A team of researchers studying a national park in southern Italy recently discovered the oldest tree in Europe ever to be scientifically dated – a Heldreich’s pine that is at least 1,230 years old and still growing.
Nicknamed “Italus”, the ancient tree was discovered on a steep mountain slope in Italy’s Pollino National Park by a team of researchers from the University of Tuscia, led by Gianluca Povesan. As soon as they saw Italus, researchers knew that they had stumbled upon an ancient specimen, but they didn’t expect it to be the oldest tree ever discovered on the European continent. Even more surprising was the fact that despite its age – a whopping 1,230 years, at least – and an almost non-existent canopy, the tree seemed to be thriving, with heavy ring growth added to its trunk over the last several decades.
“The increment observed in the last decades contradicts the reduced growth that typically occurs as cambial age increases, especially considering the widespread growth decline and dieback that various Mediterranean ecosystems have recently experienced,” ” the researchers wrote in a recently published paper.
Accurately determining Italus’ age was a tough challenge, mainly because the inside of the tree – the section where the oldest growth rings were supposed to be – had completely deteriorated for some reason. Researchers reported that this inner-most section of the tree was like dust, noting that they had never seen anything like it before, so dating its trunk rings wasn’t going to work.
“The inner part of the wood was like dust—we never saw anything like it,” Alfredo Di Filippo, a member of the team who discovered Italus, told National Geographic. “There were at least 20 centimeters of wood missing, which represents a lot of years.”
Luckily, due to the location of the Heldreich’s pine – on a steep rocky slope with exposed dolomitic bedrock – its ancient roots were partially exposed, so researchers could use radiocarbon dating on them to accurately determine the age of the tree. Like the trunk, roots also produce annual rings.
After analyzing the collected samples, researchers concluded that Italus was at least 1,230 years old, which makes it almost two centuries older than the previously oldest known tree in Europe – a 1,075-year-old pine tree in Greece.
Scientists believe that the tree’s remote location played a big part in its survival. The steep rocky slope is believed to have protected Italus from both logging activity in the area as well as wildfires. However, it’s important to note that while the area that Italus was discovered in is home to thousands of other Heldreich’s pines, most of them are only between 500 and 600 years old, with only three other specimens believed to be over 1,000 years old.
Another interesting finding reported by Gianluca Povesan was that global warming and other climate changes don’t seem to have impacted ancient trees like Italus negatively. If anything, the oldest tree in Europe has been thriving over the last few decades. As NatGeo reports “their tree ring analysis showed that after laying down smaller rings for a few centuries, wider rings have grown in the past two decades, which indicates better environmental conditions.”
The researchers conclude that despite its degraded canopy, Italus is still growing and could potentially live for centuries more.