This Tree Is Europe's Oldest Living Organism — Sort of, Kind of, Maybe


Adonis, a Bosnian pine, is one of the oldest trees in Europe. Dr. Oliver Konter, Mainz
Adonis, a Bosnian pine, is one of the oldest trees in Europe. Dr. Oliver Konter, Mainz

Tourists who head to Europe often make it a point to visit the antiquities. But who stops to think that the very same trees that dot today's ruins may have been around to witness the height of long-gone civilizations? That's the case with a tree in northern Greece that researchers are calling the oldest living organism on the European continent.

Scientists have dated a Bosnian pine (Pinus heldreichii) found the rocky Balkan highlands  to be at least 1,075 years ago. Called Adonis, after the Greek god of youth, the tree would have taken root in the year 941 C.E., if not earlier.

And before things get too technical, let's first acknowledge that, yes, a claim that something's the oldest tree is going to have to come with some disclaimers. First of all, this Greek tree is the oldest verified tree. While there are olive trees in Greece and Italy whose ages are purported to be in the several-thousand-years range, none of their life spans have been verified.

Scientists were able to pinpoint Adonis' age by boring a tiny, 5-millimeter-wide sample from the tree core, then counting its rings in a process called dendrochronology

"Many years ago I read a thesis about this very interesting forest in Greece," Swedish dendrochronologist Paul J. Krusic, who headed the research team, said in a press release. "In our research, we try to build long chronologies to construct climate histories, so finding living trees of old age is one of our motivations. To age the tree, we needed to take a core of wood, from the outside to the center. The core is one meter and has 1,075 annual rings."

In fact, Krusic told the Washington Post, the tree could be even older than 1,075 years, because the team's boring procedure didn't quite reach the exact center of the tree, and because the sample wasn't taken from the very base of Adonis, the rings wouldn't account for the time it was still a sapling.

More than a dozen other trees in the area were dated at more than 1,000 years old.

And Adonis is a single organism, unlike groves of aspen, oak, or even types of sea grass that are clonal colonies, replicating their genetic code in an identical way for more than 10,000 years. And Adonis is on the European mainland — many well-known and long-lived trees exist on islands like Crete, Sicily, Sardinia and the British islands. And one 600-something-year-old Swedish tree, for instance, has a root system that goes back 9,000 years. So it's all about how you define things.

But still — that's a pretty old tree. What else was going on in the world around that time? The Kingdom of Ghana reached its cultural apex. The Bohemian king Wenceslas, he of holiday song, was assassinated by lance. China's Sung Dynasty was founded. And Danish Vikings launched serious raids on England. Throughout it all — and through everything that's happened since — Adonis sat strong.

Want to learn more about old organisms? Check out this BrainStuff video: