Pining for the White Mountains

Of the places I visit when I am in California, the bristlecone pine groves high in the White Mountains call me back most often. Usually I spend several months during the New Zealand winter camping and hiking in the mountains and deserts of the western United States. Last year, Covid put paid to that. Probably this year, too.

These trees survive in a hostile environment, a high altitude desert, growing ever so slowly. They die slowly, too. Standing trees may be thousands of years old and fallen timbers thousands more.

Dead bristlecone in the Schulman Grove, White Mountains, CA

I made a photo book of these trees last year, a tribute to my heroes of the plant world, using images I have made over a number of years. I love the gnarled and twisted branches that reflect the hardships endured by trees growing at such high altitudes and subject to extremes of weather.

A few animals survive here too. The golden mantled ground squirrel can be found scavenging for cones in summer. In winter these small mammals hibernate to escape the cold. Clark’s nutcracker also feeds on seeds from these trees.

Young golden mantled ground squirrels
Clark’s nutcracker

As bristlecone trees age, their protective outer bark becomes eroded so that eventually the cambium layer beneath can no longer function to transport water and nutrients through the tree. Many very old trees have just a narrow strip of bark connecting their roots to the canopy above, a lifeline that ensures their survival for maybe many years more.

Eroded trunk of bristlecone pine tree
Snow is late to leave the bristlecones at this altitude of close to 12 000 feet (3500 metres)

Apart from the harsh climatic conditions endured by these trees, they grow on thin, limestone soils, which are very low in nutrients. These factors combine to make bristlecones in the White Mountains grow very slowly indeed so that they are the oldest trees in the world, some over 5000 years old.

Bristlecone pine tree in the Schulman Grove growing out of rock

3 thoughts on “Pining for the White Mountains

    • I’ve been there as early as April, but usually at least the upper grove is snowed in. The road to the Patriarch Grove doesn’t usually open until late May, I think, but that depends on snowfall. I have been in autumn, too, but any time the road is open is good! It would be awesome in winter .. I have a print by Galen Rowell taken of trees in the Patriarch Grove on the first winter traverse of the White Mountains in the 1970s.

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