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ancient Western Red Cedar trunk

How long do trees live?

    Old-growth forests are everyone's darling, prized either for logging splendid trees or for preservation of their intricate, unspoiled nature. Before Seattle was logged, it too was an old-growth forest. There were so many trees that loggers could afford to be selective, and could ignore hard-to-fell or imperfect trees. As a result, today we have trees here and there which are older than Seattle. In other words, trees born well before the 1850s. Our oldest are almost certainly cedars and firs. They tend to be at once abundant and intrinsically long-lived. Some other common trees such as alder and dogwood, willow and cottonwood, are short-lived, which --for a tree-- is to say they've got roughly the same lifespan of humans. In contrast, the world's oldest trees are likely around 5,000 years.
    Below is a list of some Seattle native trees plus their maximum reported or estimated ages --as researched and accepted by myself-- plus my age estimates of Seattle's oldest specimens. Alas, there is no room here for qualifications and footnotes; all of this is essentially educated guessing. Input from readers is welcome.
    How can we tell tree ages? Counting growth rings using fallen tree cross sections, or taking core borings with a special tool, plus years of observation and comparison of growth rates with sizes and habitats. It would be fascinating to locate Seattle's oldest tree. I'd give it a hearty hug. My guess is a cedar in Schmitz Park.
    Frequently the oldest trees are not the largest, so it is not as simple as finding the biggest trunk. Cottonwoods grow gigantic in a hurry, then bust up, earning their nickname rottenwood. Yews grow exceedingly slow, remain small, but can become truly ancient.
    So much for Seattle's native tree species. What's our oldest non-native, planted tree? I guess a nut or fruit tree, perhaps in the Duwamish area or on some old pioneer homesite elsewhere. Probably some date from the 1880s, if not the 1870s or even slightly before.

(originally published in The Seattle Weekly, July 1997)


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Common Name Scientific Name Oldest ever Oldest in Seattle
Red ALDER Alnus rubra 100 100
Oregon ASH Fraxinus latifolia 250 90
Western Red CEDAR Thuja plicata 2000+ 500
Bitter CHERRY Prunus emarginata 100 75
Black COTTONWOOD Populus trichocarpa 250 100
Pacific DOGWOOD Cornus Nuttallii 150 80
Douglas FIR Pseudotsuga Menziesii 1500 450
Grand FIR Abies grandis 450 150
Western HEMLOCK Tsuga heterophylla 1238 300
MADRONA Arbutus Menziesii 500 350
Bigleaf MAPLE Acer macrophyllum 350 250
Oregon White OAK Quercus Garryana 500 300
Lodgepole/Shore PINE Pinus contorta 400+ 75
Western White PINE Pinus monticola 600 100
Sitka SPRUCE Picea sitchensis 1350 90
Pacific YEW Taxus brevifolia 1800 425




Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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