Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus)

Eastern White Pine, North American White Pine, Northern White Pine, Soft Pine, White Pine

Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) is a long-lived evergreen tree native to mixed forests of temperate zones in eastern North America. It is considered one of the tallest trees in its native area. Eastern white pine has a straight-grained lightweight wood, highly valued in construction.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Pinus strobus, commonly called the eastern white pine, northern white pine, white pine, Weymouth pine (British), and soft pine, is a large pine native to eastern North America. It occurs from Newfoundland, Canada, west through the Great Lakes region to southeastern Manitoba and Minnesota, United States, and south along the Appalachian Mountains and upper Piedmont to northernmost Georgia and perhaps very rarely in some of the higher elevations in northeastern Alabama. It is considered rare in Indiana.

The Haudenosaunee maintain the tree as the central symbol of their multinational confederation, calling it the “Tree of Peace”, where the Seneca use the name o’sóä’ and the Kanienʼkehá:ka call it onerahtase’ko:wa. Within the Wabanaki Confederacy, the Mi’kmaq use the term guow to name the tree, both the Wolastoqewiyik and Peskotomuhkatiyik call it kuw or kuwes, and the Abenaki use the term kowa.

It is known as the “Weymouth pine” in the United Kingdom, after Captain George Weymouth of the British Royal Navy, who brought its seeds to England from Maine in 1605.

Like most members of the white pine group, Pinus subgenus Strobus, the leaves (“needles”) are coniferous, occurring in fascicles (bundles) of five, or rarely three or four, with a deciduous sheath. The leaves are flexible, bluish-green, finely serrated, and 5–13 cm (2–5 in) long.

The seed cones are slender, 8–16 cm (3+1⁄4–6+1⁄4 in) long (rarely longer than that) and 4–5 cm (1+1⁄2–2 in) broad when open, and have scales with a rounded apex and slightly reflexed tip, often resinous. The seeds are 4–5 mm (5⁄32–3⁄16 in) long, with a slender 15–20 mm (5⁄8–3⁄4 in) wing, and are dispersed by wind. Cone production peaks every 3 to 5 years.

The branches are spaced about every 18 inches on the trunk with five or six branches appearing like spokes on a wagon wheel. Eastern white pine is self-fertile, but seeds produced this way tend to result in weak, stunted, and malformed seedlings. Mature trees are often 200–250 years old, and some live over 400 years. A tree growing near Syracuse, New York, was dated to 458 years old in the late 1980s and trees in Michigan and Wisconsin were dated to roughly 500 years old.

P. strobus grows about 1 m (3.3 ft) annually between the ages of 15 and 45 years, with slower height increments before and after that age range. The tallest presently living specimens are 50–57.55 m (164 ft 1 in – 188 ft 10 in) tall, as determined by the Native Tree Society (NTS). Prior to their exploitation, it was common for white pines in northern Wisconsin to reach heights of over 61 m (200 ft). Three locations in the Southeastern United States and one site in the Northeastern United States have trees that are 55 m (180 ft) tall.Common height of 80 feet or more.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

This tree does well with at least four hours of direct sunlight each day. But the hotter the climate, the more it appreciates a bit of afternoon shade.

Temperature and Humidity

Eastern white pine doesn’t like very hot climates. This is a tree that prefers cool, humid weather. In the warmer end of its hardiness range, it sometimes struggles.

Watering

For newly planted seedlings or new plants, water once every morning and evening during hot spells in the summer. Do not water midday, as this can cause root burn or strangle. Water plants according to your individual climate and rainfall in other seasons. For mature plants, only water when they are dry, keeping in mind that these plants are drought resistant. 

For indoor potted plants, spray water on the surfaces of the leaves once every morning and evening when it is dry. Be careful not to provide excess water – this hinders air circulation in a pot, leading to the rotting of roots and the withering of branches and leaves.

Soil

Eastern white pine likes an acidic soil that is well-drained. A thick bed of pine needle mulch over the root zone will cool the soil. It can perform poorly in urban environments where pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and ozone are present in the soil.

Fertilizing

The eastern white pine likes fertilizer and should be fertilized frequently, with just a small amount each time, during its growth period. It should be fertilized once a month in late spring, early summer, and fall. A fermented organic fertilizer is most effective for promoting growth.

Generally, do not apply a nitrogen fertilizer, such as urea or human urine, because pine needles already absorb nitrogen from the air, and pine roots are sensitive to nitrogen. You would be best off with a liquid fertilizer, applying this when the soil is dry in the afternoon. Water the plant again after fertilizer application, which will help with root absorption.

Do not use fertilizers that haven’t been fermented, or those with a higher concentration; the former will burn the roots and the latter will lead to the spindling of needles and more root damage, and could even cause the back-flow of sap, leading to water loss and the withering of the plant. No fertilizer should be applied in midsummer, during severe winters, or in the rainy season in the spring.

Generally, plants in gardens should be fertilized twice during the growth periods in spring and fall. Apply an organic fertilizer once before germination in the spring and apply slightly more fertilizer in the fall to promote robust growth. Stop fertilizing after midsummer so as to prevent spindling.

Planting Instructions

Eastern white pine is best planted in early spring. Ideally, use healthy and vigorous seedlings with soil balls, as this can greatly improve the survival rate. In the case of many lateral roots, the deep main root can be cut. Otherwise, the root system should be protected to avoid damage.

plant in a high, dry, well-drained, and well-ventilated place, with loose soil. In low-lying places with accumulated water, or places with sticky soil, try building a platform or changing the soil before planting. The planting pit should be treated with a basal fertilizer before planting. Newly planted large seedlings should be supported to prevent them being blown down by the wind. 

Before planting, excess branches should be pruned off. Protect the plant’s shape from damage as much as possible, as this will help to restore growth at a later stage.

Ideally, plant indoor potted plants in the spring, and repot every two or three years in the late fall or early spring. Repotting too frequently will lead to the death of the plant. If the plant is growing weakly, find out the cause of this and change the flowerpot soil, or replant in a larger pot.

Cut back on water before repotting, so as to keep the soil slightly dry. Remove the soil ball from the pot, keeping it whole, and then prune away any old roots from the bottom and sides. Remove some of the old soil from the middle of the soil ball, replace with new soil, apply a small amount of basal fertilizer, and then cover the plant with new soil. Ensure a suitable pot size – a deep pot will easily accumulate water, leading to root rot.

Pruning

For an indoor potted plant, any dead, diseased or damaged branches should be removed. You can then adjust the tree’s shape by pruning branches, pinching buds, and trimming leaves, giving you a better ornamental effect. Prune the plant before all of its needles fall off, so as to obtain a compact shape, richer lateral and side branches, and a better form overall. Pruning should be done during the dormancy period, so as to prevent excess loss of sap and damage to the plant’s vigor.

For a plant in a garden, dense lateral branches should be pruned so as to improve the survival rate. Remove excess lateral branches during the vigorous growth period based on needs, focusing on encouraging the trunk to grow tall and straight. Cut off any diseased or dead branches right away, so as to prevent the spread of pathogens.

Propagation

This tree is fairly easy to propagate from seeds.

  • Take large, mature cones that are allowed to fully dry out. Once a cone is dry and brittle, shake out the seeds.
  • Plant them about 1/4 inch deep in moist soil in a shady spot. Make sure to mark the location well so you won’t accidentally weed them out or mow them down.
  • Keep the soil moist, watering in the absence of rain. Germination and initial growth will take some time, but small trees are then easily transplanted to other locations.
  • Once the trees reach small sapling size, growth becomes quite swift.

Pests and Diseases

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

Unfortunately, eastern white pine is susceptible to many pests and diseases. A variety of blight and rust diseases are possible, one of which—white pine blister rust—often kills the trees. Make sure this disease is not common in your area before planting an eastern white pine.

White pine weevils can attack this tree, especially when it’s still under 20 feet tall. Symptoms of the pest feeding on the tree include a curled, dead, or dying terminal leader, and shiny resin oozing from the small holes that the weevils chew into the bark in the spring.1 The leader should be removed promptly to interrupt the pest’s life cycle. The application of pesticides can be difficult with large trees.

Common Problems 

A common problem with eastern white pine is that homeowners fail, at planting time, to take into account mature size. As a result, the tree quickly outstrips the space allotted to it and impinges on other plants, fences, decks, your house, etc. If you like the foliage of eastern white pine but are not sure that you have enough room for it in your yard, an alternative is to prune it regularly to keep this massive specimen as more of a shrub rather than as a tree.

FAQ

III. Uses and Benefits 

  • Timber framing

Eastern white pine has often been used for timber frames, and is available in large sizes. Eastern white pine timbers are not particularly strong, so timbers increase in size to handle loads applied. This species accepts stains better than most, but it has little rot resistance, so should be used only in dry conditions.

  • Characteristics

Freshly cut eastern white pine is yellowish white or a pale straw color, but pine wood which has aged many years tends to darken to a deep, rich, golden tan. Occasionally, one can find light brown pine boards with unusual yellowish-golden or reddish-brown hues. This is the famous “pumpkin pine”. Slow growing pines in old-growth forests are thought to accumulate colored products in the heartwood, but genetic factors and soil conditions may also play a role in rich color development.

This wood is also favored by patternmakers for its easy working.

  • Ecology

Cottontail, snowshoe rabbits, porcupines, can eat the bark. Red squirrels can eat the cones by extracting the seeds. Seeds are eaten by crossbills, pine siskin, and white tailed deer.

  • Foods and medicines

Eastern white pine needles exceed the amount of vitamin C of lemons and oranges and make an excellent herbal tea. The cambium is edible. It is also a source of resveratrol. Linnaeus noted in the 18th century that cattle and pigs fed pine bark bread grew well, but he personally did not like the taste. Caterpillars of Lusk’s pinemoth (Coloradia luski) have been found to feed only on P. strobus.

Pine tar is produced by slowly burning pine roots, branches, or small trunks in a partially smothered flame. Pine tar mixed with beer can be used to remove tapeworms (flatworms) or nematodes (roundworms). Pine tar mixed with sulfur is useful to treat dandruff, and marketed in present-day products. Pine tar can also be processed to make turpentine.

Native American traditional uses

The name “Adirondack”, an Iroquois word that means tree-eater, referred to their neighbors (more commonly known as the Algonquians) who collected the inner bark of P. strobus, Picea rubens, and others during times of winter starvation. The white, soft inner bark (cambial layer) was carefully separated from the hard, dark brown bark and dried. When pounded, this product can be used as flour or added to stretch other starchy products.

The young staminate cones were stewed by the Ojibwe Indians with meat, and were said to be sweet and not pitchy. In addition, the seeds are sweet and nutritious, but not as tasty as those of some of the western nut pines.

Pine resin (sap) has been used by various tribes to waterproof baskets, pails, and boats. The Chippewa also used pine resin to successfully treat infections and even gangrenous wounds, because pine resin apparently has a number of quite efficient antimicrobials. Generally, a wet pulp from the inner bark, or pine tar mixed with beeswax or butter was applied to wounds and used as a salve to prevent infection.

Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) Details

Common name Eastern White Pine, North American White Pine, Northern White Pine, Soft Pine, White Pine
Botanical name Pinus strobus
Plant type Native Plant
Hardiness zone 3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b
Growth rate Fast
Harvest time Fall
Height 50 ft. 0 in. - 80 ft. 0 in.
Width 50 ft. 0 in. - 80 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition High Organic Matter
Flower color Gold/Yellow
Leaf color Blue