The reign of trees

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Zone protégées de baobabs orès de Morondava à Madagascar © AFP PHOTO / GREGOIRE POURTIER

The title of oldest tree in the world is hotly disputed. It was long thought to belong to a California pine that is nearly 5,000 years old and appropriately named Methuselah. When the Great Pyramid of Giza was built, it was almost three centuries old. But a spruce tree has been identified in Sweden that is estimated to be 9,550 years old. It began life in late prehistory when man was only just developing a sedentary lifestyle, in the Neolithic Revolution.

But these belong to only one of the winning categories, for trees can multiply by budding, a process called clonal multiplication: a whole group of tree trunks can have the same genetic code and therefore correspond to the same individual. These clones can reach incredible ages: a king’s holly of Tasmania is reputed to be 43,000 years old. It is thought to have grown from a seed that germinated when Neanderthals and modern man still coexisted. In Utah, a colony of a single Quaking Aspen has been identified, named Pando, covering 42 hectares and containing 45,000 trees, which is thought to date back over 80,000 years. This would not only be the oldest living organism but also the heaviest, exceeding 6,000 tons – almost as much as the Eiffel Tower.

Even ordinary trees often have a life span far superior to ours: a plane tree can live 500 years and a sweet chestnut 1,000 years – the equivalent to 20 and 40 human generations respectively. Contemplating a forest alters our perception of time: for the majestic living organisms inhabiting it, human generations come and go as short-lived insects do from our perspective.

This notion of time is what makes planting a tree a symbolic act. It is also one of the reasons why a tree is an icon of sustainable development – “development that meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs”.

Extrait du livre « Des forêts et des hommes » rédigé par la rédaction de GoodPlanet à l’occasion de l’année internationale des forêts et disponible aux éditions de la Martinière.

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