Pinus strobus, White Pine - 7 (1)

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by Paul O'Hara

Myopia is the most common affliction of the modern landscape professional. It comes from too much comfy deskwork and not enough unpaid field wandering. Sometimes I think columns like this do not help. So when asked if I would submit an article for ‘Native Plant to Know’ I felt there was only one plant I could consider: white pine (Pinus strobus). Why? Because white pine is the Matriarch of Eastern North America. She is the native plant that knows you because she watches over the land and all its creatures from high above. Naturally, white pine is the tallest tree in the forest and Indigenous Peoples used her steepled crowns to guide their way home. To them she is the Tree of Peace.

White pine has needles soft-to-the-touch and uniquely arranged in bundles of five; other eastern pines are in twos and threes. White pine bears banana-shaped cones, and the bark moves from smooth, shiny silver to a furrowed brown at maturity. With increased age, white pine develops the dancing, windswept silhouettes that were the subject of some Group of Seven paintings.

Ten thousand years ago, white pine was cornered down in the southeastern United States. As the glaciers retreated, white pine moved up the Atlantic coast spreading east across maritime states and provinces and west across the Great Lakes. Two hundred years ago, white pine was reaching into the Great Plains when she met the axe. The Brits, for one, went gaga for white pine securing vast stands for their Navy ship construction. For her role in our early communities, white pine was named the Provincial Tree of Ontario and the State Tree of Michigan and Maine.

In spite of widespread logging, white pine is still a prominent tree in today’s landscape. She can be found walking into meadow habitats. She works in thickets and early successional woods. She stands with the oak and hickory in dry woodlands and wades through water to perch on hummocks in broadleaf and conifer swamps. (This past summer I visited a newly discovered kettle lake northwest of Toronto and there she was mingling with the black spruce (Picea mariana) and tamarack (Larix laricina) in the heavily-needled, acid duff.). White pine dances with all the Great Forest Trees - red oak (Quercus rubra) , white oak (Quercus alba) , chestnut (Castanea dentata) , shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) , white ash (Fraxinus americana) , yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) , basswood (Tilia americana) , black cherry (Prunus serotina) , sugar maple (Acer saccharum) , beech (Fagus grandifolia) , eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) - and after hundreds of years rises to stand watch above the old-growth forest canopy.

Pine-oak, maple-oak-pine, pine-oak-chestnut, maple-beech-pine, pine-basswood-elm: these are just a few of the tree associations documented from original surveys in the Toronto area. Even areas of historical prairie (read: old-growth grasslands) mentioned the presence of ‘small pine’ or ‘pine plains’ over whole concessions torched by the fire of the native hunter.

In the primeval woods, 45-metre (150 foot) white pines were common and some soared to 60 metres (200 feet). Today, it can be difficult to find white pines over 30 metres (100 feet) and remnant old-growth white pine stands are few and far between. I saw the 50-metre Thessalon, Ontario white pine before she fell down, and similar-sized pines at Achigan Lake just north of Sault St. Marie. Other Ontario old-growth stands can be found in Algonquin Provincial Park, the Parry Sound area, Killarney Provincial Park, Temagami, the Algoma Highlands, and in northwestern Ontario. They say the most awesome white pines are in the Cook Forest of Pennsylvania where the Tallest Tree of the Northeast stands at 55 metres (180 feet).

White pine enjoys full to part sun and medium to dry moisture environments over a range of soil types. They make wonderful specimen trees in open landscapes, planted in clusters for windbreaks and screening, or as an evergreen anchor in a residential design. Along with asters, goldenrods and milkweeds, white pine is one of my first thoughts when choosing plants for the garden or restoration project.

But many modern landscape professionals believe white pine is a poor choice for urban environments. They say ‘it doesn’t tolerate urban conditions’ and that ‘it is sensitive to air pollution and salt.’ Perhaps. But it would be juvenile to believe the story ended there.

Question: If white pine cannot survive on Bay Street in the Toronto Financial District is it a problem of the white pine or a problem of Bay Street?

Answer: Close the books. Step away from the desk. Walk into the woods. Look up. Listen to Mother.

Paul O’Hara is a botanist, landscape designer and native plant gardening expert. He is the owner/operator of Blue Oak Native Landscapes and lives in Hamilton, Ontario.