The Tree of Great Peace

Sunset through white pine, by Cheryl Platt (Creative Commons Attribution licence)

The Iroquois called it the “Tree of Great Peace.” Its cluster of five needles to a bundle represented the five nations of the Iroquois and its spreading roots, reaching east, north, west, and south were the roots of peace that extended to all peoples.

We call this tree, more prosaically, eastern white pine — Pinus strobus — meaning “gum-yielding pine tree,” and “white” referring to its light-colored wood.  It’s also been called sapling, pumpkin, soft, northern, and Weymouth pine, the latter name a tribute to Thomas Viscount Weymouth who, in 1605, had eastern white pine planted on his Longleat estate in England.

And what a tree it was then, providing towering, straight ships’ masts for the British Navy.

“Much of Pennsylvania… — so it has been asserted — was one vast White Pine forest,” Donald Culross Peattie wrote in his comprehensive A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America.  Loggers sent tremendous rafts of eastern white pine down both the Delaware and Allegheny rivers.  Those trees cut in the 1760s in northeastern Pennsylvania produced 120-foot-long logs four feet or more in diameter for British ships.  As colonists pushed westward, often in pursuit of eastern white pine, the longest haul of rafted logs in the nation began in pine forests 200 miles north of Pittsburgh and arrived 2000 miles later in New Orleans.

old-growth white pine in Pennsylvania's Delaware State Forest
Old-growth white pine in Pennsylvania's Delaware State Forest, by Nicholas T (Creative Commons Attribution licence)

Eastern white pine, Peattie wrote, was “the most generally useful wood our country has ever possessed.” Covered bridges, homes, flooring, furniture, and shingles were made of eastern white pine.  Arguments, some lethal, over who had the right to cut and sell eastern white pine trees, often erupted between the British and their colonial subjects before and even during the Revolutionary War.  In fact, disputed ownership of these profitable trees was one of the reasons for the war.

Native Americans had different uses for eastern white pines. The Iroquois mixed the white resin that seeps out of tree wounds with beeswax to seal canoe seams and waterproof their baskets.  Several tribes, especially the Algonquians, used the inner bark or cambium of the trees, which could be dried and pounded into a flour-like substance, as emergency food.  For this reason, the Iroquois called the Algonquians “Adirondack,” meaning “tree-eater.”  The Ojibwa stewed young, first-year cones with meat to sweeten it, and the Chippewa treated gangrenous wounds with the tree’s sap.  All the tribes enjoyed the white pine’s tasty, nutritious seeds.

Ranging from Newfoundland to Manitoba in Canada, south through the northern states from Maine to Pennsylvania and on through the Appalachians to Georgia, and west to Iowa, eastern white pine is the largest native pine species east of the Rocky Mountains.  Logging operations, moving ever south and westward, decimated the great pine forests over the centuries.  Although in 1875 Pennsylvania led our nation in wood production, which was mostly eastern white pine, by 1900 that tree was depleted.  Of course, the almost legendary eastern white pines, those that once soared straight and as high as 80 feet to the first branch, had long been gone.

Today, only a very few of the old groves are left.  Heart’s Content in the Allegheny National Forest has one eastern white pine tree that is 167 feet high and 4 feet 2 inches in diameter.  But Cook Forest State Park hosts the 183.6 foot-tall Longfellow Pine, which was climbed and measured by tape drop by the Eastern Native Tree Society, which is “devoted to the celebration of trees and to the accurate measurement and documentation of tall, historical, significant trees and forests,” according to their website.

New growth on a white pine, by scarlatti2004 (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence)

The park also contains 110 eastern white pines that are 150 feet tall — the largest collection of such trees in the northeastern United States.

Once the deciduous trees drop their leaves, the scattering of eastern white pines in our forest is more noticeable.  Several loom above even the tallest of our deciduous trees, and when January snow covers their soft, flexible, bluish-green needles, they are arguably the loveliest trees on our mountain.  The 4- to 7-inch-long drooping cones they produce, their thin, rounded scales festive with resin-frosted tips, make ideal Christmas tree and wreath decorations.  Our three sons, when they were young, even tried to improve them with paint before hanging them on our tree.

A mature eastern white pine — and we have several along our road and trails — produces from 200 to 300 cones a year, but it takes two years for a cone to develop.  Both male and female flowers grow on the same tree, the bright pinkish-purple female flowers at the top of the tree while the yellow, oval, male flowers are lower down at the base of the season’s new growth of needles.  When the male flowers release their pollen in May in Pennsylvania, the wind carries it in all directions. Peattie claimed that “When the male flowers bloomed in these illimitable pineries, thousands of miles of forest aisle were swept with the golden smoke of this reckless fertility, and great storms of pollen were swept from the primeval shores far out to sea and to the superstitious sailor seemed to be ‘raining brimstone’ on the deck.”

Maturing green cone of a white pine, by Eric in SF (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence)

At first, the cones are green and tightly closed, but during their second season, they ripen to a light chestnut-brown and open to release their ¼ inch-long, winged, wind-dispersed seeds.  The seeds travel 200 feet within a stand of trees but more than 700 feet in the open.  White-footed mice and red-backed voles also grow new trees by burying their caches of seeds beneath leaf litter but on top of the kind of mineral soil that encourages the seeds to sprout.

Eastern white pine sprouts well after a fire or logging, but it will also sprout in shade, although it will only thrive and grow if there is a break in the canopy.  A seedling grows slowly at first, taking as long as ten years before reaching five feet in height.  But then it speeds up, and a 30-year-old tree can be 60 feet tall with a two-foot diameter trunk.  I’ve been watching a seedling tree grow inside our three-acre, deer exclosure and another that we fenced in our front yard. The former is six years old and only two-and-a-half feet tall.  The front yard tree is 14-years-old and 11-feet tall.

We would have many more eastern white pine trees if it weren’t for the deer.  Our son Dave planted 50 seedlings from the Game Commission a decade ago, and all were browsed to the ground by whitetails.  Porcupines, squirrels, and snowshoe hares eat eastern white pine bark.  Mice, voles, chipmunks, squirrels, and a bevy of songbirds — nuthatches, chickadees, pine siskins, grosbeaks, and crossbills — relish their seeds.  Red squirrels, for instance, can strip 45 seeds from a cone in two minutes.  They also use white pine branch crotches as pantries, according to Charles Fergus, who wrote in his excellent book Trees of Pennsylvania and the Northeast, “I have watched red squirrels carry mushrooms — the red-and-white fruiting bodies of Russula emetica — into white pines and hang them in branch crotches for storing.”

Osprey nest in white pines, Umbagog Lake, NH, by Shannon and Christine Fournier (Creative Commons BY-NC licence)

Many bird species nest in eastern white pine.  I recall trying to see a crow’s nest high in the dense branches of our largest white pine years ago and early last spring I watched from my backyard as crows gathered twigs which they carried to an eastern white pine tree halfway up Laurel Ridge. Another year I frequently flushed a great horned owl from an eastern white pine tree that still had a few feet to grow before it topped the tallest deciduous trees.  Other owl species, hawks, common ravens, blue jays, flycatchers, grosbeaks, finches, warblers, and mourning doves also use them to raise their young.

White pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola), which came from European nursery stock, was a major killer of eastern white pines until it was discovered that the fungus spent part of its life cycle on gooseberry or currant shrubs.  Once those shrubs were kept a quarter mile away from eastern white pines, the fungus could not harm them.  When we lived in rural Maine back in the mid-1960s, I remember that it was against the law to plant currant and gooseberry shrubs anywhere.

The white pine weevil (Pissodes strobe), a native species, only attacks pines growing in full sunlight, and lay their eggs in growing buds where its larvae eat and kill the leading shoot.  But the tree survives because its side buds develop, although it won’t be a perfect, pagoda-shaped tree.

Eastern white pine doesn’t tolerate air pollution, heat, drought or salt.  But once it is 60 feet high and has rough bark on its lower trunk, it can survive low- and even moderate-severity fires.

Harvest moon over white pines, by : rebecca : (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence)

Lying beneath a large eastern white pine is sheer bliss.  Because it sheds half its needles every fall, they provide a soft covering over the hard ground.  It is there I listen to the wind soughing in the pines and am perfectly content.  Unlike my boys, I never felt compelled to climb the ladder-like limbs of an eastern white pine, but each boy seemed to grow in stature, at least in his own eyes, once he surveyed his world from his lofty perch.

In Maine and Michigan, eastern white pine is the state tree.  Ontario honors it as its provincial tree.  Now that our state tree — eastern hemlock — is being destroyed by another foreign invader, the hemlock woolly adelgid, I propose that we consider changing our state tree to the eastern white pine. It is, after all, an important part of Pennsylvania’s natural and historical history.

Click on photos to go to their pages on Flickr and view larger sizes.



9 responses to “The Tree of Great Peace”

  1. Jeff Avatar

    Fantastic post.

    I stumbled across your website about a year ago while searching for information on Golden Eagles, and really enjoyed the articles I found. I’m still trying to find my way into avian research as a graduate student, but my route there hasn’t exactly been ‘as the crow flies’.

    As I often do, I bookmarked your website in hopes that I would eventually return to it and read some more of your writing; I’m glad that I’ve discovered it again, here on the first day of a new year, and to find such a nice post on a tree that has had much the same significance to the corner of Ontario where I grew up– the Bruce Peninsula.

    Thanks very much– I look forward to returning more frequently this year!



  2. Marcia Bonta Avatar

    I’m glad you enjoyed my piece. Thanks for your kind comments and good luck on that ornithological career.

  3. bill; Avatar

    What a nice piece of writing. Thank you for all you said about this magnificent tree. As a child I used to climb 80 feet or more into mature white pines; it would make my mother frantic as the tall tree blew in the wind with me clinging to its branches. I have been watching a white pine grow in a field of mine for the past 8 years. It grew to about 4 feet in years 1-6, and in the last 2 years has pushed itself to about 12 feet tall. It started its growth spurt after a great ice storm toppled nearby trees at the edge of the field allowing more day light to reach the sapling.

    Nice photos, my favorite was the new growth. Thank you very much for writing this.

  4. Marcia Bonta Avatar

    Thanks, Bill. I can understand how your mother felt. Luckily, my boys told me after the fact.

  5. Jennifer Schlick Avatar

    Such lovely writing!

    I, too, love the white pine… but I love the Eastern Hemlock, too. If you succeed in changing your state tree to White Pine, can we New Yorkers have the hemlock? Pretty please.

  6. Marcia Bonta Avatar

    Actually, I love the eastern hemlock best, but it is breaking my heard to see them dying slowly from the woolly adelgids. Don’t you have them in New York? If not, I’m sure you soon will. I hoped and hoped that they wouldn’t reach our isolated hollow, but they did. Truly devastating.

  7. Jacqueline Avatar

    Lovely post. This species of trees has so many uses & seems to create perfect habitat for a huge variety of wildlife. I hope they get sensible & preserve what’s left. Thanks. I learnt a lot from you article. The photos are great too.

  8. Marcia Bonta Avatar

    Thanks, Jacqueline. I only wish we had more of them here. But we are working on getting our deer population under control, which should give the white pine seedlings a chance to take off.

  9. steve Avatar

    Thanks Marcia for your post on Eastern White Pines.

    I’m searching for a possible answer/solution as to what might be killing some of my mature (60 ft. plus) white pines here in Yarmouth, Maine. 4 have died over the past 3 years….but I have 8 remaining large trees which I would like to protect.

    Any suggestions?

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