Often times, the people, places and things that we encounter going about our daily lives are not given as much attention as might be merited. If they were gone though, they would likely be missed. New England in January without a new, pristine snow cover, can be drab and rather dismal, especially on cloudy days. Thankfully, the green goodness of eastern white pines is spread throughout our landscapes. On our walks, driving to the store or work, in our parks, along the highways and even in many backyards, eastern white pines (Pinus strobus) with that slight bluish cast to their needles adds a bit of greenery to an otherwise bland landscape.

white pine needles

The needles of the Eastern White Pine are soft and flexible. Photo by dmp, UConn

Eastern white pine is a fast growing evergreen tree native from Canada down the east coast to Georgia and westward to the Great Lakes region. It is the only native pine in Connecticut that produces needles in bundles of 5. These are held together at the base by a deciduous sheath. New needles sprout forth each spring. Whereas deciduous trees lose their leaves each fall, the needles on an eastern white pine last for 2 years before abscising. We northerners tend to either leave pine needles in place in naturalized plantings, or rake them up if they fall upon the lawn. In the southeast, pine needles, aka pine straw, are sold as a mulch.

Pine needles in fall 2

Older needles yellow and drop from tree the second fall after forming. Photo by dmp, UConn

They do make a good mulch so if you happen to have a plentiful supply, consider using them in this manner. Often questions will arise about using pine needles as there is a false perception that pine trees somehow make our soils more acidic. In reality, eastern white pines have evolved to grow well in our native, typically acidic soils. Since our native soils are often nutrient poor, the trees will absorb as many nutrients in the needles as possible before letting them senesce so the dried, brown needles that fall from the tree are just slightly acidic which is a perfect pH for many of our garden plants. And, if your soil pH is a bit on the low side, just add some limestone.

white pine fallen needles

Carpet of fallen pine needles under tree. Photo by dmp, UConn

When the early colonists first set foot in America, huge amounts of the northeastern and northcentral parts of this country where covered with old growth eastern white pine forests. The Native Americans used this tree for medicinal, food and utilitarian purposes. The needles were made into teas used for colds and other respiratory ailments. They are also high in antioxidants and vitamins A and C. There are recipes to make tea from fresh or dried needles online these days and prepared tea bags can be purchased as well. The inner bark or cambium was consumed as food by some tribes and the resin was used to waterproof buckets, baskets and boats.

A number of wildlife also depend on eastern white pine for part or more of their survival. Deer will occasionally graze on them during severe winters but I have found they typically prefer my yews and my one strategically placed (for visual impact) arborvitae. Black capped chickadees and pine warblers look for insects in the bark, branches and needles. The seeds are loved by mammals such as eastern chipmunks, white-footed mice, red backed voles, and grey, red and flying squirrels. A number of bird species also find them appetizing including red-breasted nuthatches, pine siskins, chipping sparrows, evening grosbeaks, grackles and crossbills. Porcupines may feed on the bark of eastern white pines as well as seek shelter in the evergreen trees.

white pine cones

White pine cones are elongated and resinous. Photo by dmp, UConn

Eastern white pines grow very fast, very large and very tall. These were all qualities appealing to the early colonists, their British rulers and future commercial venues. Eastern white pine was great for building and used in early colonial homes for floors, furniture and other purposes. It was easily cut and took paint readily and as such in high demand.

In the mid 1700s, the British Royal Navy needed tall, straight timbers for masts on its ships. These types of trees were in short supply in England as their navy continued its expansion so exceptional eastern white pine trees in the American colonies were marked for harvest and export to Britain. New Hampshire colonists, in particular, did not like this and cut down the marked trees for local timber use. This insurgence lead to the Pine Tree Riot in 1772. There was even a pine tree flag created in support of this rebellious group defending local natural resources from plundering by a higher order.

pine tree flag

Pine tree flag – Origin by E. Benjamin Andrews (1822-1917) – Taken from The Project Gutenberg EBook of History of the United States, Volume 2 (of 6), by E. Benjamin Andrews, c. 1894. From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pine_Tree_Flag

Extensive logging by Americans from the 18th to 20th centuries lead to a reduction of about 99 percent of old growth eastern white pine forests from the east to the Midwest. While these majestic trees can live 4 or 5 hundred years, only about 1 % of old growth forests remain. Most of today’s stands sprang up after their parents were cut down and former productive tree lots abandoned. Although not as tall as their ancestors yet, Connecticut has 2 co-champion notable eastern white pine trees, both around 130 feet high. They are located in Thomaston and in Morris.

Some decimated areas were replanted with white pines from Europe. It may seem odd for native tree seedlings to be grown in Europe and shipped here but the Europeans had previously recognized the foolhardiness of the overharvesting of timber and had established nurseries to efficiently propagate various species including pines. Unfortunately, shipments that arrived in 1898 and 1910 were infected with a disease called white pine blister rust. This is a curious disease that has two hosts – the eastern white pine and ribes species including currants and gooseberries. It originated in Asia. Young pines were particularly susceptible and in some areas up to 80% of trees were killed. Control measures led to ribes eradication efforts. Some states passed laws prohibiting the cultivation of currants and gooseberries. This disease still lingers but perhaps because of developed resistance, fewer gooseberry and currant plants and climate conditions, the incidence of white pine blister rust is relatively low in Connecticut.

white pine stand

Eastern white pine stand. Photo by dmp, UConn

Fortunately, eastern white pines are resilient. Despite the fact that the earlier settlers cut down swaths of old growth forests on their move westward and the destruction that was wrought by the white pine blister rust during the early 20th century, eastern white pines still rule. So admire them on your drive to work, examine them more closely as you walk the dog, and plant one in your yard if you don’t already have this tree growing. This plant is a necessity to our native wildlife and it is a notable part of the New England countryside.

Dawn P.