To most people, ancient means old, as in really old. Think of the ancient civilisations of Africa and Asia; of the Incas and the Mayans; and of the ancestors of today’s Indigenous peoples. When we turn to trees, the ‘ancient’ benchmark belongs to the bristlecone pine of the southwestern US at over 5,000 years old. There’s a yew tree in North Wales that’s supposedly 4,000 years old; and the Huon pines of Tasmania (Australia) clock in at 3,000. And that’s not getting into clonal descendants that reportedly can reach an eye-popping 80,000 years old!
While there is no universal definition of an ‘ancient’ tree or forest, the longest living trees in Canada are relative youngsters compared to those noted above: the eastern white cedar and the Douglas fir both capable of topping a mere one thousand years. This may be impressive to we humans, but it’s not exactly ancient in tree-age terms.
Canada’s oldest trees, categorised as 200 years plus, grow primarily in two ecozones: the temperate rainforest of the BC coast and the Montane Cordillera that stretches from northcentral BC south to the US border and the Alberta foothills. But these admittedly ‘old’ trees (mainly fir, hemlock, spruce and cedar) collectively represent only four per cent of Canada’s total forest population.
The great majority of trees in Canada’s forests (spruce, poplar, pine) are aged between 41 and 120 years old, with most of them (25 per cent) in the 81 to 100-year range. In tree-speak, then, Canada’s forests are relatively young.
So how come environmental groups like Greenpeace proclaim the Boreal forest as “one of the largest tracts of ancient forest in the world” when, in fact, only one per cent of its trees are over 200 years old?