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White Pine

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White Pine

White Pine (Pinus strobus)

The white pines are the gentle giants of the northeastern conifers. Their needles are long and soft instead of aggressively sharp or stiff like other pines, and they can grow one hundred feet tall or more. The white pine is the Maine state tree, and the pine cone and tassel is our state flower.

The living room in our 180-year-old farmhouse is paneled with the original “pumpkin pine” boards taken from the loft floor when the house was remodeled. Pumpkin pine is the deep orange heartwood of old growth pine trees. The boards over our fireplace mantel are just under twenty-four inches wide.

In American colonial days, all good trees two feet or more in diameter on land not previously granted to a private individual were reserved for masts for His Majesty’s Royal Navy. A fine of £100 was levied against anyone who cut a tree marked with the King’s “broad arrow.” So boards in Mainer’s homes were never, ever more than twenty-four inches wide, even if they came from a larger tree. They were carefully trimmed to remove any possibility of incriminating evidence!

The fine blue-green needles of the white pine are grouped in bundles of five. The cones are four to eight inches long and take two years to mature. The tips of the woody cone-scales are often crusted with sticky, aromatic resin. When I was drawing the pinecones in my study book, my hands were sticky and pine-fragrant from handling them.

A white pine grows taller as the main leader at the top of the tree grows. The branches are arranged below that in whorls of five to nine branches each. A couple of weeks ago, a medium-size pine near the back of our yard broke off in a windstorm. The breaking place, about fifteen feet above the ground, was at the point where the leader had been killed and one of the lateral branches below it had become the new trunk. This made a slight kink in the trunk and a weak place in the tree.

Forks in white pine trunks are usually caused by the white pine weevil. Unfortunately for the lumber industry, this reduces the value of the timber considerably. Since this little critter likes pine trees in warm, dry, sunny places best, pines in open fields are particularly susceptible. The weevil lives on the terminal leader of the tree, and lays its eggs there. The grubs that hatch feed on the inner bark of the leader. This effectively girdles the topmost shoot of the tree and kills it. The great old white pine at the edge of our meadow shows the mark of its battle with this tiny marauder, for the trunk forks about halfway up its height.

White pines are inextricably bound with Maine’s history. They have formed a major part in many industries here over the years. Because its soft, light wood does not warp or crack as easily as other trees, it has found its way into buildings, cabinets, furniture, boxes, and patterns as well as the masts of royal ships.

Why are there trees I never walk under
But large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?
(Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass)