Pinus stobus – the scientific name of our native White Pine has a pleasing lilt. In pre-colonial days this majestic tree grew across large portions of Eastern North America, reigning as the tallest tree in the forest. It was reputed to have reached heights of 230 feet, but we’ll probably never be able to verify that. Why? Because only 1% of those original pines remain standing, the rest felled for timber. The tallest white pines today measure between 160 and 189 feet.
White pines were known as “mast pines” because of their value to the sailing ship industry. Agents of the British king marked the best of our pines for use as masts by the Royal Navy. Colonists were forbidden to cut down the trees. In New Hampshire, colonists’ discontent resulted in the Pine Tree Riot; mill owners caught with the King’s trees assaulted and ran his sheriff out of the village.
It can be difficult to tell one type of evergreen from another. The secret is to look at the leaves – the needles. The white pine is a good place to start: like all pines, its needles grow in little bundles. White pine has 5 needles per bundle, 2-5 inches long and rather soft. If an evergreen twig has individual needles it is not a pine. Pull off a single needle and feel it. Spruce needles have four sides, which you can feel if you roll it between your fingers. Fir needles are flat.
White pine cones are 2-5 inches long and slender. Beneath each scale sits a little seed with a filmy wing that catches the air to carry it away from the parent tree.
Just as we have invasive species that are native to other lands, our natives can become a nuisance outside of their ranges. White pines have naturalized in Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Our pines got there just as many alien species have arrived on our shores: brought deliberately by well-meaning gardeners and landscapers.