Pinus strobus, Eastern White Pine

Pinus strobus is an extraordinary tree that has perhaps lost some of its mystique as North America’s once aboundant old-growth white pine forests vanish into the pre-colonial past. It is a keystone species according to Dr. Doug Tallamy (read more), and shares tallest tree in eastern North America with the tulip poplar. Before intensive logging changed the North American landscape from the 18th-20th century, it was common for Pinus strobus to grow to more than 200 ft tall! The tallest accurately measured Eastern White Pine, the “Boogerman Pine” in the Cataloochee Valley of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, measured 207 ft before Hurricane Opal broke its top in 1995.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Iroquois Confederacy) continues to use the white pine as its symbol of peace, a symbol chosen by the Peacemaker for both its wide sheltering boughs and the clusters of five needles representing the unity of the original five nations of the confederacy. (Read more at haudenosauneeconfederacy.com).

Cultivation

Pinus strobus tolerates cold, heat, wind, and urban stresses, so has been widely used in civic plantings in Virginia. It prefers sandy or loamy well-drained soil, moderate moisture and acidic soil, but is widely adaptable. It even grows in several unique arid Virginia habitats of neutral pH and high soil calcium (see Virginia Heritage Community Types below). “Root systems are usually shallow and highly branched with many fine roots close to the surface of the soil. Trees transplant well balled and burlapped or from containers.” U.S. Forest Service Fact Sheet ST-473, October 1994.

Pinus strobus feeds and shelters many birds and mammals, and hosts 200 species of Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth caterpillars).

Eastern White Pine is fire resistant and fast-growing, living 200-450 years. It is a canopy tree, meaning that though it tolerates shade, it can’t survive longterm in the understory. Pinus strobus can typically outcompete birch, pitch pine, and walnut, but more often loses the canopy to oaks, aspens, and maples.  (U.S. Forest Service Fact Sheet ST-473, October 1994). There are, of course, exceptions to this, as some of Virginia’s Heritage Community Types, such as Eastern White Pine – Hardwood Forests, testify (see more below).

Plant ID

Wildflower.org says, “Eastern white pine is a stately canopy tree, 75-200+ ft. tall; sometimes much taller. Gracefully plume-like in outline, white pine is very distinctive when compared to other conifers. Its branches are horizontal and tiered.” It is evergreen, has long soft straight blue-green needles held in clusters of 3-5 (most commonly 5), and long narrow relatively soft pine cones (3-6” x 1.5-2″). The bark begins smooth, thin, and gray-green in youth, aging to rough, deeply furrowed, pitchy, dark reddish or grayish brown and covered in rectangular scales. Branches grow like spokes of a wagon wheel, five or six around the circumference of the trunk, spaced approximately 18″ apart in vertically ascending tiers. Although old-growth stands produce tall straight trees, Pinus strobus can develop multiple branching trunks.

Human Uses

Tall Ships

The white pine is a tree of storied history and use, as the legacies of its exploitation testify. During colonial times, these tall straight trees were prized by the British Royal Navy for ship’s masts (a crucial need during the Age of Sail). The Crown’s claims on all large colonial white pines contributed to the frustrations that led to the American Revolution. Read about the Mast Tree Riot of 1734 and the King’s Broad Arrow, used to mark mast trees during colonial times. 

The Building of a Nation

During the Industrial Revolution and the westward expansion, logging Eastern White Pine reached a fever pitch. Old-growth pine was highly sought after because, according to Wikipedia, “huge, knot-free boards were the rule rather than the exception. Pine was common and easy to cut, thus many colonial homes used pine for paneling, floors, and furniture. Pine was also a favorite tree of loggers, since pine logs can still be processed in a lumber mill a year or more after being cut down. In contrast, most hardwood trees such as cherry, maple, oak, and ash must be cut into 1″ thick boards immediately after felling, or else large cracks will develop in the trunk which can render the wood worthless.” (Wikipedia, 2023).

Food and Medicine

The pine needles can be brewed into a tea high in vitamin C, and the inner bark was eaten by First Nations peoples during late winter famine times – Adirondack means “tree-eater” in the Iroquois language. According to Wikipedia, “Pine tar mixed with beer can be used to remove tapeworms (flat worms) or nematodes (round worms). Pine tar mixed with sulfur is useful to treat dandruff, and marketed in present-day products. Pine tar can also be processed to make turpentine.” (Wikipedia, 2023). The xylem is also an effective antibacterial water filtration material. Read more at Wikipedia.

White Pine forest in Bald Eagle State Forest, PA. Photo by Nicholas A. TonelliCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ecology

White pine forests used to dominate much of central-eastern and northeastern North America and played a key part in our verdant ecosystems. Pinus strobus feeds and shelters many birds and mammals, and hosts 200 species of Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth caterpillars).

A Keystone Species

The Pinus genus in North America is ranked by Dr. Doug Tallamy as an extremely important keystone species because of their wide participation in the food webs, including as a host plant for Lepidoptera. In his research, caterpillars are posited as an important first step in converting the sun’s light into protein. All herbivores do this, but caterpillars go on to feed vast scores of birds, wasps, mammals, and other wildlife. Adult Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) often live out their adult lives as pollinators. Not only do they make many direct contributions, but they tend to be good indicators of diverse highly functioning ecosystems.

Old Growth Forests

One percent of our original old-growth Eastern White Pine forests remain, preserved in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina; White Pines State Park, Illinois; Cook Forest State ParkHearts Content Scenic Area, and Anders Run Natural Area in Pennsylvania; Linville Gorge Wilderness in North Carolina; Algonquin Provincial ParkQuetico Provincial Park, Algoma Highlands in Ontario, and Sainte-Marguerite River Old Forest in Quebec, Canada; Estivant PinesHuron MountainsPorcupine Mountains State Park, and Sylvania Wilderness Area in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan; Hartwick Pines State Park in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan; Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin; Lost 40 Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. (Wikipedia, 2023) and other small grove and individual specimens.

Virginia Heritage Community Types

White Pine, Pinus strobus, is a diagnostic member of a number of Heritage Community types statewide. This means that the formal scientific name for that community type includes Pinus strobus indicating its canopy dominance, co-dominance, or diagnostic presence.

Eastern White Pine – Hardwood Forests

Pinus strobus co-dominates the canopy with Quercus alba White Oak and Quercus montana Chestnut Oak on “middle and upper slopes, ridge crests, dry ravines, and bluffs, mostly below 760 m (2500 feet) elevation in the mountains and above 75 m (240 feet) in the Piedmont.” [Eastern White Pine – Hardwood Forests, USNVC CEGL008539, Pinus strobus – Quercus alba – Quercus montana / Vaccinium stamineum Forest (G4/S4)].

Central Appalachian Acidic Cove Forest (White Pine – Hemlock – Mixed Hardwoods Type)

Pinus strobus co-dominates the canopy with Liriodendron tulipifera Tulip Poplar and oaks such as Quercus rubra Northern Red Oak and Quercus alba White Oak “on the lower slopes and bottoms of ravines and coves at lower elevations, generally below 915 m (3000 feet),” in mesic, “acidic soils of moderate or intermediate fertility.”  [Acidic Cove Forests, USNVC CEGL006304, Liriodendron tulipifera – Pinus strobus – Quercus (rubra, alba)  (Tsuga canadensis) / Polystichum acrostichoides Forest (G4?/S4)].

Northern White-Cedar Slope Forest

This critically imperiled and rare type of forest has been sampled only in Montgomery and Russell Counties in the Ridge and Valley region, where Pinus strobus co-dominates the canopy with Thuja occidentalis American Arborvitae and Tsuga canadensis Eastern Hemlock in sub-mesic (semi-dry) soils of neutral pH and high in calcium. [Montane Dry and Dry-Mesic Calcareous Forests, USNVC CEGL008426, Thuja occidentalis – Pinus strobus – Tsuga canadensis / Carex eburnea Forest (G1G2/S1)].

Central Appalachian Montane Alluvial Forest (Tuliptree – White Pine Type)

In these “small-stream floodplain forests of the shale lowlands of Virginia’s Ridge and Valley and parts of the Northern Blue Ridge,” Pinus strobus co-dominates the canopy with Liriodendron tulipifera Tulip Poplar, Quercus alba White Oak, and in some locations, Tsuga canadensis Eastern Hemlock. [Piedmont / Mountain Small-Stream Alluvial Forests, USNVC CEGL008405, Liriodendron tulipifera – Pinus strobus – Quercus alba – (Tsuga canadensis) / Carpinus caroliniana Amphicarpaea bracteata Forest (G3/S3)].

Southern Appalachian Acidic Seepage Swamp

In this imperiled type of swamp forest found “throughout the Southern Blue Ridge, and in the Cumberland Mountains and Cumberland Plateau, at elevations below 1200 m (4000 feet), in poorly drained bottomlands, generally with visible microtopography of ridges and sloughs or depressions,” Pinus strobus co-dominates the canopy with Acer rubrum Red Maple. [Mountain / Piedmont Seepage Swamps, USNVC CEGL007565, Acer rubrum – Pinus strobus – (Nyssa sylvatica, Tsuga canadensis) Osmundastrum cinnamomeum Forest (G2/S1)].

Southern Blue Ridge Mafic Woodland Seep

This critically imperiled type of small-patch wooded wetland is known primarily at The Glades in Grayson County and Buffalo Mountain in Floyd County (both in the Southern Blue Ridge), plus Big Meadows, Madison County in the Northern Blue Ridge. Pinus strobus co-dominates with Acer rubrum Red Maple “in seepage areas on mineral soil weathered from amphibolite and ultramafic rocks of the Southern Blue Ridge. Occurrences are generally linear, following braided, rocky drainages with internal hummocks of organic-rich soil.” [Mafic Fens and Seeps, USNVC CEGL004994, Acer rubrum – Pinus strobus Alnus serrulata – Physocarpus opulifolius Solidago patula – Parnassia grandifolia Woodland (G1/S1)]. See more:

PLANT FACTS


Scientific Name

Pinus strobus

Other names: Eastern White Pine, Northern White Pine, Weymouth Pine, Soft Pine

Family: Pinaceae.

Native Status

Native to Floyd County

Native Range Map (Virginia Counties) for Pinus strobus

Source: Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora

Pinus strobus native range map, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Other Floyd County native Pinus: P. pungens, P. rigida, P. virginiana.

Culture Notes

Height: 75-200 ft, Spacing guide: 20-40'. Bloom Color: n/a. Bloom Time: n/a. Light: Full sun to full shade. Moisture: Dry to moist (xeric to subhydric) conditions. Soils: Acidic or neutral, well-drained.

Habitat

USDA Zones: 3-8. National Wetland Status Indicator: FACU. C-Value: 5. Successional Role: Climax, old-growth.

Virginia Ecology

Virginia Habitat: "Mesic to dry upland forests and woodlands, and montane alluvial forests; particularly abundant in the extensive shale districts of the western Ridge and Valley region. Common in the mountains; infrequent in the Piedmont; rare in the Coastal Plain." (The Flora, 2023). Virginia Natural Communities: Acidic Cove Forests, Montane Dry and Dry-Mesic Calcareous Forests, Montane Mixed Oak and Oak - Hickory Forests, Eastern White Pine - Hardwood Forests, Eastern Hemlock - Hardwood Forests, Mafic Fens and Seeps, Mountain / Piedmont Seepage Swamps, Piedmont / Mountain Small-Stream Alluvial Forests

Ecosystem Services

*Keystone for Lepidoptera, Bird Food, Bird Habitat, Mast for Small to Medium Animals, Mast for Large Animals

Wildlife Supported: Attracts birds and mammals for food and shelter, 200 species of Lepidoptera host on Pinus spp.

Propagation

"Sow stratified seed outside in fall. It will be several years before the seedlings show any rapid growth." (wildflower.org). Seed Germination: C60 - 60 days cold moist stratification required

Where to Buy

Slaughter’s Garden Center, Virginia Department of Forestry, many sources online.