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The oldest known tree in Europe is having a growth spurt

At Italus, a 1,230-year-old pine trees from Italy, who just became the oldest scientifically dated tree in Europe. Credit: Gianluca Piovesan

High on a cliff in the south of Italy, a bone-white pine tree, looked to the Renaissance come and go, seen dozens of wars rage and resolve, and stood by thousands of less persistent organisms lived and died on the rocky slopes below. The tree, nicknamed Italus, has seen a lot. You could also, if you have more than 1200 years old.

With a life span of about 1,230 years, Italus has ruled that the oldest scientifically dated tree in Europe, according to a new paper published May 16 in the journal Ecology. The stately Heldreich pine was discovered in an ancient grove under other millennium-old trees in Italy, Pollino National Park, south of Naples. [Gallery: The Oldest Living Things in the World]

Italus, the oldest of the trees studied over the past three years of research, snags the title of Europe’s oldest tree of the 1,077-year-old Bosnian pine known as Adonis, which was dated in Greece in 2016. In contrast to Adonis, though, dating Italus was not as easy as counting the rings; the old pine’s insides were mixed with the age of a clear to read.

“The inner part of the wood was as substance — we have never seen anything like this,” study co-author Alfredo Di Filippo, a professor in the Department of Science and Technology for Agriculture, Forest, Environment and Energy at the University of Tuscia in Viterbo, Italy, told National Geographic. “There were at least 20 centimeters [7.9 inches] of wood missing, which stands for many years.”

For these missing years, the researchers took radiocarbon dating of samples of the tree’s exposed roots to determine when the pine first began to germinate. They compared tree-ring counts of the pines, the roots and the stem, which grow at a different pace, but can still be a number of ballpark date ranges to work.

With these methods combined, the team estimates that Italus’ first ring in A. D. 789, making it about 1,230 years old. (To put that in historical perspective, Italus would be sprouting just as the first Vikings landed in England.) And while the tree’s battered core indicates that it clearly went through some rough patches in the past 1200 years, the rings have started growing again in the past few decades, the researchers wrote. Italus can even live to be 1,300.

While Italus appears to be the oldest scientifically dated tree in Europe, there are plenty of other trees in the whole continent thought to be in the multi-millennium club also, but have not yet been investigated with such rigor.

The Llangernyw Yew in Conwy, Wales, for example, is thought to be between 1500 and 5000 years old, but it can not be dated accurately by tree-ring analysis, as its core deteriorated in the course of time. A massive oak tree called Kongeegen (the king oak”) in Denmark, the royal hunting forest, is thought to be somewhere between 1500 and 2000 years old — but that has yet to be scientifically demonstrated. (According to the authors of the paper, the combination of carbon-dating/ring-count method can be used for the calculation of more accurate birth dates for other old trees such as this one.)

As for the world’s oldest tree? That honor goes to an unnamed bristlecone pine tree in the White Mountains in California. The tree is more than 5000 years old, making it a smidge older than the more well-known, approximately 4,800-year-old pine named Methuselah, who lives on the road.

Meanwhile, a 9,560-year-old norway spruce named Old Tjikko is considered to be the world’s oldest individual tree belonging to a clonal colony is a group of genetically identical trees that have the same root system, but the generation of new stems and branches over the millennia. Old Tjikko is probably the only surviving tribe of an ancient clonal colony of Sweden.

Originally published on Live Science.

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