Tree of the Month, December 2023

Eastern White Pine, White Pine

Pinus strobus

by Martin (Mort) Schmidt

for Simply Living

Eastern White Pines at Three Creeks Metro Park, Franklin County, Ohio. Photo by Mort Schmidt.

Eastern White Pine has long been one of the most important softwoods of the eastern United States. In colonial times, after most of the old trees in Europe had been harvested, America’s straight, tall White Pines were essential to the Royal Navy for use as ship masts, and trees over two feet in diameter were reserved for use by the king. Eastern White Pine is still a critical source of wood for lumber and paper pulp. 

Many people believe that the terms “pine” and “conifer” are synonymous. But pines are just one type of conifer. The genus Pinus includes conifers with relatively long, slender leaves attached to the tree in groups of 2, 3, or 5. The needles are held together at their base by a sheath known as a “fascicle”. For comparison, Arborvitae (‘Eastern White Cedar”, which is actually a cypress) has flattened, scale-like leaves. Spruces and firs have slender, needle-like leaves, attached to the tree individually. 

White Pine needles are 2 to 5 inches long, and occur in groups of 5. According to the Conifer Database, Pinus strobus is the only five-needled pine east of the Rockies. Pine branches are whorled, which means that multiple branches emerge from the tree at the same height. Trees with opposite branches are similar, but only two branches sprout from the same place on the trunk or limb, and trees with alternate branches have only limb at each point. Each set of whorled branches on a pine tree represents one year’s growth. 

Alternate, opposite, and whorled branch patterns. Drawing and photo by Mort Schmidt. 

Eastern White Pine bark is brown to gray, and scaly to somewhat furrowed. The seed cones are 4 to 8 inches long, and narrow, with hard scales.  

Eastern White Pine needles, bark, and cone. Photos by Mort Schmidt.

Pinus strobus is the largest northeastern conifer, typically reaching a height of 100 feet, and formerly reaching heights of 150 feet or more. Ohio’s champion, located in Athens County, has a height of 116 feet, a trunk diameter of 13.9 feet, and a crown width of 49 feet. The tallest known Eastern White Pine is the Boogerman Pine located in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with a height of 189 feet, according to the Monumental Trees website. (It was 207 feet tall until it was damaged by Hurricane Opal in 1995). The hardwood Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) is the only northeastern tree of similar height. 

Eastern White Pine thrives in sandy, well-drained soils, which may be why it’s present in eastern Ohio, but less common in the western part, which is underlain by limestone and dolomite bedrock. White Pine’s usefulness led to its being widely planted hundreds of years ago, and whether or not it’s truly native to Ohio or naturalized is debated. 

Range map of Pinus strobus. Image from U.S. Geological Survey

Pinus strobus lumber has a Janka hardness of 380 lbf and a density of 0.35 g/cc, according to the Wood Database, compared to the median of my list of 73 Ohio trees of 1,075 lbf and 0.64 g/cc. Today, Eastern White Pine is regarded as too soft for flooring, but it was widely used for that purpose until the mid-1800s. But it’s stable, easy to work with, holds nails and screws well, and is available in large sizes, making it perfectly suited for construction. Its softness limits its use for furniture, but the availability of wide boards is advantageous for building chests and boxes. At one time, trees were so large that a woodworker could build a blanket chest from a single board, with no need to edge-join narrow pieces to make wider boards. White Pine has low rot-resistance and is generally not used outdoors. Eastern White Pine is also a favorite Christmas tree, because it requires little maintenance while growing, and it holds its needles well after cutting. 

Many woodworkers prefer using harder woods, such as oak, with the idea that the finished project will last longer. But the early settlers lacked power tools, so they used no harder wood than needed. A case in point is the traditional Windsor chair. The legs were usually made of hard maple, because it’s strong and it turns smoothly on a lathe. The back was made of oak or hickory, because they’re strong and straight-grained, making them easy to split into slender spindles, and bent into backs and arms. But the seats were made of Eastern White Pine or Tulip Tree, because their softness allowed workers to scoop out thick slabs to fit the user’s contours. 

Not surprisingly, the Native American Ethnobotany Database lists numerous uses for Eastern White Pine, including lodges and canoes. The Natives also extracted pitch from the bark and cones for waterproofing. White Pine extracts were widely used for medicine, especially for respiratory and dermatological problems. Extracts from bark or knots were used to induce vomiting. 

According to the Bates Canopy website, “Numerous species of songbirds and small mammals feed on white pine seeds, while snowshoe hares and various deer graze on the needles. The bark, roots, and seedlings are food for pocket gophers”. 

Clockwise from top. – Vermont state flag, broad arrow symbol, pine tree shilling, Drawing by Mort Schmidt. Pine tree shilling and state flag images courtesy of Wikipedia, public domain. 

Eastern White Pine played a huge role in the early history of the United States. England, and much of Europe, had been depleted of old, large trees. White Pine’s immense size, lack of knots, and low weight, made it perfect for ship masts. The British even built special ships to haul tree trunks back to England for ship-building. Trees of more than 2 feet in diameter were marked with the so-called “broad arrow” symbol, made with three strikes of the ax, indicating that they belonged to the king. Many colonists rebelled and used the trees for their own purposes. Others confounded the officials by cutting bogus broad arrows symbols onto other trees. White Pine became a symbol of resistance and was used on a number of colonial flags, and on one of America’s earliest coins, the pine tree shilling. The Eastern White Pine still dominates the state flag of Vermont. Captain George Weymouth of the Royal Navy carried Eastern White Pine seeds to England with the hope of growing “mast pines”. The trees did not thrive, but they became naturalized in parts of Europe and are known as “Weymouth Pine”. The Eastern White Pine is an essential part of our history, environment, and industry. 

Photo by Mort Schmidt.

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You can also listen to my talks on Ohio Broadleaf Tree Identification on YouTube, Part 1 and Part 2

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