Nature Notebook: Pine

Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus): Sketches of tree shapes, pine cone, bundle of needles

Pine is the classic conifer, and where I live, the mighty towering Easter White Pine is king!

Pine Identification

Pines are evergreen conifers, meaning they have cones and they stay green all year round.

There are dozens of pine species in North America, but here in the Northeast we have 3 main ones:

  • Eastern White Pines are found all over the eastern half of the continent. This is the most common pine where I live in Boston, in both urban and forest environments. They are a canopy tree reaching up to 100 ft tall! Because they can grow in very little light, they are common in dense forests. They have grayish, furrowed bark.
  • Red Pines are only a bit shorter (up to 80 ft tall), and have scaly, peeling, reddish-colored bark and branch tips that point upward.
  • Pitch Pines are usually a lot shorter and often have a gnarled, twisted overall appearance because they grow in harsh, exposed conditions such as windswept shores.

Branch Growth

Like other conifers, pine branches grow in whorls.

The top spike is the “leader.” Each year, there’s a new leader, and a new layer of branches grows out vertically from its base. In a young tree, you can count the tree’s age by counting the number of leader sections, or levels of branches. (Older trees may have lost branches below so it’s not as reliable. Plus, it’s hard to get high enough up to count them!)

The young pine’s branches grow in distinct layers. 2017 in Franklin Park, Boston.

Needles

Pines have thin, flexible, needles that are round (you can roll them in your fingers, like an actual needle).

Pine needles grow from the branch in clusters called fascicles. Different species’ needles grow in clusters of different amounts:

  • Eastern White Pine needles come in bunches of 5 and are 2-4″ inches long.
  • Red Pine needles come in bunches of 2. The needles can be quite long, 4-6″.
  • Pitch Pine needles come in bunches of 3, and split the difference size-wise at 3-5″.

Eastern White Pine needles grow in bunches of 5. April 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Cones

Conifers are monoecious, meaning the same tree can creates both seed (“female”) cones and pollen (“male”) cones. They look quite different from each other. Seed cones are what you think of when you think of pine cones, and the kind you find on the ground. They have a stiff, woody case to protect the seeds, and they can last for years. Pollen cones are smaller, soft and spongy, and grow in bunches at the end of the bough for just a few weeks in the spring or summer, around the time that other types of trees would be flowering. To me, they kind of look like baby corns.

Pollen cones grow in little clusters at the ends of Eastern White Pine branches. May 2019.

Here are some Cone Comparisons (usingseed cones since you’re more likely to see them):

  • Eastern White Pine seed cones are 6″ long, the perfect size for making a bird feeder with peanut butter.
  • Red Pine seed cones are squat ovals just 1-2″ long. This is the pine that inspired my partner and I to sing “I want a pine with a short cone and a loooooong needle.”
  • Pitch Pine seed cones are 2-3″ and have prickles at the ends of the scales.

Painting Tips

Notice how the needles point up!

Faraway shot of pine and deciduous trees from across a pond
Notice the upward-pointing needles and boughts in the stand of Eastern White Pines on the left. Winter 2021 in Walden Pond.

Branches tend to grow out of the tree straight out or in an upward direction, Older trees tend to lose branches on the lower levels, so that their trunks can grow quite tall before you see any needles on the upper layers.

Lower branches may be stubby and/or needleless. Most branches stick straight out from the tree. 2021 at Rocky Woods Reservation in Medfield, Massachusetts.

Old dry needles turn a bright burnt orange/burnt sienna color. The ground beneath a pine forest is usually deep with old needles.

The ground beneath a pine tree is often a carpet of orange needles. September 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Eastern White Pine needles growing from spindly twigs; some needles are green and some are orange and dry, ready to fall off. September 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

All the art and photos in this post are by me, Billy Idyll. Please ask permission to reproduce.

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