Eastern White Pine, aka Northern White Pine
by Martin (Mort) Schmidt for Simply Living
According to Lucy Braun’s classic Woody Plants of Ohio, Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) is the tallest conifer in the northeastern US, often reaching a height of more than 100 feet, and occasionally as much as 200 feet. Its large size, availability, and woodworking properties make it a valuable lumber and pulpwood tree. Its rapid growth rate makes it useful for tree farming – and especially for Christmas trees.
For some reason, conifers haven’t captured my interest the way that broadleafs have, and I haven’t learned to identify as many as I should. But Eastern White Pines couldn’t be easier because they have needles in fascicles (bundles) of 5. In fact, white pines from anywhere in the world can generally be distinguished by their groups of 5 needles. The other pines have needles in fascicles of 2 or 3. Eastern White Pine needles are longer than most, typically around 4 to 5 inches, and soft. Most, but not all conifers keep their needles during winter, and are therefore called “evergreens”. But the needles are replaced at multiyear intervals, depending on the species. White pine needles remain on the tree for 2 years, compared to one of the Bristlecone Pines, Pinus longeava, whose needles last for approximately 30 years.
The first step to identify non-conifers is typically determining whether they have alternate or opposite branching. But instead of having one branch at each point on the trunk like alternate trees, or two branches at each point like opposite trees, pines have multiple branches at each point, which is a whorled arrangement. A pine tree’s age can be closely approximated by counting the number of spaces between the whorls of branches. Each gap represents one year.
Eastern White Pines are monacious, meaning that they have male and female parts on the same tree. Accordingly, cones are found on all healthy mature trees. (Diaceous trees have male and female parts on separate trees). Eastern White Pine cones are 3 to 6 inches long, with hard scales that open wide to release their seeds. Cones take two years to develop, and first-year cones are distinctly smaller than second-year cones. The bark is initially smooth but becomes deeply furrowed with age.
The truly giant Eastern White Pines that were here when Europeans arrived are gone, and there’s no way to know their height. But the largest one in modern times is the Boogerman Pine in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Prior to damage from Hurricane Opal in 1995, it was 207 feet tall, but it remains the tallest at 189 feet. https://www.monumentaltrees.com/en/usa/ Ohio’s Champion, located in Athens County, has a height of 167 feet, a crown width of 49 feet, and a trunk diameter of 3.1 feet. https://ohiodnr.gov/discover-and-learn/safety-conservation/about-ODNR/forestry/champion-trees. Pinus strobus is native to the northeastern United States, including northeastern Ohio, and parts of Canada, but it’s been widely planted elsewhere, even England where it’s known as the Weymouth Pine.
According to the Wood Database, Eastern White Pine has a Janka Hardness of 350 pound-feet (lbf) and a dry density of 0.40 g/cc.
https://www.wood-database.com/eastern-white-pine/ For comparison, Black Walnut has the median hardness in my list of 68 Ohio trees of 1,010 lbf, and a density of 0.61 g/cc.
Harder woods are often preferred for furniture, but the white pines are perfectly suited to building construction because the wood is hard enough to support structures and soft enough to take nails and screws without piloting (pre-drilling holes). P. strobus lumber has little resistance to abrasion and wear, but these are unimportant for structural members which are generally not exposed. White pines, including Eastern White Pine, are also widely used for paper pulp. Pinus strobus isn’t generally the first choice for fine furniture, but its low cost, ease of working with hand or power tools, and its ability to take a finish make it a good choice for many applications. It has relatively low durability, i.e., rot resistance, so it’s not commonly used outdoors. Like other conifers, Eastern White Pine burns quickly and is not well-regarded as firewood, but its sap helps it burn green, making it usable with little or no aging.
Because early woodworkers didn’t have the luxury of power tools, they appreciated Eastern White Pine’s workability and large board widths. A great example of their understanding of wood properties can be seen in the construction of Windsor chairs. The legs were made of hard maple, because it’s strong and turns smoothly on a lathe. The backs were made of oak or hickory, because they’re strong and bend well. But the seats were made of pine or Tuliptree. Neither is particularly strong, so seats were made from thick slabs that could be deeply carved to conform to the user’s bottom. Additionally, repeated use drove the hard legs of maple into the tapered holes of the Pine or Tuliptree seats, which tightened the joints with time. Pine’s softness could be a drawback, but it was a virtue in the hands of a woodworker who understood the properties of various woods and used them to their best advantage.
Most of the large trees in England had been harvested by the late 17th century, and few were suitable for ship masts. Subsequently, laws were passed in the American colonies to reserve Eastern White Pines with a diameter of 24 inches – later 12 inches – for the Crown, and large trees were branded with the broadaxe symbol. The Colonists’ dissatisfaction led to the Pine Tree Riots of 1772 and later the American Revolution. The Eastern White Pine came to symbolize defiance and appeared on our early flags and coins. Eastern White Pine is the State Tree of Maine – The Pine Tree State, and Michigan.
According to the Native American Ethnobotany Database, the Natives used Eastern White Pine in the following ways:
- Abnaki, Algonquin, Iroquois – cold remedy from inner bark
- Cherokee – canoes and buildings from lumber
- Chippewa, Delaware – analgesic from sap or bark
- Iroquois – emetic (to induce vomiting) from decoction of bark
http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=Strobus Early European settlers made a strong tea of Eastern White Pine needles to ward off scurvy, due to its high vitamin C content.
Eastern White Pines are among the most important trees for bird nesting sites. Bald eagles often prefer these trees as they tower above other vegetation. The seeds are eagerly eaten by squirrels and birds, the bark by rabbits and porcupines. Eastern White Pine is an incredibly important tree, and odds are pretty good that you’re reading this article within a building made of it. And if you put up a live Christmas tree, you might even be enjoying its fragrance.
Thanks for the info.! To the author and other commenters, just in case you are interested and don’t already know about it…. There’s a nice event coming up on using downed and salvaged wood…. https://facebook.com/events/s/salvaging-using-wood-from-blow/825556555160855/
Thanks, Maya. I’ve co-led tree ID walks with Scott Felker, who works at Three Creeks Metropark. We’re both amateur woodworkers and take an interest in historical uses of wood. We’ve discussed leading a trip that focuses on it, and when we do, I’ll try to remember to post an announcement in Simply Living. Mort.
Great article. Thank you Mort. I appreciate the historical references to the uses of the wood over time. As a person who’s home is in urban woodland, I especially appreciate the education. Keep up the good work.
Hi Mort. Thank you for putting together this thorough and interesting description of the Eastern White Pine, and for the other trees you have described in earlier months. I really appreciate your work, as I like learning about trees and local flora and fauna.
Thank you, Kevin. I enjoy writing them, and I always learn something in the process.