Bristlecone Pine Tree Profile

Long-Living Trees That Could Work if You Live in a Harsh Climate

Bristlecone Pine Tree in the mountains

Christian Handl / Getty Images

The name Bristlecone Pine encompasses three different sub-alpine species of pine trees all native to North America. All three are known for being incredibly long-living and for their capability of surviving in harsh, elevated landscapes. They tend to be found within protected National Parks.

The most famous and iconic of the three species is the Pinus longaeva, commonly referred to as the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine. Regarded as the longest-living tree in the world, one has been recorded as being over 5,000 years old. These trees are found in the mountainous regions of California, Nevada, and Utah.

Pinus aristata, also known as Rocky Mountains Bristlecone Pine, aren't as long-living as longaeva, but they can still survive for over one thousand years. As the name suggests, they're most commonly found in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and within New Mexico.

The third species in the group, the Foxtail Pine (Pinus balfouriana) is the rarest and also the tallest - with some growing to reach 20 meters in height. The oldest recorded Foxtail Pine is one in the Sierra Nevada mountain range that is over 2,000 years.

After taking a trip to the mountains, you may be inspired to plant your own Bristlecone Pine in your garden. However, they're not a good choice for every garden space, and they won't generally look like the ones you saw in their natural environment.

Although they are extremely slow-growing in comparison with other pine species, you should be prepared from them eventually growing to be at least ten to 20 meters in height. Once fully established, the needles can impact on the growth of other plants in your garden, and they may also need to be cleared from the likes of house guttering. Plus, they don't cope well with competition or urban pollution.

However, if you have space, they're a great choice if you live in a hot and dry region where it's tough to get other trees to grow. They're incredibly drought-tolerant and can cope with harsh winds and extreme weather conditions. Their unusual shape and slow growth make for a unique ornamental tree choice that will be more shrub-like for many years.

Ancient, gnarled Bristlecone Pine Trees in an arid landscape
Iconic examples of ancient and gnarled Bristlecone Pine in a harsh National Park environment. Jeff Badger / Getty Images
Foxtail Pine in a mountainous environment
The Foxtail Pine (Pinus balfouriana) is a rare subspecies which onnly grows at high elevation. Carolyn Lochhead / 500px / Getty Images

How to Grow Bristlecone Pine Trees

Although all of the Bristlecone Pine Species are slow-growing, be aware that when they're planted at lower elevations, they do grow more quickly and will be taller and straighter than those in the high mountains. You aren't going to see any extreme, twisting trunk shapes.

They're best suited to large spaces where other trees or shrubs struggle to grow. They can handle extremes in temperatures and are a perfect option for harsh landscapes prone to droughts.

Light

Your Bristlecone Pine will need plenty of sun to encourage growth. Without this, they'll be stunted and unhealthy looking.

Their preference will be for a full sun position. They'll handle a partial shade environment too, but their growth rate will be slower.

Soil

These trees still thrive in the rockiest, most infertile soil types. They'll grow in pretty much any soil. The only requirement they have is that it's well-drained.

Water

Bristlecone Pines are one of the most drought-tolerant tree species. This makes them a good choice for spaces that don't see much rainfall. Bristlecone Pines have a wide-spreading root system that allows it to absorb the maximum amount of water in dry environments.

Temperature and Humidity

As you would expect from a tree that grows in mountainous areas where others don't, the Bristlecone Pine is very hardy. These species manage to survive even when long periods of scorching or freezing temperatures hit. They hold up well under gale-force winds too.

Fertilizer

It shouldn't come as a surprise that this is one tree that won't need any additional fertilization, regardless of how poor quality the soil is.

Pruning

Unlike some of the more common pine species, you won't have to prune back the Bristlecone varieties as frequently. They're very slow-growing.

Their growth rate, however, will be much faster at low elevations with higher rainfall than it would be in the harsh mountainous regions. Once well established, you may have to do a small amount of pruning to keep the shape for ornamental purposes, or to take off some height or trim back encroaching branches.

Growing From Seeds

Bristlecone Pines grow relatively easily from seeds. When selecting a position to sow the seeds, or transplant saplings to, make sure you account for their extensive rooting system. Once they're well established, it can be difficult to move them.