Olive trees are common in Northern Lebanon, but in the village of Bshaaleh, a handful look downright ancient.

Their branches grow in unpredictable directions, and their gray, gnarled trunks are shot through with crevasses large enough to hide a sleeping child.

Many people believe these sentinel trees are thousands of years old. They are known as '' Noah Trees '' because of some people's belief that the trees are the olive branch carried by the dove back to Noah's ark.

Scientists have now established a more certain age for several of the trees of Bshaaleh [ also spelled Bchaaleh ] and found that most are about 500 years old.

But one, a behemoth measuring roughly 14 feet [ 4.3 meters ] in diameter, is more than 1,100 years old.

That's the oldest olive tree in the world, the team reported in February in the journal Dendrochronologia.

Not many other large olive trees have been reliably dated, despite the cultural, spiritual and economic importance of such trees in places such as the Mediterranean.

Scientifically determining the ages of olive trees is challenging, said J Julio Camarero, a dendrochronologist at the Pyrenean Institute of Ecology in Zaragoza, Spain, who led the study of the Bshaaleh trees. That's because these trees often lack regular growth rings, he said.

Furthermore, older olive trees can exhibit multiple trunks, hollowed-out interiors and other vagaries of growth that made it difficult to determine their ages. Given the difficulties, researchers have attempted to infer the ages of olive trees based on their diameters.

However, such age estimates can be uncertain, given that soil fertility, climatic conditions and other factors can affect a tree's growth.

'' Size is not the same as age,'' Dr. Camarero said.  

[ Katherine Kornei ]    


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