The Lifespans of Different Tree Species
How Long Does a Tree Live?
Average tree lifespans depend partly on tree species, but how long trees live also hinges on other variables. Even within the same species, some trees live longer than others because of environmental conditions and susceptibility to insect pests or diseases.
Other than simply regarding how long different trees live as an interesting botanical study, knowing the average lifespan of a tree is also a consideration that may influence the purchase of landscape specimens.
Trees with typically long lifespans can be one-time investments. In contrast, short-lived trees have to be replaced after several years, incurring additional costs that may include the cost of removing the original tree.
Average Tree Lifespans: Evergreen Trees
Some evergreen trees are conifers with needle-like leaves, while others have broad leaves.
Coniferous Evergreen Trees
It’s a common misconception that all conifers are evergreen trees that retain their leaves year round. Some conifers are deciduous, such as baldcypress (Taxodium distichum, USDA zones 4 to 9). This tree loses its needles in fall, becoming “bald”—as its common name hints— when other deciduous trees shed their leaves.
Coniferous evergreens are some of the longest-lived trees, with certain species having the potential to live more than 2,000 years.
The science of dendrochronology dates trees by counting their annual growth rings. Some conifers that have undergone dendrochronological testing have confirmed ages exceeding 1,000 years. One of these long-lived tree species is Australian pine (Araucaria heterophylla, zones 9 to 11), also called Norfolk Island pine, which is often sold during the winter season as a tabletop holiday tree.
On the list of trees that live the longest, Bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva, zones 4 to 8) is at the top as the world's longest-lived tree, with some tree lifespans exceeding 5,000 years.
Other evergreen conifers with varying lifespans that are more commonly grown in landscapes are:
- Green Giant Arborvitae (Thuja ‘Green Giant,’ zones 5 to 8): The average tree lifespan for this fast-growing evergreen is 40 to 60 years.
- Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana, zones 2 to 9): The average tree lifespan for these trees is 150 years, although they may reach twice that age.
- White Pine (Pinus strobus, zones 3 to 8): The lifespan of pine trees is highly variable, depending on the species. The average tree lifespan for white pine is 200 years, but some of these trees may live up to 450 years old.
Broadleaf Evergreen Trees
In contrast to the slender, needle-like leaves on conifers, other evergreen trees have flat, broad leaves. These broadleaf trees retain their leaves year round, unlike broadleaf deciduous trees.
Some broadleaf evergreen trees with varying lifespans are:
- Wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera, zones 7 to 10): Also called bayberry, this fragrant tree has resinous glands on its leaves that produce the bayberry fragrance for candles and soaps. The average tree lifespan is 80 to 100 years.
- Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora, zones 6 to 10): These stately trees live from 80 to 120 years.
- Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii, zones 5 to 8): Instead of fall foliage that turns red on deciduous trees in autumn, the Pacific madrone tree sports red berries against its evergreen leaves in fall. Older and larger trees with mature heights up to 125 feet may be up to 400 years old.
Average Tree Lifespans: Deciduous Trees
Deciduous trees shed their leaves in autumn, often after displaying brilliantly colored foliage, and many deciduous trees also have showy flowers in springtime.
While colorful fall foliage and showy flowers are two features that make deciduous trees desirable landscape accents against a backdrop of evergreen trees, these qualities are sometimes displayed on short-lived trees.
- Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana 'Bradford,' zones 5 to 9): This is a fast-growing tree that bursts into bloom in spring with a flurry of white blossoms. As one of the most common ornamental landscape trees for many decades, Bradford pear's structural integrity is so weak that this multi-trunked tree typically falls apart after only 10 to 15 years. Even though it may reach age 20 before splitting apart, this short-lived tree eventually will need to be replaced and is not recommended for the landscape.
- Sugar maple (Acer saccharum, zones 3 to 8): The lifespan of a maple tree varies widely among species, but long-lived sugar maple averages 300 years, with the potential to live to 400 years. As a comparison, silver maple (Acer saccharinum, zones 3 to 9) lives only one-third this long, with an average lifespan of 100 years.
- White oak (Quercus alba, zones 3 to 9): As with maple trees, oak trees have widely varying lifespans. White oak lives an average of 300 years, but it has the potential to live twice that long, up to 600 years. Comparatively, scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea, zones 4 to 6), also called black oak, lives only 80 years, with a potential maximum lifespan of fewer than 200 years.
- North Carolina State Extension: Thuja 'Green Giant'
- Virginia Big Trees: Lifespans of Common Trees in Virginia
- Oregon State University: Pacific Madrone
- Harris County Flood Control District: Tree and Shrub Field Guide
- University of Nevada, Reno: Research Suggests That Some Trees Have Potential for Immortality
- University of California, Davis: Earth's Oldest Trees in Climate-Induced Race up the Tree Line
- University of Georgia Cooperative Extension: Popular Trees Provide Flower Power But Don't Last the Test of Time
Victoria Lee Blackstone is a horticulturist, nursery owner, and writer for the green industry. After studying botany and microbiology at Clemson, she worked in the Horticulture Dept. for the University of Georgia as a Master Gardener Coordinator. Blackstone has been a Master Gardener course instructor for 15 years, teaching her class in phytopathology as part of the required Master Gardener curriculum.