Tag Archives: Bristlecone Pines


GL P1020377


Xerophytes are plants that are xerophilous, which means they have special features that enable them to survive in very dry environments. One of my favorite xerophytes is the Bristlecone Pine, which I wrote about some years ago, calling them Gnarly Patriarchs.

gnarly patriarch

Some of the plants in my home landscape are considered to be xerophilous, though to maintain a xeriscape such as I have it is not necessary to have nothing but xerophytes. A xeriscape, in addition to featuring drought-tolerant plants, uses deep mulches and other means of conserving water besides those that are built into the plants themselves.

In a patch by my driveway, enclosed on all sides by concrete, Mexican Evening Primrose blooms and thrives all summer with a little water once a month or so. It thrives so well that such an enclosed space as it lives in here is usually the best spot for this plant, unless you are okay with it taking over the whole garden.

Mexican Evening Primrose
Mexican Evening Primrose
IMG_0280 toadflax w warrigal
toadflax – Linaria vulgaris, with warrigal

The picture at right is of warrigal or New Zealand Spinach, an edible green, growing alongside a yellow mystery flower [since discovered to be toadflax], both of which I consider quite xerophilous, as they lived in my back yard for months last summer with no water, and never so much as wilted.

That root xeros comes from the Greek, for dry. My current project is to incorporate more of these unthirsty friends into a plan for my front yard, and I hope to have them planted by the fall.



Trees live all over the world.

The oaks were of noble bearing: they did not trail their branches on the ground like willows, nor did their leaves have the dishevelled appearance of certain poplars, which can look from close-up as though they have been awoken in the middle of the night and not had time to fix their hair. Instead they gathered their lower branches tightly under themselves while their upper branches grew in small orderly steps, producing a rich green foliage in an almost perfect circle — like an archetypal tree drawn by a child.

It’s surprising how often the subject of trees comes up in Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. The description above is from his visit to the Lake District in England, but while he is France he also notices trees with the help of Van Gogh’s paintings. I like the word pictures the artist himself painted when he was working on a series of sketches of cypresses, words that tell us about the trees and about Van Gogh, too:

They are constantly occupying my thoughts….it astonishes me that they have not yet been done as I see them. The cypress is as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has a quality of such distinction. It is a splash of black in a sunny landscape, but it is one of the most interesting black notes, and the most difficult to hit off exactly.

Van Gogh was with his cypresses for quite a while, getting to know them. I have felt close to some particular trees over the course of my life, starting with a pear tree outside my back door, which for some reason made enough of an impression on my five-year-old  mind that it remained the only thing I remember from that house’s yard.

We moved to another place with a significant tree, a huge oak that grew even bigger till it threatened the house in which I spent the remainder of my youth. So I can’t help loving oaks, and I do think trees in general worth a whole post from this book on travel, even if they aren’t that big a part of the book.

But, see here, Van Gogh couldn’t leave out the trees when he wrote about his house:

My house here is painted the yellow colour of fresh butter on the outside with glaringly green shutters, and it stands in the full sunlight in a square which has a green garden with plane trees, oleanders and acacias. And it is completely whitewashed inside, and the floor is made of red bricks. And over it is the intensely blue sky. In this I can live and breathe, meditate and paint.

De Botton notices some trees by a stream on another occasion in the Lake District, while he sits on a bench enjoying a chocolate bar, “a scene so utterly suited to a human sense of beauty and proportion.” But he didn’t pay attention to them for very long, and seemed to forget them entirely when his trip was over. But one day he was in a traffic jam and mentally stressed by the cares of everyday life, and

…the trees came back to me, pushing aside a raft of meetings and unanswered correspondence, and asserting themselves in consciousness. I was carried away from the traffic and the crowds and returned to trees whose names I didn’t know, but which I could see as clearly as if they stood before me. These trees provided a ledge against which I could rest my thoughts, they protected me from the eddies of anxiety and, in a small way that afternoon, contributed a reason to be alive.

I’m sad to realize that in my travels I’ve not spent enough time alone in one place to take proper note of foreign trees, but I do love them. And when we visited the Bristlecone Pines a year ago, I suppose it was the fact that they were the focal point of the place that enabled me to concentrate on them more than is typical for me. But instead of drawing them, I philosophized about them.

John Ruskin tells us, “Your art is to be the praise of something that you love.” Perhaps my first adult drawing effort will be of a tree.

California Mountains – Tiny Finds and Large Views

My husband called to me as I was lagging behind on the loop trail, “Why do you keep looking at the ground?! Look up at the mountains, and the trees!”

We were in the Patriarch Grove of the Bristlecone Pines, at 11,000 feet, in the White Mountains, with dolomite rock as far as the eye could see, as in the photo above. One might well wonder why I would look down at it.

But if you click on that photo to enlarge it you will see that there are vague greenish splotches all over the place. Those are clumps of wildflowers, hugging the ground in mats barely taller than my living room carpet.

I was finding whole worlds of flower gardens tucked under rocks, where several species of the most diminutive blooms would pack themselves together in a jumble. I noticed them, but the sun was so bright, and they were so little, that I couldn’t actually see them very well, or know if my photo was decent.

And I didn’t want to make us too late for dinner in Lee Vining that night, a few hours’ drive down the mountain and up the highway. But now I wish I had taken more pictures.

Lewisia, I think…

I’m home, and the photos are uploaded to the computer where I can zoom in on them and reveal more details, but usually I find that they are overexposed and/or a bit blurry from the wind, and identification is hard. The plants seem to be stunted variations of more common forms, likely resulting from living where there is so much sun and wind, but little warmth and moisture. In this high place the temperature rarely gets above 70° even in midsummer, and frost can happen any night of the year.

milkvetch and an old cone

The purple milkvetch pictured (in the Astragalus family), for example, is a shy and minimalist version of other forms that grow above treeline; technically, we are not above treeline or alpine here, because the Bristlecones are of course trees, but all the wildflowers in this area are listed in the Alpine section of my guide, and the conditions are similar to those in the Sierras above 11, 500 feet.

Pippin sent me to a link from an area in Utah where more Bristlecones grow, and to the Table Cliff Milkvetch that looks pretty similar. But from my poor photo, I’m not confident to claim a perfect match.

Maybe it’s even a version of the Whitney’s Locoweed (Astragalus whitneyi) I saw in the lower grove. That one (below) was past flowering and was showing its crazily colorful pods, and this one 1,000 feet higher doesn’t have any pods yet.

Whitney’s Locoweed and Dwarf Alpine Daisy

Mr. Glad was trying to figure out which White Mountain peaks were which; on the way up to the Bristlecones we’d done a lot of that kind of thing when we stopped at Sierra View Point. Here is a movie I found online, showing what we saw across the Owens Valley: the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada. We had been over there somewhere as little hiker specks just the day before.

The starting image of the movie looks similar to the still shot Mr. G took, but not quite as nice, so I posted his version at the bottom of this post.

Another view that was a quiet and calming feast for the eyes was of these sagebrush-covered slopes, as we traveled that gravel road. The total effect was so much more green and lively-looking than what we saw going west up from Bishop. Maybe it’s a different species of sagebrush?

After this day with the Bristlecones and their tiny ground-hugging companions, we went back over the mountains and then north for the last hilly adventure of our July vacation.

View of Sierras from White Mountains

California Mountains – Gnarly Patriarchs

(6th in the “California Mountains” diary of our July 2011 vacation)

If the Bristlecone Pines were humans, I’m pretty sure they would be ascetic saints like Father Seraphim of Sarov or Mary of Egypt, people who lived in the wilderness and had “meat to eat that we know not of.”

Stanleya pinnata; Desert Plume

It was to visit these inspiring creatures that Mr. Glad and I drove up into the White Mountains that rise up east of the Sierra Nevada on the other side of the Owens Valley. The climbing part was a repeat of the previous day’s experience of a quick uphill, and this time it took just 24 miles for us to traverse zones of desert and sagebrush steppe, and come to a land where alpine wildflowers live stunted lives.

Mormon Tea

On the way up through the forbiddingly dry and rugged desert region, waving yellow plumes were the first vegetation to get my attention. Now I know where Dr. Seuss got the images for some of his crazy drawings.

Purple Sage; Salvia dorri

Another drought-tolerant plant we ran across is called Mormon Tea, though it has other common names that aren’t as folksy. It’s a member of the Ephedra family of plants, perhaps milder — and safer? — than the Chinese herb. I didn’t collect any.

The uglier plants passed from view as we entered the steppe zone, and we began to get our eye-fill of gorgeous purple sage, the very flower referred to in the five movie versions of Zane Grey’s novel Riders of the Purple Sage; I haven’t seen the the movies or read the book, but just now learned that there is a Mormon element to that story. This area is geographically part of the Great Basin Desert that covers much of the state of Nevada, and of which Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert is a part, so the Mormon connection to the natural history makes sense.

Bristlecone Pines grow in other areas of the Great Basin, too, and maybe on less steep roads. The ones in California aren’t on the way to anywhere, but they are well worth the worry of hearing your car’s engine groan a bit on the sharp inclines.

The longevity of these trees is the primary fact one learns right off. Except for cloning plants, the Bristlecones are the oldest living plants. The current oldest one is known to be 4,788 years old, and as many as 19 of them are over 4,000 years old.

Not only are they of great age, but they keep their vitality. While other trees show changes in their DNA or produce fewer cones, the Bristlecones are just as healthy and fruitful at 4,000 years as they were at 1,000.

They have ways of dealing with the severe climate, and with seasons that are harder than usual. How to determine what is a particularly hard year in their habitat seems to me difficult, seeing how they always have to do with very little water, and with freezing temperatures much of the year, and soil that is poor. Some of the oldest trees grow in “soil” that is a form of limestone called dolomite, shallow and infertile white rock. The sun is relentless in summer, and the winds are often brutal.

Clearly their youth is renewed not by superfoods and a friendly environment but by a meager diet and suffering — and yes, by their genetic predisposition to “behaviors” that conserve nutrients and strength. For example, instead of dropping needles and replacing them every year or two, they hold their needles for up to 45 years, and it requires less energy to renew the old ones than to grow completely new ones.

If they suffer unusually severe drought or stress, they put some limbs into dormancy so that they can keep producing the maximum number of cones. If we compare them to humans, they are fertile even longer than the biblical patriarchs, or our mother in the faith, Sarah.

The white rock actually reflects some of the sun so that more moisture is retained in the soil, and the trees tend to live relatively far apart from each other in their forests, so they don’t have to compete for light and food. In this way they are the opposite of redwood trees, which need the moisture that collects between trees in the grove if they are going to be their healthiest.

These trees make me think of Bible verses about youth being renewed, but also the ones about hoary heads and the dignity of age. The old and weather-worn patriarchs have a beauty of a sort we don’t see in young upstarts or in overfed and coddled 20-somethings. Even in death the wood is so dense that it remains for centuries and doesn’t decay, much as some saints’ bodies remain incorrupt.

I so love the Bristlecones! I can’t figure out all that they are telling me, but I know it’s something about God and the Christian life. Maybe if I grow really old I will understand more.

The main grove is at 10,000 ft. elevation. After walking the loop trail there we decided to get in the car again and crunch over gravel up another 1,000 feet in a cloud of dust to the Patriarch Grove. It’s only twelve miles, but takes at least 45 minutes. The next installment of this series will tell what I saw there.