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The Longevity of Trees and What it Means to You

With the possible exception of the Immortal Jellyfish, which literally “grows younger”, trees are the longest living organisms on the planet. The oldest single tree alive today would have begun its life as a seedling long before the rise and fall of Ancient Israel, China, Greece, and Rome. If you include colonies of clonal trees, the figures rise even higher. The Quaking Aspens of Colorado grow from a single clonal colony that began over 80,000 years ago.

Even though trees have such immense longevity, they have a life cycle just like every other living thing on the planet. Trees can have their potentially long lives cut short by a great variety of external conditions from which they are unable to escape.

In the natural world, the threat of forest fires and natural climate conditions can affect the lifespan of many trees. The forest also has its share of insect and fungal invaders that threaten tree health. Then there are regular pathogens on the forest floor that can spread life-threatening diseases. The occasional forest fires are actually instrumental in purifying the forest floor from these pathogens.

With all the threats to their well-being and the incapacity to get up and run when danger approaches, it seems amazing that trees can survive at all, let alone be the longest living things on the planet. But, trees are far from defenseless against the dangers in their environment. On the contrary, trees have an immense capacity to orchestrate the ecosystems which surround them, giving them control over their environments.

 width= Secondary Metabolites and Secret to Tree Longevity

What trees lack in mobility, they more than make up for with highly developed chemical production. Trees have mastered the synthesis of a wide variety of chemicals that are applied to growing and energy production (primary metabolites) or interacting and surviving within their own special environment (secondary metabolites).

While these secondary metabolites don’t play an active role in the plant’s essential processes, they allow the plant to attract pollinators, ward off predators, attract the natural predators of harmful parasites, communicate amongst themselves, and even keep the air in the forest at a cooler temperature conducive to moisture conservation. In the end, it is these special chemicals that allow trees to develop to their surroundings and even thrive in conditions that may be inhospitable to more delicate life forms.

Secondary metabolites exist in a wide variety of forms and may have important uses to human populations as well.


Comprised mostly of nitrogen, alkaloids are present in a wide variety of plants and have special uses in the fields of human medicine and cognitive function. Sometimes these alkaloids can be highly toxic. 1

Caffeine is an example of an alkaloid created by many plants to ward off the threat of predators. Caffeine is also applied in plant allelopathy, which is when one plant will prevent other plants from germinating in their vicinity. In the human world, caffeine is the stimulating constituent of cocoa, coffee, and a variety of teas which provides mental and physical stamina for continued effort.


Terpenoids are another set of secondary metabolites which are found in every plant throughout the world and are made of isoprene. Terpenoids and terpenes are called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) due to their capacity to easily evaporate and dissipate through the air.

Isoprene is actually a gas that is produced in the plant’s chloroplast and released through the leaves in great quantities. The invisible clouds of isoprene that float through the forests air are believed to keep the air cooler, as well as protect ground moisture and carbon as it sinks to the forest floor.

Humans benefit from terpenes in two important ways. First of all, the essential oils that have served as natural medications and remedies for thousands of years are derived from these same VOCs. Aromatherapy is an example of how breathing in these healthy compounds can be used to treat a variety of health conditions.

Terpene rich air also plays an important role in the practice of forest bathing , also called Shinrin Yoku. Studies have concluded that breathing in the healthy forest air can reduce stress, improve the immune system, and even prevent the onset of cancers and tumors.


The final secondary metabolite is phenols and has been receiving a great deal of attention for their medical applications. Salicylic acid, better known as aspirin, is one of the most famous of these medical phenols and used to treat pain, skin conditions and more.

In the plant world, phenols are used to attract pollinators and even to communicate from one plant to another. 2 The tobacco plant, for example, can detect the presence of its primary predator, the Hornworm Caterpillar, by its saliva. When it feels threatened by this pest, it will emit a special chemical signal that attracts the caterpillar’s natural enemy the Big-Eyed Bug, usually within a few hours.

The Important Takeaway  width=

The secondary metabolites produced by plants are not restricted to benefitting plants. Modern medical science and studies have shown many important benefits to humans as well. The balancing nature of the woods is the product of millions of years of natural history and has a pervasive effect on the human mind and body as well.

Photo Credits: Varts/, John_T/, Visual/, Intermezzo/

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