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.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Gray Pine

I was at the Portland Chapter meeting of the Native Plant Society recently and someone there told me that the gray pine (Pinus sabiniana) was an Oregon native. This was news to me. It’s not listed in Trees to Know in Oregon, from the Oregon State University Extension Service. Also, Ronald Lanner writes in Conifers of California that gray pine is “…a native to California alone – without any Nevada or Oregon outliers.” (p. 71) He goes on to quote David Douglas on the discovery of the gray pine: “I have added a most interesting species to the genus Pinus, P. sabinii, one which I had first discovered in 1826, and lost, together with the rough notes, in crossing a rapid stream.” However, David Douglas was not in California in 1826. He was in the Umpqua Valley area of Oregon in search of sugar pine, where he must have also seen some gray pine. The “rapid stream” he crossed was the Santiam River.

Frank Callahan documents the discovery of the gray pine in Oregon. He reports that a railroad survey in 1855 recorded them growing in Jackson County between Gold Hill and Central Point. In 1945, Oliver Matthews provided the first scientific documentation of Pinus sabiniana in Oregon after collecting specimens near Gold Hill. Callahan notes numerous specimens that he has located in the Medford area.  (See Frank Callahan, “Discovering Gray Pine (Pinus sabiniana) in Oregon,” Kalmiopsis Volume 16, 2009.

The gray pine is a distinctive pine with long, gray-green needles. Its most distinctive feature is the size of its large, heavy cones. They are usually visible it the top branches of the tree, where they remain for several years after they mature. The cones have the largest seeds of any conifer in the Pacific Northwest. The nutritional seeds were harvested by Native Americans, although too few trees grew in Oregon for them to be an important food source. Since the seeds are too large to be dispersed far from the tree, the gray pine relies on birds to disperse the seeds. Gray pine seeds are a favorite food of the Steller’s jay and scrub jay, which store seeds in the ground to eat later. Since the jays never recover all the seeds, they also plant the next generation of gray pines.

For more information, see Northwest Conifers.