The Longevity of Vancouver Island's Ancient Trees

The Cheewhat Cedar - 2000 to 3000 years old and still growing

Every time I go into the old growth, and stand next to ancient trees as wide as houses, I feel a sense of my brief tenure on this globe. It is with humility that I compare my lightning flash of life to the eon-spanning longevity of the massive Pacific Coast trees. How old can these giants get? Could they live forever?

Trees are at the opposite end of the life span spectrum as mayflies, which epitomise the saying, "Life is short, then you die". In its adult stage, the tiny insect flutters about looking for a mate before the day, and its life, are over. Different types of trees have been known to live thousands of years, including some of those on Vancouver Island.

Vancouver Island grows some of the largest, gnarliest, and oldest trees on the planet. These massive forests are unique among temperate forest regions of the world, and contain more biomass per square meter than tropical rain forests. Hot summers and mild winters provide an environment that is perfect for growing big, ancient conifers.

How Old Do Vancouver Island's Trees Get?

A yellow cedar that grew in the Caren Range on the Sunshine Coast portion of BC's mainland coast is Canada's oldest documented tree. An actual ring count was possible because the tree had been cut down in an old growth clear cut. The cedar was found to be 1836 years old. Are older trees out there?

Yellow Cedar

The more we learn about trees the longer we extend their lifespans. The beautiful, slow growing Yellow-cedar may live for 3500 years under ideal conditions, with a diameter of 119 inches and height of  130 feet.

Sitka Spruce

The salt-tolerant, coast-hugging Sitka spruce typically lives to 500 years, but under ideal conditions can push 750 years. In that time it will grow up to a 244 foot height with a 210 inch diameter trunk.

Red Creek Douglas-fir, 750 - 900 years old

The premier tree of Vancouver Island's dry east coast forest is the mighty Douglas-fir. It commonly lives up to 750 years. It doesn't even reach peak seed cone production until it is several centuries old. Under ideal conditions these 260 foot skyscrapers can live up to 1200 years old, with a 174 inch diameter trunk.

Western Red-cedar

Western red-cedar is another tree that knows about longevity. It commonly grows to 1000 years, and under ideal conditions can push 2000. An ancient 120 foot red-cedar could sport a jumbo 252 inch diameter bole.


Hemlocks grow to about 400 years old, but can be as old as 800 years. Western hemlock can shoot up to 211 feet with a 104 inch diameter base.

Could Trees Live Indefinitely?

In the 1800s, British botanist John Lindley said his research had failed to show that there was a definite lifespan set for any tree, and that if circumstances favored there seemed no reason why trees might not live indefinitely.

British-born American botanist Thomas Meehan agreed after studying the trees of North America's Pacific Coast forests. This may not be as far fetched as it first seems. I found a more recent reference on the net that claimed, "There are trees that could live indefinitely in the absence of environment factors that could kill them. The giant redwoods are an example of this type of plant."

That is certainly how I feel when among the old trees. That if it were not for catastrophic weather events, root rot, insect attack, fire, and human intervention, some of these trees might just grow and thrive forever.

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