Thursday, March 17, 2016

Trees: White Pine Bears Important Fruit

eastern white pineThe old saw “money doesn’t grow on trees” will remain valid unless bartering ever becomes the norm, in which case fruit and nut growers will be awash in tree-grown currency. Figuring exchange rates would be quite a headache, I imagine. Our eastern white pine isn’t considered a crop-bearing tree and it certainly doesn’t sprout cash, but it has borne priceless ‘fruit’ all the same.

The tallest trees this side of the Rockies, white pines of up to 230 feet were recorded by early loggers. The current US champion stands at 188 feet tall, and in New York State we have several over 150 feet. In terms of identification, white pine makes it easy. It’s the only native pine out east that bears needles in bundles of five, one for each letter in ‘white.’ (To be clear, the letters are not actually written on the needles.) It produces attractive, six-inch long cones with resin-tipped scales, perfect for fire starting and for wreaths and other holiday decorations (might want to keep those away from open flames).

White pine is renowned for its exceptionally wide and clear (knot-free), light-colored lumber used for flooring, paneling and sheathing as well as for structural members. New England was built on white pine, and in some old homes, original pine floorboards twenty or more inches wide can still be found. Impressive as its premium lumber is, white pine’s most precious gift is invisible. And hopefully indivisible.

About a thousand years ago here in the northeast, five nation-states decided they spent too much energy disputing borders and resources, and devised a system of governance to resolve inter-state issues, leaving each nation-state otherwise autonomous. It’s said that white pine, with its five needles joined at the base, helped inspire the original five member nations (a sixth was added in 1722) to form the new federal structure, and white pine remains a symbol of this confederacy, the Iroquois. The tree was, and is, depicted with a bald eagle, five arrows clenched in its talons to symbolize strength in unity, perched at its top.

The Iroquois confederacy comprises fifty elected chiefs who sit in two legislative groups, with a single elected head of state. Historically, only women could vote. Women also had the sole power to impeach a leader not acting in the public’s best interest, and could quash any legislation they deemed rash or short-sighted. A chief was expected to be able to recite the Iroquois constitution from memory, a feat which is still practiced today on some reserves, and takes nine full days to complete.

Jefferson, Franklin, Monroe, Madison and Adams wrote of their admiration of the Iroquois confederacy. Franklin and Madison were particularly enthusiastic about it, and exhorted the thirteen colonies to adopt a similarly structured union. During the drafting of the US Constitution, Iroquois leaders were invited to attend as advisers.

Among the earliest Revolutionary flags was a series of Pine Tree Flags, and the white pine remains on Vermont’s state flag. The eagle, though removed from its pine perch, has always sat on US currency, holding in its talons a bundle of thirteen arrows symbolizing strength in unity, or E Pluribus Unum. I suppose in a metaphoric sense, our money did grow on a tree.

Photo of Eastern White Pine courtesy of DEC.

Related Stories

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

9 Responses

  1. Jim S. says:

    I have hugged the champion and several of its 170 foot neighbors, what an impressive tree the whites are! Easy to spot the whites from a distance because they usually tower over all others.

  2. Char says:

    Pascal Warren’s tree on Hoffman. (A relation to me) Hope that plaque is up this year.

  3. Charlie S says:

    “In height, diameter and quality of timber the pines of New York compared favorably with those of any other region on the continent. Generally they attained a height ranging from 130 to 160 feet, with a diameter, breast high, that varied from two to four feet.. In some localities there were individuals of still greater size. So far as can be determined now, the maximum height was reached at about 255 feet, and the maximum diameter at about 80 inches. There is a record of a white pine which was cut in the town of Meredith that measured 247 feet in length as it lay on the ground. There are many New York lumbermen living to-day whose reminiscences include stories of giant pines that measured 7 feet or more across the stump and over 220 feet in height.”

    William F. Fox ‘History Of The Lumber Industry In The State Of New York’ 1901

  4. Cranberry Bill says:

    Well, Mr. Paul Hetzler, you have spectacularly atoned up for your March 7 omission. I always look forward to your omissions. However, they are few and far between. Thank-you so much for contributing to the AA.

  5. Eagleye says:

    Nice article Paul.
    Just imagine how our country might be changed (for the better?) if only women could vote and if women could get rid of leaders not leading in the publics best interest! I don’t see many women fighting at Trump rally’s.

    • Cranberry Bill says:

      Well, now, Mr or Mrs Eagle Eye, if only women could vote, I would become a woman to cast my vote against Trump. And if White Pines could vote, they would join us. This nation and political system is still young and can be destroyed by the people it elects. But since when did this become a political site. John Warren should delete this comment.

  6. S. McNulty says:

    Nice article! For multi-media presentations and more information on “The Tree that Built America,” including the socio-economic and ecological values of white pine in the Adirondacks, see SUNY ESF’s Adirondack Ecological Center website:

  7. Ted Sharples says:

    Can you tell me why our Eastern pines are yielding so much pitch this year? Cones too! Never seen anything like it! Can’t walk the grounds or park my cars anywhere near the trees. Thanks

  8. Ted,
    The cones are a distress crop triggered by last year’s drought. As to the pitch, it may be related to the cone production, but I cannot be sure. If you are seeing pitch emanating right from the trunk or branches, that would be an extremely bad sign…