Kindling Neighborly Connections between People and Nature.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Wild Neighbor: White Pine (Pinus strobus)

White pine (Pinus strobus)
A tall and mighty tree is the white pine.

A sturdy conifer whose beauty and strength have inspired poets.

George Washington Sears, a.k.a. Nessmuk once wrote a poem called Of Crags and Pines. Probably as he overlooked the Pine Creek Gorge from one of the vistas that people still use today he penned these words:

Who treads the dirty lanes of trade
Shall never know the wondrous things
Told by the rugged forest kings
To him who sleeps beneath their shade.

Only to him whose coat of rags
Has pressed at night their royal feet
Shall come the secrets, strange and sweet,
Of regal pines and beetling crags.

(Forest Runes. George Washington Sears. Pantianos Classics, 1887. Page 13)

There is much to be appreciated about these "rugged forest kings."

The white pine is a wild neighbor who is a gift to all.

Many field guides will simply talk about their high value as lumber trees. This is what led to the vast majority of our Pennsylvania white pines being logged in the early 1900's. Have you seen the photos of the Pine Creek Gorge from the early 1900's where it looks like there is not a tree left standing? Those are sad photographs.

One of the values of white pines is that they hold soil intact with their roots. When all of the pines in the Pine Creek Gorge were cut back in the early 1900s there was a major soil erosion event that changed the nutrient composition of the steep slopes from Ansonia to Blackwell and beyond. The soil went from nutrient rich to nutrient poor because the white pines and Eastern hemlocks that had been holding the health of the whole forest ecosystem intact were removed in one foul (pun intended) swoop.

White pines are good at holding soil intact and in so doing the whole forest ecosystem benefits.

Bald Eagle nest in a white pine tree.
Beyond that there are a number of species of wildlife who consume white pine twigs, needles or seeds. Among them are white-tailed deer, porcupine, squirrels, and at least a dozen species of birds may eat either the seeds from cones or the insects that can be found in the branches.

White pines, with their tall stature and big limbs, can also serve as preferred nest building sites of raptors like the bald eagle. One such nest can be seen from the Darling Run Access Area of the Pine Creek Rail Trail.

White pine tea int he making.
White pines have much to offer as living trees.

They also make fantastic tea! I like to use a simple recipe. Pick a handful of needles off of a mature white pine, rinse them, put them in a pot of water, bring it to boil and allow it to steep for 10 minutes, let it cool, then run it through a strainer and you have white pine tea that is high in vitamin C and can reduce fatigue among other health benefits.

White pines have much to offer as living trees, and they have much to offer the forest even as deceased trees or downed limbs.

White pine branches that fell beneath the weigh of the snow.
During our recent heavy snow storm the big flakes stuck to the pine branches and piled up so much that about a dozen branches from the white pine in our back yard snapped under the added weight.

The trees themselves are still standing strong, they've simply shed some branches. A neighbor told me that he was out hunting in the woods that same morning and they heard a bunch of tree branches snapping in the woods too. This is one of the ways that natural brush piles get created in the woods which make for spaces of refuge for animals like grouse and rabbits.

Identifying a white pine tree is easy. It's typically got a straight trunk and good spacing between the branches. White pine is the only conifer in our area that has five needles per cluster. See what I mean by taking a look at the photo to the right. You can roll a cluster of needles between your fingers like so to easily be able to count them. Five needles per cluster always means white pine.
5 needles per cluster is typical of white pine.

Well, I should say that 99.9% of the time white pine can be identified as having five needles per cluster.

I can't say all the time because I happened upon something pretty strange and special just a few weeks ago. I was in Altoona visiting family. Erin and I went for a walk along the ridge of a place called Locke Mountain. What I found lying at the base of a grove of white pine trees was a twig of a white pine with EIGHT needles per cluster! There's no other pine in our area that has more than 5 needles per cluster so eight needles per cluster is just weird!

I've asked a few naturalist friends but there are still more questions than answers.

Did the whole tree have clusters of eight or was it just one branch or one twig? I wish I had looked more closely at the trees in that area.

Was this a result of some genetic mutation?
My atypical white pine twig with eight needles per cluster.

Was it a result of parasitism?

Was it something else?

Typical 5 needle clusters (left), atypical 8 needle clusters (right)
What caused this twig with an abnormal number of needles per cluster to be cast off of the tree? Did the tree somehow recognize the abnormality and release its own twig because of it?

I can say that I found a twig of a white pine with eight needles per cluster; I think that's at least as rare as a four-leaf clover!

This says to me that it's good to take a closer look at many of our wild neighbors that we are already very well acquainted with. You never know what secrets and treasures are waiting to be revealed.

As the 17th centry Japanese Haiku Master, Basho once wrote, "If you want to know the pine, go to the pine."

And finally, for those who enjoy Peanuts, by Charles Schultz, you might be interested to know that Charlie Brown's Christmas tree looks like it could be a sapling white pine.

Until next time...

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