Horticulture Highlight: Pinus strobus

November 30, 2011

Wood is the stiff heart of the living
tree, the corpse left after its death.
We walk through our homes, our external
skeletons made of the bones of trees.
Some wood bends and some breaks….
-Marge Piercy

Perhaps no other tree has played so great a role in the early life and history of the United States as the Eastern white pine. The first European settlers marveled at four-hundred-year-old groves of Pinus strobus reaching 150 feet tall and up to five feet in diameter and its harvesting began almost immediately. Some were recorded with heights up to 220 feet but today few reach half that height and age.

Mount Auburn’s visionary founder, Jacob Bigelow (1787-1879), gave a description in his classic text Florula Bostoniensis that is still instructive, “This noble and very useful tree rises with a straight trunk to uncommon height…. The branches are given off in whorls or circles. The leaves… grow in fascicles of five together, with hardly any sheath. The cones are very long, cylindrical, curved, and pendulous; composed of large, smooth loose scales.” He continued, “No tree is more extensively employed in building or for the ordinary purposes of carpenters’ and joiners’ work. The large trees are particularly in request for the masts of ships, and vast quantities of the wood have been annually exported from the eastern coast in the form of timber and boards.” An example of the latter is found in an account book of the Commissioners of Customs in America for the year 1771 reporting 2.5 million feet of pine exported from North American ports.

Any discussion of the Eastern white pine for its use as ships masts should include the legacy of it once being selected as the so-called “King’s Pine”. As early as 1691 the English monarchy acted to take control of this valuable domestic as well as export resource by including a clause in the revised Massachusetts Bay Charter that reserved them for its naval use. Colonial flouting of this and other succeeding laws restricting harvesting resulted in Parliament in 1729 passing a stronger, more¬† specific law stating “no white pine trees are to be cut without license.” It further reserved for the Royal Navy “All the masts … exceeding twenty-four inches in diameter, all trees that exceed fifty-four feet in length in the stem, all young pine trees that seem promising to grow to masts.” ¬†This law remained in effect until 1775, the beginning of our American Revolution, and helped to stoke hostility between the northern colonies and the crown that later exacerbated over stamp duties, tea taxes and military presence in towns.

It is hard today to imagine our Eastern white pines as objects of national security necessitating external national laws controlling their fate. The famed nineteenth-century landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) in his 1841 The Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening gave a less political and more inspired view along with high praise: “From its pleasing growth and color, we consider it by far the most desirable kind of planting in proximity of buildings…”. Today we more frequently see Pinus strobus as an evergreen backdrop in our landscapes, a lovely shade tree, a perch for the interesting bird we are focusing on through our binoculars or perhaps the muse of poetic couplets such as these by Donald Everett Axin:

Graceful pines perform pirouettes with hemlocks
And look like green pipers parading down the trail …

About the Author: Jim Gorman

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