Sunday, September 9, 2007

White pine

The people of New Hampshire and Maine think we fought the American Revolutionary War over pine trees. Not tea. Not taxation without representation. Pine trees. There is some merit to their opinion. The Pine Tree Riot of 1772 was one of the first acts of rebellion leading to the American Revolution.

Why would anyone riot over white pines, the suburban misfit tree that is always ready to drop a heavy limb, sticky with resin, every time the wind gusts? The trees had enormous monetary value in the 18th century. They were the prize trees of the New England forests.

Forest-grown white pines, unlike their suburban counterparts, have a tall, straight trunk that is largely free of branches until it reaches the canopy. They were the tallest trees in the eastern forests.(1) They were also perfect for making ships' masts: long, straight, light, and strong. England, largely deforested since the 16th century, was desperate for mast wood. The English began using white pine, an American native, almost as soon as that species was discovered.(2) The Crown claimed ownership of all white pines over 12 inches in diameter, including those on private property. Attempts at enforcement of that claim ran counter to a large and important colonial industry and led to the Pine Tree Riot in Weare, New Hampshire in 1772, a year before the Boston Tea Party.

Freed of the Crown's constraints after the Revolution, Americans could harvest white pines freely. By about 1900 the once vast stands of white pines had been levelled, the resource depleted. Ironically, reforestation efforts required importing seedling trees from Europe, which had grown its own white pines from American seeds.(3) The seedlings came with a stowaway, white pine blister rust, a serious pest. White pine blister rust remains an important threat to white pines today.

The most serious threat to white pines in Plainfield's suburban landscape is the wind. White pines are quite susceptible to storm damage and drop limbs in all seasons. Many of Plainfield's white pines are battle-scarred. The Cushing Road pine pictured above has a raggedly torn limb remnant that appears to be about 18 inches in diameter. How to cope with this breakage problem if you are blessed with the presence of a large white pine on your property?(4) You don't have to cut the tree down. The longest branches can be tipped back by an arborist every two to three years. The shortened limbs absorb less wind energy and are much less likely to break. If this sort of pruning is skillfully done, the tree looks quite natural.

(1) A white pine on the site of Dartmouth College was reported to be 240 feet tall. Donald Culross Peattie, A Natural History of North American Trees, Houghton Mifflin 2007, p. 28.

(2) Before they had white pine, the English had had to piece masts together out of Scotch pine. White pine masts could be "single stick" masts. The first English lumber mill in America was built in Maine in 1623. White pine had many uses beyond shipbuilding, and white pine lumbering developed into a large and very profitable industry in New England. White pine lumber paid for sugar, rum, and slaves. For more details see Sam Cox, White Pine Blister Rust, The Story of White Pine, American Revolution, Lumberjacks, and Grizzly Bears,

(3) Sam Cox, cited above.

(4) A clue to distinguishing white pines from other pines likely to be found in this area is the fact that white pine needles are bundled in groups of five.

Copyright Gregory Palermo


Rob said...

Now...a white pine comment that isn't alwasys poplar -- LOL -- popular. Ok..I despise these trees. Really..I am from the Adirondacks and they are like weeds. I guess it's all about perspective. I grew up STARING at these glorified telephone poles with needles and raking the annoying needles etc. Although I can appreciate the economic benefits of a healthy industry based on the forestry of these giants I find them lacking in overall looks. They were fun to climb, but once I had to help clean up after them the luster was gone!! The advantage of moving here is my learning all about all the new trees I have come to love in NJ. AND NOT SO MANY WHITE PINES!! I love a good Ponderosa or Scotch Pine !! Informative as ever and a great read.

Anonymous said...

Come looks at the shade city trees around 1614 west 5th Street by Clinton Ave. Not all trees are equal as to love an care.

Jeff said...

I have 3 white pines that were planted some 40 or 50 years ago as chiristmas trees. They now tower above my house and are too close for comfort. They run along the driveway and my neighbors house. I am planning to have them removed. They are limbed up to about the 3rd floor or so and are perfectly straight, making for good lumber. Does anyone know of a mill, local or otherwise, that would be interested in the wood for lumber and not just mulch? I have a 4th that I will probably remove as well, but it is only 30 or so years old. It is growing near an 80-100 year old oak that is my pride and joy. The pine is starting to lean toward the sun, so it is good for a few more years before I have to worry. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff, Did you ever get those trees removed? How did it go? How much did it cost? I have a similar problem with a 50-60 year old white pine about a foot from my front porch! Thanks! -Liz

Jeff said...

Hi Liz,
I just saw your posting. The trees are still here. I have a friend in the biz who will take them down over winter when they are slower for a fantastic price. I found a place that would use them for lumber, but have not had any response from them. So its looking like I will have a lot of wood chips for the garden.

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