The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 18, 2009


Pitch Pine

I live in a small house. There is not much room for a Christmas tree and I like large ones. I have solved the problem by choosing one of my favorite trees in town and adopting it as my virtual Christmas tree. It is the tall Pitch Pine on Church Street alongside the children’s playground and near the intersection with School Street. I was concerned about this tree a year ago in the ice storm and again last week when we had the heavy wet snow. It survived largely unscathed.

Pitch Pine is the only tree in the north with needles in bundles of three; the Eastern White Pine has bundles of five and the Red Pine has two. (Photo by Kay Fairweather)

Name: The Pitch Pine is Pinus rigida where rigida refers to the rigidity or stiffness of the needles and the cone scales. The early settlers called the tree torch pine and its wood candlewood – more on that later. Despite the Pitch Pine’s common name and its history as a source of resin, the name Pinus resinosa belongs to the less resinous Red Pine.

Distinguishing characteristics: The Pitch Pine is easily distinguished from other pines in our area. The needles are bundled in groups of three. No other pine in the north has this arrangement. Eastern White Pine has five needles per bundle and the Red Pine has two. From a distance, the Pitch Pine would probably never be mistaken for the Eastern White Pine which has a more blue-green color. It could be mistaken for a Red Pine. Up close, you can rule out the Red Pine not only on the basis of the needle count, but also by looking at the cones. Pitch Pine cones have a sharp spine on each of the scales. On the Greenough Land, where there is a Red Pine plantation, there are also Pitch Pines. So this is a good place to look at the two trees almost side by side and learn the differences in the bark. The Red Pine bark has thin, flaky layers like phyllo pastry while the Pitch Pine bark is thicker and tougher – more like the pastry that I make.

Use: Pine wood in general is rather soft but Pitch Pine wood is harder than that of most other pines. Where a cubic foot of dry White Pine weighs around 25 pounds, a cubic foot of dry Pitch Pine weighs 35 pounds. The density and the high resin content enables it to resist decay quite well so the wood has been used for house sills, mill wheels, boats and buckets. According to Charles Fergus, “Between 1799 and 1801, the city of Philadelphia laid 45 miles of bored-out pitch pine logs as underground water pipes.” Early settlers in the U.S. would use long slivers of Pitch Pine heartwood to light their way from house to barn. It would last as long as a flashlight with almost dead batteries. For longer life flashlights, they made torches by lighting a knot which they had attached to a pole of hickory wood. (Pitch Pine knots, which develop where a branch comes out from the trunk, are exceptionally hard.) The settlers also distilled tar and turpentine from the knots. Pitch Pine tar was reputed to be the “best axle grease to be had” for your wagon. This was before the development of naval stores in southern states where there was large- scale production of resin-based products from Longleaf and Slash Pines.

Adaptation for fire: Pitch Pines have many arrows in their fire-adaptation quiver. A mature tree has bark about two inches thick at the base. This is enough to protect it in a fast moving crown fire. Also, it has dormant needle buds in the trunk and branches so if it loses all its needles in a fire, it can quickly generate new ones. Sometimes, without impetus from a fire, you will see needles sprouting directly from the trunk. Unique among the New England pines, the Pitch Pine is capable of sprouting from the root collar (where the root and trunk join) after fire or logging. And there’s still more. Pitch Pines produce two kinds of cones, some “normal” and others with the scales tightly sealed, with resin keeping the enclosed seeds viable for many years. Heat strong enough to kill the tree will melt the resin and allow the cone to release its seeds and the fire-scoured ground is an ideal habitat for the seedlings. Pitch Pine is the least shade-tolerant pine (in the east) and without fires clearing the hardwoods, they become shaded and while they can struggle on, the seedlings won’t sprout.

Gifts and adornments: “My” tree on Church Street is not judgemental but, given its stature, it can’t help but look down on the gussied up Christmas tree on the Town Common. This tree is au naturel and comes with its own gifts. Pitch Pine cones (the normal ones) open in winter and drop their seeds making gifts for squirrels and birds. Tiny caterpillars among the needles – even in the winter – become food for the Golden-crowned Kinglet. On Christmas Eve, it is quite likely you will find a car or two under my tree, but unless they have nice gift wrapping and say, “Love from Kay,” it would be best to leave them there.

Sources: Trees of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada, William M. Harlow; Trees of New England, Charles Fergus; Audubon Field Guide to North American Trees - Eastern Region, Elbert L. Little; Tree Identification Book, George W. D. Symonds.

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