Pitch Pine

Every year I think, “I should do some posts about the conifers. It would be fitting for the season…” And then I get caught up in the chaos of the season and suddenly it’s spring and… well… you can see the dilemma. I can’t promise to write about all 12 species that can be found on the Audubon property this season… but let’s start with one: The Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida).

Pitch Pine

There’s only one on the property that I’m aware of, and that is in the Arboretum – just to the right – inside the main entrance off the parking lot. All the trees in the Aboretum are native to New York or Pennsylvania, though not necessarily to our part of New York… The U.S. Forest Service range map below shows a couple of spots nearby where it might be found growing wild, but most native stands are south or east of us.

Native Range of Pitch Pine

The Peterson Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs describes the Pitch Pine as “usually low, irregular, scraggly.” Needles can be 1.5 – 5 inches long and are arranged in clusters of three. It’s the only pine tree on our property with needles in clusters of three. Cones are 1 – 3 inches long, stout and the scales have sharp thorns.

It is unlikely you would use a Pitch Pine as a Christmas tree. The tree does have its uses, however. According the US Forest Service account, “Pitch Pine was an important tree during the days of wooden ships and iron men. Its coarse-grained wood is only moderately strong but contains a comparatively large amount of resin. Consequently, the wood resists decay, which makes it particularly useful for ship building.” (source)

In surfing the internet for more interesting tidbits, I came across this little anecdote at the Wood Magazine site:

The Pine Barrens did not represent valuable land back then. Just the opposite — the soil was boggy and sandy, as it remains to this day. But the land did support a thick forest of pine trees. And in the damp, soggy ground one could find iron ore.

To early Americans, that combination of pitch pine (Pinus rigida) and iron ore was heaven sent. That’s because iron ore was transformed into iron by melting it to remove impurities, a process called smelting, and the fuel of choice was wood charcoal rather than the mined coal of later times. The resinous pitch pine — its sappy, hard-to-work wood seldom desired — proved perfect as a source of charcoal. (source)

That was so interesting, I wanted to know more, so I began searching for “pitch pine and iron ore”… which led me to a book I never knew about:  The Natural History of North American Trees by Donald Culross Peattie.  I immediately ordered a copy of the 2007 release – an abridged version of the original 2-volume set that came out in the 1950s… which I would also like to find!  Since ordering it, I have found that you can also buy a Western Trees version and a Central and Eastern Trees version…  Can’t wait for my copy to arrive!

It was just supposed to be a simple little post saying that needles are in bundles of three and the cones are stout with sharp thorns…  And look what happened…  Oh the dangers of the internet…

Learn More:

11 thoughts on “Pitch Pine

  1. I have a 1950 copy of Peattie’s “A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North Amerca” and am constantly referencing it. It’s a delightful read and full of good stuff. Imagine my suruprise, and dismay, a few years back to be reading Rebecca Rupp’s “Red Oaks and Black Birches” and finding it sounded awful familiar. I grabbed Peattie’s book and read his passage about the same tree – she had copied it verbatim for her own book!!! Plagarism! And I don’t think anyone’s ever called her on it, either. I have refused to read her stuff ever since. Anyway, I’m sure you will enjoy Peattie’s book – it’s well worth the price of admission, so to speak. 🙂

  2. That’s happened to me on a regular basis, too, a simple post (or search for something) ends up turning into considerably more. It looks like an intriguing book.

    Interestingly, Dan stumbled across a small patch of Pitch Pine in Frontenac Prov Park while he was doing his bird surveys this summer. It was growing out in some very remote pine/rock barrens, which had no trails, and so was rarely if ever visited. It turned out to be the first record of the species for the park, even though the trees had clearly been there for quite some time.

  3. A couple more interesting things about Pitch Pine: Many cones won’t open and disburse their seeds unless they are scorched by fire. Also, the trunks of the tree often have many sprouts growing out of the bark, so if the crown is destroyed by fire, the lower shoots on the trunk can start growing ahead of the competition. Obviously, this tree has evolved to cope with forest fires.

    Nice post. Enjoy your new book.

  4. I too use Peattie’s books (esp Natural History of Western Trees) for reference, but not for copying verbatim! Glad you found it on alibris; I’ve been collecting lots of bargains there…

    Thanks for the pitch pine story.

  5. Thank’s for your blog.We live on long Island and during one of our nature walks I’ve become mesmerized by this species.The rugged beauty and it’s rarity inspired me to investigate further.
    We found a cone and planted the seeds at home in Nov/09 and now we have 2″ babies growing in a cup.I know I’ll be and old man when this becomes a tree but my 10 year old son is involved now so I guess it will become a family tree.

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