Oldest Tree in Eastern North America Discovered in a North Carolina Swamp

October 20, 2020 at 7:18 pm

The discovery of a 2,624 year old bald cypress tree identifies species as fifth oldest in the world

The giant sequoias of California have met their match in North Carolina – the giant bald cypress trees that grow along a 65-mile stretch of the Black River, near Wilmington.

Not quite as tall as the Western redwoods, they are almost as old. Until now, we had no idea how old.

Scientists knew there were many bald cypress trees over 1000 years old in the region, but a recent study revealed several well over 2000 years old.

“They’re ancient … I can’t prove it now, but we’re going to find one in here to prove it,” said dendrochronologist (tree ring counter) David Stahle said to his guide on a kayaking trip he took into the thick of the wetlands – a place called Three Sisters Swamp.

Nearly a decade later, he has proven it. Of 110 trees he’s dated in the swamp, 10 of them are over 1500 years old, the oldest of which is at least 2,624 years old.

“It was like walking back into the Cretaceous,” Stahle tells the Smithsonian. “It was essentially a virgin forest, an uncut old-growth forest of 1,000 to over 2,000-year-old trees cheek to jowl across this flooded land.”

Stahle, director of the Tree Ring Laboratory at University of Arkansas, is sure there are older bald cypresses yet to be discovered, but this discovery alone identifies it as the fifth oldest trees species in the world, the oldest in the eastern half of North America.

The only individual (non clonal) trees known to live longer than the Black River bald cypress the Sierra juniper at 2,675 years, the giant sequoia at 3,266 years, alerce at 3,622 years, and the Great Basin bristlecone pine at 5,066 years old.