. Three years later, I followed my now-ex to Saint Louis but couldn’t bear to leave the ginkgo behind. We moved into a downtown loft with no balcony and east-facing windows. The ginkgo languished and in most years only had a few leaves. I even bought a plant light which didn't seem to help. I informed my friend of its ongoing travails and, knowing my emotional connection to the tree, she gently attempted to prepare me for its eventual death. However, in seven years it would not die. Every November it lost its few leaves and every spring I anxiously examined the branches for any sign of buds. Each time I found a few, reigniting hope for another year. Divorce liberated me and the ginkgo to return to California where it is now flourishing in a big pot on my south-facing patio. When I saw my friend again recently, she was astonished that it was not only still alive after such cross-country adventures but also flourishing again. Much thanks to this article, I now understand why that may be and will share it with my friend.

  31. The last house I owned had a big ginkgo tree on the front lawn. Another interesting aspect of these trees is they lose all their leaves in the fall at once. Often, I would start off to work in the morning on a nice fall day with the ginkgo full of leaves. When I got home from work, there was not a leaf left on the tree. Amazing!

  32. @Stew My bonsai Ginkgo does the same at home. Meanwhile, nearby specimens at our ABQ Botanic Garden lose their leaves over a period of days or weeks.

  33. @Stew I have an Oak, no clue the kind that holds most of it's dry leaves till it is sure spring is truly here and in a day or two all those old leaves drop and the new green is on for the year. It's the bell weather to our springs here.

  34. And don’t forget the bright yellow color! Like a lady suddenly dropping her delicate yellow skirt!

  35. I have also heard gingkos have better resistance against pests and pollution than other trees. Same reasons or other mechanism ?

  36. "Although ginkgos live long, they do age. The trees grow up and out: Up, with a cell-generating region called the apical meristem, and out, with the vascular cambium. Over time, weather or other things damage the apical meristem, limiting a tree’s height. And each year, leaves die and fall off." Thanks! I knew cambium, now I know the "up" part. The last lines of the article reminded me - people might want to check out The Long Now foundation. Goal is to have us think about more future than the next quarter's financial release, or pretent that "long term" projections end at 2100.

  37. Cool! Instead of a stone monument that will erode to dust, plant a ginkgo tree as a monument instead. It will last longer while also pulling CO2 out of the air and making O2 for millennia.

  38. Increased carbon dioxide (plant food) in the atmosphere from 300ppm in our relatively recent past to over 400ppm at present has been a boon for all kinds of plant growth on this planet including trees. Transitioning to more fossil-fuel-free electric options in places where it makes sense will help to stabilize the atmospheric CO2 level at around 400-500 ppm, a satisfactory level for plants and a benefit to places like California which cannot have high levels of temporary carbon monoxide (poison/SMOG) from combustion engines in the atmosphere due to their lack of clearing wind forces during parts of the year. Modern catalytic converters remove up to 95% of the bad gases but places like California will still benefit from reducing the petroleum-based transport system on the roads. This aspect of the cold, hard truth sounds better, right? Instead of just vilifying CO2 for the wrong reasons day in and day out!

  39. I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree. A tree whose hungry mouth is prest Against the sweet earth's flowing breast; A tree that looks at God all day, And lifts her leafy arms to pray; A tree that may in summer wear A nest of robins in her hair; Upon whose bosom snow has lain; Who intimately lives with rain. Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree. - Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918)

  40. Ginkgos have survived 200 million years unchanged through all the events this planet and calamitous extraterrestrial forces threw at it. What stories will they tell of humankind's challenges to the continuation of their success story in a 1000 years?

  41. All I can say is, read Loren Eisley's "The Immense Journey."

  42. “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.” Good stuff.

  43. There are Taxodium (Bald cypress, Montezuma Cypress) can be multiple thousands of years old. They are related to Sequoia and Sequoiadendron ( redwoods) that can live many thousands of years. They can been seen in North America and and the earliest fossils date back 60+ million years for Sequoia and about the same for Taxodium. Some tress like Gingko Taxodium and Sequoia have secondary meristematic tissue and root initials in places in the cambium layer. This means you can take a some parts of these plants and you can get them to root or start new stems. This may also add to the ability to live long since they can regrow damaged tissues like roots and stems. There may be other plants that could be even older. Grasses regrow about 1/3 of there roots and crowns every year so they are completely regenerated every 3-4 years. Since they don't grow rings there is no way now to date them. Plus Nobody has bothered to look.

  44. The Great Basin bristlecone (p. longaeva) lives much longer than ginkgo - 5000 years or more - and is non-senescent as well. A few years ago, there was some excitment that a core taken in 1957 in the White Mtns of California was from a tree that was 5070 years old. This was accompanied by a claim that the tree was known and was still alive. Sadly, the dendrochronologist who made the claim is now dead, the core is missing, and the tree cannot be found. For more about the bristlecones of Nevada's Snake Range, see my photostream and essays on Flickr. Several of the trees pictured can be estimated to be 5000 years old. Here is a relevant sampler:

  45. Gingko trees stink, literally! Don't step on the berries. They can also change their sex.

  46. There is nothing more beautiful than walking down a block in New York in autumn exploding with yellow Gingko leaves.

  47. Please keep in mind that ginkgos are not native to North America. Plant native to support local pollinators.

  48. I am under the impression that the Judean Palm is older than the ginko. Granted there are only six known specimens, all resurrected females from Masada, but palms are older than deciduous trees. Ginkos were also once effectively extinct being cultivated only in a few Chinese monistaries and outliving their pests and diseases. Somewhere out there there's a lonely Judean Palm 'pineing' for a mate!

  49. As a futurist author I hardly ever think about the short term. Most of my stories have long time spans, some longer than our single Universe has been around. My dad says he wants to live to be 100, and having family members that have lived well past 90, it's kinda in the blood. When you think beyond this election cycle or beyond a single human lifetime, it changes how you see things that you plant, things you build, all your daily living. I collect art, and books, and glass items, things that can last longer than a single lifetime. How we as a community see the world about us is going to change when we hop onto starships going to the next solar system over yonder, having to keep the place alive and going for decades to maybe 100's of years, will help us learn out of our daily modes of thinking. I want to see the Big White Pine I have out front in 50 years from now. It's in a great place, sitting over the main trunk line of the streets sewage system, It seems to have found a nice food supply. Planted the same time as one in the back yard, it is three times the girth as the other tree. I Love Trees.

  50. Let me declare this here at the beginning. I am a lover of Trees. One could do worse than having the perspective of a tribe of them. The community, the web of life, they foster as a group always seems to be a cleansing and supportive exercise doesn't it? Unfortunately as a urban denizen, currently, I cannot say I suffer from a close association with them. Indeed if I look at myself clearly I'd say I suffer from a lack of close association. It makes me more sensitive. Seeing the forlorn and struggling straggler curb-side in NYC - evincing all the mood of a prisoner long confined in its cell - tends to make me wince. Doesn't it you, too? But for all that it seems to me the planet would be the better for a radical increase in their numbers. And from what I have observed in park, and country, wanderings so, too, the human spirit. Would that we could return to the perspective of living in and among them, all done with a healthy respect for the occasional falling (tree) limb, of course. Would that we foster the economic, social and spiritual development of Trees. To me this seems an unalloyed good. John~ American Net'Zen

  51. As I understand it, the reason for limited lifespans is the shortening of chromosomal telomeres with each cell division, limiting the number of such divisions. Bacteria have unlimited lifespans because they don't have this mechanism. Trees (at least some) seem to avoid the shortening. Of course each cell division also allows for the opportunity for the DNA copying to go wrong so it may be that the tree immune system has some capability for weeding out mutations that we animals don't possess.