In the year 788 A.D.E., Charlemagne had just given up on plundering Southern Italy and decided instead to turn his sights on Bavaria. Italus, the tree that now holds the record as Europe's oldest, was just a seedling that year, in the newly Charlemagne-free zone south of Naples. This tree has seen some stuff.
Italus is a 1,230-year-old Heldreich's pine, which lives in a grove of astronomically old trees on a dry, rocky hill in Pollino National Park near the toe of Italy's boot. A study published in the May 16, 2018 issue of the journal Ecology unseats Adonis, the tiny 1,077-year-old Bosnian pine growing in the Pindus Mountains of Greece that previously held the title of Europe's oldest. The researchers found Italus to be significantly older.
Dating Italus wasn't a cakewalk, though. Turns out, the oldest parts at the center of the tree's trunk were in no shape for researchers to count its rings.
"The inner part of the wood was like dust — we never saw anything like it," coauthor Alfredo Di Filippo, a professor in the Department of Sciences and Technology at Tuscia University in Viterbo, Italy, told National Geographic. "There were at least 20 centimeters [7.9 inches] of wood missing, which represents a lot of years."
However, Italus' roots were much better preserved. Both roots and trunk bear rings laid down by yearly growth, but the rings grow at slightly different rates. By radiocarbon dating parts of the exposed root, the team was able to tell when the tree germinated, and from there, could cross-date the ring and trunk growth to calculate the tree's age.
Because its core is so mangled, Italus clearly hasn't just swanned through the heat waves and rough conditions of the past 1,200 years, but the researchers say it's still growing and could possibly live on for centuries.