The Life Cycle of a Tree

Contributor: Jay Gregorio. Lesson ID: 13222

How old are you in tree years? How old are the trees you can see outside? How did they get to be that old? Explore the six stages in the life cycle of a tree to answer all these questions and more!


Life Science

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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The oldest verified person to ever live was a French woman named Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122 years and 164 days!

That may be hard to believe, but there are actually living things that can survive for over 5,000 years.

  • Can you guess what they are?

The Great Basin Bristlecone Pine tree has the longest lifespan of any plant species in the world. If the average human lifespan is 79 years, it would take 61 generations of people to live as long as one Bristlecone Pine!

Bristlecone Pine in Methuselah Grove

Trees are an essential part of the natural ecosystem. They provide food and shelter for animals and humans. Without trees, the cycle of carbon dioxide would not be possible; therefore, breathable air would not be available.

Discover more about the life cycle of trees and ways to appreciate this wonderful species in nature!

The Life Cycle of a Tree

The circle of life happens in every living thing on earth. Like humans, trees experience the same stages of life from conception (seed), birth (sprout), infancy (seedling), juvenile (sapling), adulthood (mature), elderly (decline), and finally death (snag).

  • How do these changes occur?
  • How do trees interact with their environment as they move from one stage to the next?

Let's find out!

tree life cycle

The image above shows the life cycle of a tree. At each stage of its development, favorable conditions must be provided in order to maximize growth.

Stage 1: Seeds (Conception)

apple seeds

A seed is a small embryonic plant covered by a thin layer called the seed coat. It is the product of the ripened ovule of plants that occurs after fertilization.

Seeds come in a variety of sizes, from the very small orchid seed to the palm tree seed that is as big as a coconut itself.

Seeds can live from a few days up to about 2,000 years. Each seed contains all the information necessary to make a new plant.

Stage 2: Sprout (Birth)


When the environmental conditions are favorable, the sprout begins to form. A sprout is a small shoot that comes out of a germinated seed. It marks the beginning of the life cycle of a plant or tree.

As it breaks through the seed and into the soil, the sprout requires water, nutrients, enough space, and a little sunlight to continue its growth.

Stage 3: Seedling (Infancy)


As the sprout continues to develop, it will grow into a seedling. A seedling consists of three main parts: the embryonic root, the embryonic shoot, and the seed leaves.

The soft stem starts to harden and develop a thin bark for protection. It is a very vulnerable stage of development where stresses such as insects, viruses, and excessive water can end its life.

Stage 4: Sapling (Juvenile)

sapling being planted

When a young tree grows a few inches, it is called a sapling. It will begin competing for resources such as nutrients and sunlight to maximize its growth.

This is the ideal stage to transplant a tree from a seedbed to a location where it will develop on its own.

Stage 5: Mature (Adulthood)

mature apple tree with roots

This stage contains a tree's prime years of reproduction. A mature tree produces flowers and fruit that will bear new seeds that will be dispersed back to the ground, continuing the cycle.

In addition to producing fruit for consumption, mature trees have trunks that are used as lumber.

Stage 6: Decline and Snag (Elderly and Death)


As the tree reaches the last stage of its maturity, it becomes more susceptible to diseases and other stresses such as insects, wild animals, and viruses. It does not have the ability to compete well with other plants or trees around it that are stronger and younger.

The tree will eventually become a snag, which plays an important role in returning to the ground the nutrients it absorbed during its life.

To see the beginning stages of an oak tree's life cycle, watch acorn underground to oak seedling time lapse filmed over 8 months, from Neil Bromhall:

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Different trees have different characteristics but their needs are almost always the same in every stage of their development.

If you are planning to grow a tree, you must evaluate the environmental conditions carefully and make sure the young tree will have all that it needs. It might be helpful to talk with an arborist (tree doctor) or someone at your local nursery to find out which tree is best for your area.

The more you know about your tree, the easier it will be to keep it healthy and strong, prolonging its mature phase as long as possible.

Continue on to the Got It? section to test your knowledge about the life cycle of trees and learn more about them!

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