Wednesday, March 25, 2020

White Pine Perils

The tallest trees this side of the Rockies, our eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) is one of the most – if not the most – economically and culturally important species in the Northeast.

Though the current US champion is a North Carolina giant measuring 189 feet tall, early loggers recorded white pines of up to 230 feet.

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.

The cathedral-like quality of a stand of mature white pines tends to inspire an appreciation of nature, if not a deep sense of awe and reverence. 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. Its attractive, six-inch long cones with resin-tipped scales are perfect for fire-starting, and for wreaths and other holiday decorations.

Impressive as its material attributes are, white pine has given us less tangible, but more precious, gifts. With its five needles joined at the base, the white pine is said to have helped inspire five Native nation-states to lay down their arms a thousand years ago, and join together in a novel democratic confederation called the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois. With its fifty elected chiefs, two houses deliberations, and system of checks and balances, this complex and enduring structure is believed to have inspired the 1754 Albany Plan of Union, a precursor of the US Constitution.

Jefferson, Franklin, Monroe, Madison and Adams wrote of their admiration of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Franklin and Madison were particularly enthusiastic about it, and exhorted the thirteen colonies to adopt a similarly structured union. Among the earliest Revolutionary flags was a series of Pine Tree Flags, and the eagle, though removed from its pine perch, has always sat on US currency.

The Haudenosaunee still depict the white pine, referred to as the tree of peace, with a bald eagle at its top. The eagle is there to watch for enemies such as greed and short-sightedness. In its talons, a bundle of five arrows are clenched to symbolize strength in unity. It is no coincidence that modern women’s rights began in Seneca Falls, NY in the figurative shade of the white pine. Early suffragists like Matilda Jocelyn Gage wrote of their utter amazement that in Haudenosaunee villages, women were treated with equal respect as were men, and that most violence against women was not tolerated.

With so many reasons to love white pines, I was distraught when white pines began to show signs of distress in many parts of their range. Starting around 2009, needles began to turn yellow and drop early, and new growth was stunted. At first these symptoms were restricted to sites with shallow or poor soil, and along highway corridors where trees were already stressed by deicing salt, which burns foliage as well as roots. The droughts of 2012 and 2016, unprecedented in terms of low soil moisture, set pines back even further. By 2018, even some pines on rich sites were looking sickly.

As with many newly found disorders, this decline, dubbed white pine needle disease (WPND), is not fully understood. What is known is that a host of fungal pathogens are involved. Four diseases which affect needles have been isolated, though typically only two or three are present in any given case. Even more confusing is that a handful of other needle pathogens have been documented, but each is limited to specific areas. A root pathogen has been identified, and another that infects trunk tissue appears to be spread by a scale insect.

In the past, a sudden decline of a tree species was usually the result of a non-native pest or pathogen like Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight, or the emerald ash borer. The odd thing about WPND, aside from the fact that between six and ten organisms may be at work, is that all of them are native to the affected area. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) has identified one which may have originated outside North America, but this has not been confirmed.

The UMass Extension Landscape, Nursery and Urban Forestry website explains that “The lack of a non-native pathogen or insect leads researchers to investigate the role of environmental conditions, which have been altered by a changing climate. An increase in temperature and precipitation from May through July has helped to fuel the WPND epidemic. The issues facing eastern white pine will continue, but management options do exist to help improve health and vigor of white pines.”

In home landscapes, the Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory suggests “Mulching around white pines and watering deeply once a week during hot spells is recommended. A fertilization program should also be established, and soil pH maintained between 5.2 and 5.6. Correct any micronutrient deficiencies (such as iron), and mitigate soil compaction with a variety of aeration procedures.” White pines will not be happy for long on clay soils, or those with a pH above 7.0. Also, be sure to plant all pines out of range of road-salt spray, and give them ample room.

Forest managers can help by thinning white pine stands. Early evidence suggests that a light application of nitrogen may also help. For more information, contact an ISA-Certified Arborist, a NYSDEC Forester, private Consulting Forester, or your local Extension office. More in-depth reading can be found online. White pine has done so much for us. Let’s do what we can for this venerable tree.

Photo of eastern white pine courtesy DEC.

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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. John says:

    Paul, as a forester, I appreciate your articles related to the forest. You are reaching far more people than I could, keeping forest health and management issues on the forefront.

  2. Vanessa says:

    Oh no! I absolutely love white pines. Is this a big issue in the Adirondacks? If so what parts?

    • Boreas says:

      Hopefully not in my immediate area! I have about a dozen 80-120 foot trees around my house. But the needles “seem” normal. They appear to be about as healthy as any old white pine. They are always a risk, but a beautiful one. Now I have one more thing to worry about. I don’t know if I can afford to remove the biggest ones!

  3. Charlie S says:

    There are records of some enormous white pines in this state. Jared Van Wagenen mentions a white pine in one of his two books, (‘The Golden Age of Homespun’ I believe it was) that was at least 250 feet tall after it was felled by an axe (or axes.) This was in New York State. Unless I read that in ‘The History of the Lumber Industry in the State of New York’ by Fox. I’m getting forgetful as I age! Nonetheless there were, and still are, some big white pines in the Adirondacks, old growth. Barbara McMartin mentions them in her book ‘The Great Forest of the Adirondacks.’

  4. J. Smith says:

    I’ve lost mature white pines in Jay due to one or more diseases or pests. Remaining standing trees have also shown symptoms. There is quite a bit of information about white pine afflictions including WPND on the web. Google search for “MP764: Field Manual for Managing Eastern White Pine Health in New England.” It contains good photos and descriptions to diagnose health problems. Also see These are just two of many sources available on the web.

    If you are like me and trying to save individual trees on your property it is possible to attempt to treat them. The UMass factsheet linked to above mentions fertilizer to support trees with WPND. To fight certain insect infestations there are documents like the ones above that speak of systemic insecticide treatments. First do a careful diagnoses of the problem including examining any fresh fallen growth for signs of insect damage. Note that a single tree may be suffering from more than one problem. When you are certain of a diagnosis contact the local extension for advice and send them good photos. Also search the web for specific treatments that you might consider trying at your own risk.

    • Boreas says:

      J. Smith,

      Thanks for the links. Maybe if I can keep just one pine from falling on my head or house, it will be helpful!

  5. Walker says:

    Paul — Thanks for the very informative article. We’ve noticed increasing numbers of scale insects on the smooth bark of young white pines in our wood lot, over the past few years. I hope they aren’t the vectors of WPND in our area. When you have chance I would be interested in your analysis of red pine decline.

  6. Orson Phelps II says:

    My mother once used to bake a cake out of white pine needles, she would dice them up and place them cake batter. When we complained that the cake didn’t taste nice she would tie us up, place molasses on our knees and hang us out for the bears. If we were lucky the bear only licked off the molasses but my poor brother aint got no kneecaps anymore. Good time, longing for that ADK childhood!

  7. Julian Shepherd says:

    Paul, Thanks for a very interesting article, forwarded to me by Alan Jones. I have magnificent specimens soaring above a fairly old-growth oak forest behind my home in the City of Binghamton. I have long had an ecological question about white pines: why do they often favor fairly sandy or poorer hillside soils (well-drained), but then also do well on mounds in swamps, along with red maples and (formerly!) black ash. I probably could research this myself but haven’t taken the time. If you have any insight, I would love to hear that.

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