HOW LONG DOES A TREE LIVE?

old sequoia trees

Have you been waiting for that old tree in your backyard to die off naturally? If you are wondering how long it will take, you are not going to like the answer. The truth is that the answer varies a lot, and I mean A LOT. It depends on a lot of factors like the species, the environmental conditions, and the nutrition available to the tree. Even after this, you can only reach an estimate. Let’s take a look at the different life spans and what factors affect how long does a tree live.

Palms have a short life span with some living only 50 years. Black Willow can live to be around 75-80 years old. But if you go to the other end of the spectrum, Alaskan Red Cedar has recorded specimens being around 3,500 years old. If you are looking for the oldest tree alive, there is one Bristlecone Pine tree which is estimated to be around 5,000 years old.

WHAT IS THE AVERAGE LIFE SPAN OF A TREE?

There are multiple things I want to address here. Bear with me for a bit. The first thing to consider is that what do we mean by the average life span of trees? The logical answer to the question would be the average life span of all the trees present in an area right?

HOW DO WE CALCULATE THE AGE OF A TREE?

This question comes up naturally while discussing this topic. There is one thing when you have planted a tree so you can easily calculate the age of that tree. Most of the time you will be dealing with trees that have been there for years.

So coming to the other scenario there is a relatively easy method to find out the age of a tree. The most common method is ring counting. This is most prevalent with trees growing in temperate areas where the seasons are distinct. But it can be done with most of the trees out there. This method is also known as Dendrochronology.

If you cut a tree horizontally to reveal its cross-section you will see that there are some circular lines on there. Interestingly each of these rings equates to one year of their lifespan. So you can count the number of rings to get a fairly accurate age of the tree.

If cutting the tree down is not an option, I have a full article on how to find out how old a tree is here.

If you are in a forest then look for a similar tree with similar dimensions which has already fallen down. Counting its rings can give you an approximation of the age of the other tree. Other than that, counting annual rings in a horizontal cross-section is one of the easiest ways to determine the age of a tree.

LIFE SPANS OF DIFFERENT SPECIES

Let’s take a look at the average life span of different species. This will give you an idea about the range of most of the common trees you will come across.

Common NameAverage
Lifespan
Maximum
Lifespan
Ash, Green 120175
Beech, American 300400
Boxelder75100
Cedar, Eastern red150300
Cypress, Bald6001800
Elm, American 175300
Elm, Slippery 200300
Hackberry150200
Hemlock, Eastern450800
Hickory, Bitternut175200
Holly, American 100150
Locust, Black 60100
Magnolia, Southern 80120
Maple, Red130300
Oak, Basket 100200
Oak, Black 100225
Oak, White300600
Osage-orange75300 + 
Persimmon6080
Pine, Loblolly 100300
Pine, Shortleaf200300
Poplar, Balsam100150
Tulip–Poplar250450
Sassafras100500
Spruce, Blue150350
Sweetgum200300
Tupelo, Black 250600
Walnut, Black 150250
Willow, Black7085
Lifespan of most popular trees

I hope this gave you an idea of the sheer diversity in terms of how long do trees live. Even within the same species, the average age can differ a lot. This usually depends on a few factors.

First of which is the location of the tree. Some trees are native to a particular region and naturally, they will have a much better life if they are growing there.

Therefore, if you plant them in some other area where the climate may be different they might not live for as long. The second factor which plays a role is the human aspect. Even if a non-native species is growing somewhere, their life can be extended if extra care is given to them. This will equate to extra nutrition, proper watering, fertilizers, etc.

The average life span of a tree will vary according to its species and conditions. Some species have a life span of only a couple of decades while some can live for 1000s of years.

CAN TREES LIVE FOR 1000 YEARS?

As I have stated before, some tree species can survive for a really long time. There is a very interesting list compiled by the Rocky Mountain Tree Ring Research group, it’s also called the ‘old list’. It consists of a comprehensive list of some of the oldest trees on record. One of the drawbacks is that most of the trees are located in the USA and other first-world countries. So we never know, there might be much older trees present in other parts of the world.

Starting off with the oldest ones first, one of the oldest recorded trees is the Great Bristlecone Pine. Two trees of this species are more than 4,800 years old. The next ones are Alerce and Giant Sequoia, all of them being more than 3,000 years old. Trees such as Western Juniper, Bald Cypress, Bodhi Tree, and Coast redwood have been recorded to be more than 2,000 Years old.

When we talk about trees more than 1,000 years old there a lot of them. For example Limber Pine, Rocky Mountain Juniper, Douglas Fir, Whitebark Pine, and Northern White Cedar. It’s clear that a lot of trees can grow older than 1,000 years, with some as old as 4,500 years old. interestingly a lot of trees mentioned are still alive so who knows how long they can live for.

tall pine tree

DO TREES DIE OF OLD AGE?

You might think that the answer here is pretty straightforward. Quite recently the majority opinion was that some trees might be immortal. With the oldest recorded tree around 5,000 years old, some scientists stated that they are not showing the typical signs of aging.

Recently it has been accepted that trees do die of old age but their metabolic processes make changes over hundreds of years. This is why humans haven’t been to sense the aging process in ancient trees.

The majority of trees die of environmental conditions before they die from purely old age. Factors like forest fires, floods, landslides, wind, rain, and heat will kill a tree before age.

WHICH FRUIT TREES LIVE THE LONGEST?

I couldn’t seem to find a full answer to this question. But I did come across an interesting study conducted by the Leaf Network. It had compiled an average lifespan of a number of edible tree species.

It shines an interesting light on the differences in life spans of different species. For example, an average apple tree can live for anywhere between 50 to 150 years. On the other hand, cherry tree has an average life of 15 to 30 years. Mulberry and Olive’s trees are some of the oldest edible trees with an average lifespan of 400 to 500 years. There have been some examples of Ironwood trees being 1500 years old.

Bear in mind that an average life span does not mean the average fruiting age of the tree. After some years a lot of fruit-bearing trees stop producing them.

HOW LONG DO OAK TREES LIVE?

I think you can guess what the answer here is going to be, the average age varies a lot.

Oak trees themselves can be divided into long-lived and short-lived varieties.

Long-lived varieties easily grow more than 150 years. The extreme example here would be a particular southern live oak growing in Louisiana which is thought to be about 1,500 years old. Chestnut oaks can live for 300 to 400 years.

On the other hand, short-lived varieties grow anywhere between 50 to 80 years old. Trees such as Laurel Oak can easily grow for 50 to 60 years. while water oak only lives till 30 to 50 years.

HOW LONG DO PINE TREES LIVE?

Pines are generally considered to be long-lived species. Some species only live for about 100 years while some can live more than 1,000. One of the oldest recorded pine is the Great Basin Bristlecone pine which has been aged at 4,600 years.

IS AVERAGE LIFE SPAN THE CORRECT TERM TO USE?

Well, according to Lara Roman, a researcher in USDA forest services, the term “average life span” isn’t as helpful as people believe it to be. She brought up a situation where a couple of trees which can be exceptions can drastically bring down or bring up the overall average life span of a small forest or garden. This would make the entire number not so meaningful.

On the other hand, she suggested that we should take into account a term called the average half-life of a tree. What this number entails is “the time by which half of the planted tree can be expected to die”. So if we say that in an urban area the half-life of the tree is between 13-20 years it would mean that if we plant 100 trees, only about half of them will reach this age.

Although I do agree with her explanation here, for the sake of simplicity I will deal with different types of trees and talk about their average life spans. I am not going to give a full proof number that can represent the average life span of all the trees in the world.

HOW CAN TREES LIVE SO LONG?

 There have been countless papers published on how can trees grow so long. It will be impossible for me to discuss them all but the abstract of a paper written by Ronal M Lanner summarizes them quite nicely.

The abstract states that the long life of trees is a result of evolutionary changes made by them for survival. These changes include the ability to “hold on to stem cell-like meristematic cells after each growth cycle”.

On top of this trees have a unique ability to replace organs that have died or have been damaged. One of the prime examples of this is the shedding of leaves. Consequently, when a tree is partially damaged it has the ability to keep a part of the tree alive.

These are just some of the factors which have given the trees such as evolutionary advantage.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

If you are planning to start an orchard or a forest or if you just want to learn about trees, learning about their life cycle is an important part of that. I am going to address some of the most common questions that people have related to the topic. Hopefully, these will clear some of the doubts you may have.

WHAT’S THE AGE OF THE LONGEST LIVING TREE?

There is a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine in White Mountains, California. As of 2010, it was still alive with an estimated age of 4850 years. The oldest dead tree also comes from the same species.

CAN A SAME TREE HAVE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT LIFE SPANS?

Trees within the same species can have slightly different lifespans. For example, If you take a tree away from its native land to a completely different environment, it won’t be able to survive as well. This is especially true if you are not going to provide additional support for its growth.

WHAT OTHER WAYS ARE THERE FOR CALCULATING AGE OF A TREE?

Other than counting the annual rings of a tree, scientists also use carbon dating to accurately determine the age of a tree. The benefit here is that you don’t have to necessarily cut down a tree to determine its age.

CONCLUSION

To sum it all up, there is no way to determine the average life span of different varieties of trees with one number. Different species have different average ages and even within the same species, numbers vary a lot. The life span of trees can vary anywhere between 30-40 years to 4,000-5,000 years. To determine the life of a tree you will first need to specify its species.