Eastern White Pine – November 2013 Tree of the Month

The Ewing Environmental Commission has selected the Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobus, as the Tree of the Month for November.

Known also as soft pine, Weymouth pine, and northern white pine – the Iroquois Nation called it the Tree of Peace- this handsome, useful tree is the largest of all the northeast conifers and part of the most important lumber group in the world, the pines. It is the most widely used pine in the United States and was subject to extensive logging in the 18-20th centuries. Consequently, there are very few old-growth forests remaining today. Some white pines live easily to 200 years of age and a few, to more than 400 years. There are trees in Wisconsin and Michigan (the white pine is the State Tree of Michigan) which have been dated at 500 years old or more.

White pine, one of approximately 39 species of pine, is native to the northeastern United States and Canada, growing comfortably in USDA Zones 3-8 (Ewing is 6b). It was introduced to England in 1620 by George Weymouth (an English explorer in Maine in the 1600’s), and has naturalized in most parts of Northern Europe.

White pine can be distinguished from most other pine species by its sheathed bundles of 5 needles which are from 2” to 5” long, slender, drooping, soft and bluish green (the yellowed needles shed every two years in the fall). The flowers are inconspicuous; the pendant cones measure 6” to 8” long and about 1.5” wide; the bark is thin and smooth when it is young and becomes a darker, grayish brown and vertically furrowed (as we do) in its older age. It is symmetrical and pyramidal when young and develops a more flattened, horizontal aspect in maturity. The many branches produce a dense canopy.

This tree is a fast grower, attaining perhaps 24” to 36” of growth annually. It can reach 100’ to 150’ in height but is normally 50’ to 80’ tall by 20’ to 40’ wide, best not used ornamentally as a tree for a limited space. It is handsome year-round in parks and estates and has been used successfully many times as a sheared hedge. It has a wide spreading, deep root system and prefers fertile, well-drained, moist – to dry soil. It is easily transplanted, and although it will tolerate some partial shade, it does best in full sun. White pine is somewhat resistant to fire.

Pinus strobus is not without its problems. The wood is weak and the branches break easily in high winds as we have witnessed frequently in Ewing. Bumping into lower branches with lawn mowers also breaks branches and is partially responsible for the “bare legs” often seen on white pines. The tree is pollution intolerant and is susceptible to White Pine Weevil, which kills the terminal shoots, and Blister Rust, a fungus, which attacks the bark.

In addition to being a beautiful Christmas tree (it holds its needles well and reportedly causes fewer allergies than other evergreens), the knot-free white pine boards are easily cut for furniture, paneling, and flooring. The frequency of “Mast Roads” in New England is evidence of the past use of white pine trunks for ship building; these roads have few sharp curves in order to accommodate the hauling of the very long trunks. The cambium layer under the bark is said to be edible (and rich in vitamin C) and was fed to cattle and pigs in the 18th century. The pine tar, mixed with beer, was supposed to be effective against tape worm and round worm, and the tar, mixed with sulfur, was once a popular treatment for dandruff. The pine tar is still used for making turpentine, and the resin, or sap, is used for waterproofing. It is said that the Chippewa used the antimicrobial resin to treat infections.

The Ewing Environmental Commission (eec@ewingnj.org) welcomes suggestions for the Tree of the Month from all Ewing residents.