Meet Our Oldest Resident

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Plants and trees can be notoriously long lived (except perhaps the ones you buy at home improvement stores). California’s own Great Basin bristlecone pines are undoubtedly exemplary, with “Methusaleh” (Pinus longaeva) so far at 4,844 years old. There is reportedly an even older bristlecone pine, but its identity and location are kept undisclosed. And these pines aren’t clones of the original (like the 9,550-year-old spruce tree in Sweden or Pando, the ancient quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) colony in Utah), but the actual individual born millennia ago.

Fairchild’s oldest resident isn’t so ancient, but compared to the bristlecone pines and their remote locations out west, it is quite accessible. It grows just west of the palm glade, inside cycad circle. Dioon edule, which Wikipedia calls a “chestnut dioon” is a cycad. Cycads are gymnosperms—they do not produce flowers, and their seeds, often existing on a cone-shaped structure, are not enclosed within a fruit. And not surprisingly, they are related to long-lived pine trees like the bristlecone.

dioon edule
Fairchild's oldest resident: Dioon edule

This fascinating individual, native to arid eastern Mexico, was purchased by one Alexander Mitchell in Edinburgh, Scotland, of all places, in 1867. The then-director of the Edinburgh Botanic Garden confirmed its age for Mitchell at a century at the time. Mitchell kept the Dioon edule in Milwaukee until 1895, when his daughter-in-law gave it to Florida plant pioneer Dr. Henry Nehrling. In 1899 Dr. Nehrling brought it to his home in Gotha, Florida. In 1918 he moved it once again, this time to his garden in Naples, Florida, at which time he noted “it had a weight of about 700 pounds.”

Arno Nehrling, Henry’s son, donated it to Fairchild in 1940, two years after the Garden opened. You can still visit this plant and contemplate all it’s been through since its birth in approximately the middle of the eighteenth century!

Mary Collins, Fairchild Senior Horticulturalist, personal communication.
Nehrling, Henry, My Garden in Florida, American Eagle, 1946.

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