This is a blog about the native conifers of the Pacific Northwest. It is a companion to the Northwest Conifers site. The blog will focus on timely and interesting details about our conifers, their connections to the rest of the environment, and our connection to them.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Focus on Pines

Western White Pine
Pine are the most common conifer in the world, spreading across the land masses of the Northern Hemisphere, including much of North America, Europe, and Asia. The genus of the pines, Pinus, includes over 100 species, more than any other conifer genus. (Aljos Farjon lists 113 species of pine in A Handbook of the World’s Conifers.) Pinus is classical Latin for the Mediterranean stone pine.

Pines have an ancient origin, appearing 130 million years ago. They are older than the firs, spruces, larches, hemlocks, and Douglas firs. All these conifers branched off from ancient pines. Some pine trees are ancient. They can live to be thousands of years old. The oldest living tree is a bristlecone pine that is over 5000 years old, growing in the White Mountains of California.

Northwest Pines

Eight species of pine grow in the Pacific Northwest. Pines don't compete as well in the climate west of the Cascades summit, where forests are dark, damp, and dense. You will find them high in the mountains east of the Cascades summit. Pines are not shade-tolerant and compete best in drier areas where the forests are more open. In a favorable environment many Northwest pines grow to an impressive size, especially sugar pine. Pines can also thrive in poor soils where other trees cannot compete. In extreme environments like cold, wind-swept ridges and the windy Pacific Coast, the pines are often small and contorted. 

Ponderosa Pine

Many pines have an interesting relationship with fire. Since they are not shade-tolerant, they often depend on fire to clear the forest of competing trees before the pine seedlings can sprout and grow. Some species depend on frequent fires. Ponderosa pine depends on low-intensity fires that burn competing species every few years. The thick bark on the ponderosa protects it from the fire, but the fire burns the competing firs. Other pines depend on hotter fires that consume the forest. The cones of knobcone pine and some lodgepole pine remain closed on the tree until they are heated during a fire. After the fire, the cones open and drop their seeds, which germinate and grow to become the next generation of pines.

Whitebark Pine
Other pines take advantage of extreme environments or mutually beneficial relationships with animals. Whitebark pine has adapted to the extreme cold and snowy environment near the timberline. It has also developed a close relationship with the Clark’s nutcracker. This pine holds its seeds in closed cones, waiting not for a fire, but for a Clark’s nutcracker to come and pry out the large, edible seeds. The nutcrackers typically fly off and bury the seeds, which they dig up and eat during the winter. But the seeds that they forget about can germinate and sprout new little whitebark pines. This adaptation of producing large edible seeds is a common tactic used by several species of pines, often called “stone pines.” Birds are not the only animals to benefit. Pine seeds are a traditional food for people, too. If you have extra money to burn, you can buy them today in nearly any grocery, where they are sold as “pine nuts.”

Although ponderosa pine thrives in the dry areas east of the Cascades, it is also native to the Willamette Valley, where it has adapted to the wet environment, and competes well with Douglas fir. Lodgepole pine mostly grows in the Cascades and Rocky Mountains, but it also grows along the Pacific Coast, where it is called “shore pine.” It has adapted to the wet, salty environment along the beach and in nearby bogs.


Limber Pine Cultivar
"Vanderwolf's Pyramid" 
Pines arean important timber resource throughout the world. They are grown in plantations in the south of the U. S. and various locations around the world, including New Zealand and Brazil. The wood is used for construction, woodworking, window frames, and furniture. Pine is a favorite wood for paneling. Pines are a primary source of pulp for paper making. They are also a source for making turpentine.

Pines are widely planted as ornamentals, a tribute to their beauty, but perhaps also because they are often slow-growing. Stately ponderosa pine is a favorite. Its golden bark adorns parks throughout the West. Pines seem to lend themselves to the development of a wide variety of cultivars of different size, shape, and color. The Encyclopedia of Conifers includes 360 pages of pine cultivars.

Identification of Northwest Pines

It’s easy to distinguish pines from other conifers. Pine needles typically grow in bundles of two, three, or five. Unlike the thin scales on hemlock and spruce cones, pine cones have thick, woody scales. The cones are the largest you will find in the Northwest. You can usually identify a pine species by the number of needles in each bundle or the shape and size of the cones.

Lodgepole PinePinus contorta
Needles: 2 per bundle. Cones: 2” long, egg shaped.
Western white pinePinus monticola
Needles: 5 per bundle, 2-4” long. Cones: 6-10” long, curved.
Whitebark pinePinus albicaulis
Needles: 5 per bundle, 2-3” long. Cones: 2-3” long, closed when mature.
Ponderosa pinePinus ponderosa
Needles: 3 per bundle, 5-10” long. Cones: 3-6” long, egg shaped.
Jeffrey pine Pinus jeffreyi
Needles: 3 per bundle, 5-10” long. Cones: 6-10” long. SW Oregon.
Knobcone pinePinus attenuata
Needles: 3 per bundle, 3-6” long. Cones: 3-6” long. SW Oregon.
Sugar pinePinus lambertiana
Needles: 5 per bundle, 2-4” long. Cones: Large, 10-20” long. SW Oregon.
Limber pinePinus flexilis
Needles: 5 per bundle, 2-3” long. Cones: 3-7” long, open when mature. This pine is rare in the Northwest, growing only in the Wallowa Mountains.


The Gymnosperm Database – Pinus

The Encyclopedia of Conifers by Aris G. Auders and Derek P. Spicer, Vol. 2

A Handbook of the World’s Conifers by Aljos Farjon, Vol 2

Conifers of the World by James E. Eckenwalder

The Wood Database – Pine Wood

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