4 trees that gamed biology (and their tiny, tiny seeds)

THERE'S a fine line between simply being at the extreme of a biological process and outright cheating it.

Given that these trees all seem to actually exist (or were very well faked by NASA in a studio), we're going to assume none of them broke any scientific laws and are just really, really, clever.

These four specimens are the go-to examples of how mind-blowing the things happening in your garden actually are. From the immensity of Hyperion to the longevity of the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine - we see evidence of the profundity of life stemming from a simple seed.

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So the next time you open one of those seed packets we have going around - remember that you're holding a tiny piece of nature capable of making our most advanced technologies seem blunt and uninspired.

Hyperion (The Tallest)

Coastal redwood forests with virgin groves of ancient trees, including the world's tallest, thrive in the foggy and temperate climate. Hyperion not pictured to hide its location. By National Park Service Digital Image Archives [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Coastal redwood forests with virgin groves of ancient trees, including the world's tallest, thrive in the foggy and temperate climate. Hyperion not pictured to hide its location. By National Park Service Digital Image Archives [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons US National Park Service

Coast Redwoods in the US are known for being naturally taller than most other tree species, but Hyperion pushes even that distinction.

The official measurement for this Redwood is 115.61m, a full 15.81m taller than second place (from a different species), a Tasmanian Mountain Ash known as Centurion.

If you've ever despaired of ever being able to explore the world and find something new, rejoice, Hyperion was only found in 2006, and its location has been kept a secret to avoid the tree being damaged.

The seed that started it? Three to four millimetres long by half a millimetre wide. 7-800 years ago it fell into the ground when its cone matured. Late the next winter pollen woke it up and the seed matured nine months later. Over the interceding centuries, that seed turned into 530 cubic metres of tree.

But Hyperion's not even close to being the largest tree - not by a long margin.

General Sherman (The Largest)

Sequoia National Park - General Sherman Tree - Panorama By World Wide Gifts [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Sequoia National Park - General Sherman Tree - Panorama By World Wide Gifts [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons World Wide Gifts

It's a small distinction with an enormous difference. General Sherman may be only (only) 83m tall but its trunk diameter of 7.7m makes it the largest known living single stem tree on Earth.

Current estimates of the trunk's volume put it at 1,486 cubic metres, with, when you add its larger-than-most-trees branches, puts the General Sherman's wet mass around 1,910 tonnes.

That's more than 1123 Holden Commodores. Stack those like a tree and your tower is a kilometre and a half tall, give or take a few metres. All this from a seed no more than 5mm by 1mm.

It's also a profoundly old tree, with an estimated age of between 2,300 and 2,700 years. The General Sherman predates Christianity, and it's still young compared to the next tree.

The secret Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (The Oldest)

A tree nearby to and of the same species as the oldest tree in the world, which is hidden to protect it. By Dcrjsr (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
A tree nearby to and of the same species as the oldest tree in the world, which is hidden to protect it. By Dcrjsr (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Dcrjsr

I'll refer to this tree as 'Oldest' as the exact specimen is seemingly unnamed but definitely hidden - even trees need peace and quiet at 5065 years old.

The previous champion, Methuselah, lives nearby in the same White Mountains copse of bristlecone pines, a region with whole areas full of bristlecones averaging 2000 years of age.

These trees are so hardy that their trunks and bark will stay intact long after the tree has died, with 7,000-year-old dead trees still sitting next to live ones.

So, at some point 5,065 years ago, a bird or gravity pulled a 5mm seed from a bristlecone's cone, eventually leaving it in the dirt. That seed would summon water from the ground and carbon from the air to build a tree that was already mature when the druids started building Stonehenge.

The Trembling Giant, Pando (The Titan)

These are all just parts of the one big tree, joined underground. Fall photo of world's oldest organism, a grove of Quaking Aspens sharing one root system, from Fish Lake National Forest website. By J Zapell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
These are all just parts of the one big tree, joined underground. Fall photo of world's oldest organism, a grove of Quaking Aspens sharing one root system, from Fish Lake National Forest website. By J Zapell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons J Zapell

Hyperion, General Sherman, and Oldest are all playing in the junior league. While they are the tallest, largest and oldest individual trees, they're not including clonal trees.

Clonal trees are groups of trees all genetically identical and vegetatively grown from a single ancestor. 

In this case, Pando is a colony of aspen quakers with a single, shared root system. This tree is its own forest. One enormous, continuous, organism. A living creature 43 hectares in size.

Actually, it's the heaviest known living organism, weighing 6600 short tonnes.

While it's a few times heavier than General Sherman (and the fact that General Sherman ways a third as much as a forest is telling), it's a lot older than Oldest.

Conservative estimates put the age of this tree at 80,000 years.  The seed that gave birth to this titan was around when humans migrated out of Africa. Scientists Jeffrey Mitton and Michael Grant published a peer-reviewed article arguing Pando could be as much as a million years old.

One seed brought to life an organism that has succeeded on a geological time scale.

Ready to plant some of your own?

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The bearded backyard buff will first help you plan your garden revamp and, by day's end, will make sure you've achieved it.

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