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Find Pine Trees: Pining for Pines

Pining for Pines by J. Zimmerman, Ph.D.

As autumn approaches, lots of trees are showing large cones. Are these pine trees? What kinds? And what are the tallest, fastest, and rarest?

What is a Pine Tree?

A pine tree is an evergreen with long, slender ("needle-shaped") evergreen leaves, called "pine needles." It's in the genus Pinus. Let's look at:

Pines of California -- Hard and Soft

California's pines are "soft" and "hard" pines.

Soft pines have these features:

Hard pines have these features:

Soft Pines of California

These soft pines grow in California.

(great basin) bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva),
Needles in bundles of 5; 1.5" long; remain on the tree over 12 years. Cones to 3" long; cone scales "bristle" with long, stiff, incurved prickles at the tips of the cone scales.
An alpine tree, growing at 10,000 to 11,500 feet, especially near the summits of the White and Inyo Mountains, in challenging climate with a short growing season. Grows slowly; may reach 20 to 60 feet tall, and up to 2 feet diameter.

foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana),
Needles in bundles of 5; 1.5" long; remain on the branches for a decade, giving a bushy ("foxtail") appearance. Cones 3" to 5" long; scales tipped with small curved prickles.
Grows at high elevations in poor rocky soil. Two major populations exist, separated by 300 miles. The southern population grows in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, in the Sierra Nevada, 9000 to 11,300 feet; often windblown and contorted. The northern populations are in the Klamath ranges, at 6000 to 8000 feet; often erect to 50 feet tall.

limber pine (Pinus flexilis).
Needles in bundles of 5. Large cylindrical cones to 8" long. A small, short-limbed, twisted tree that grows at high elevations. The flexible (flexilis) wood is adapted to cope with snow and ice.
Grows from 8000 feet to treeline (up to 11,500 feet). Often windblown and contorted; in shelter reaches 50 feet tall.

nut pine or parry pinyon (Pinus quadrifolia).
Needles in bundles of 4 (sometimes 5 or 3) are bright green, stout and stiff. Dull yellow-brown egg-shaped 2" cones.
Grows in dry, gravelly slopes of foothills and mountains, and on alluvial fans. Found from 3000 to 9500 feet.

singleleaf pinyon pine (Pinus monophylla).
Bears 1.5" needles singly. Round, resinous cones 2" long. Large seeds.
Grows to 40 feet tall in well-drained (rocky or gravelly) dry soils. Grows between 3000 to 9500 feet. Found on the east slope of the Sierra Nevada, and south and west along the Techachapi Mountains and western Transverse Ranges.

sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana).
Needles in bundles of 5, usually twisted, with thin white lines. The longest cone of any American conifer, the mature cone is usually 16" long, but can reach 26". Reaches 200 feet tall (the tallest American pine) and 5 feet in diameter.
Common in Sierra Nevada. Found in Klamath Ranges, near sea level. Found to 9800 feet in the San Gabriel Mountains.

western white pine (Pinus monticola).
Needles in bundles of 5; to 5"; soft and flexible. Skinny cones to 8" long, typically, though sometimes to 15"; on a half-inch stalk. Botanist David Douglas first identified western white pine on Mount St. Helen's; monticola means "inhabiting mountains."
In Sierra Nevada from 7500 to 10,000 feet. Found in the Klamath Range, sometimes as low as 400 feet.

whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis).
Needles in bundles of 5; 1" to 2.5" long; bluish-green. Almost spherical cones, to 2.5" long; mature cones disintegrate on the tree (unlike cones of other pines). In reference to the white bark noticeable on young trees, albicaulis means the "pine with white stems."
An alpine tree that grows at 10,000 feet or higher in California. Can grow to 60 feet tall, 2 feet diameter; but stunted on exposed and rocky terrain.

Hard Pines of California

These hard pines grow in California.

bishop pine (Pinus muricata).
Needles in bundles of 2; up to 6" long. Cones egg-shaped, up to 4 inches long, with strongly prickled scales. Different varieties in north and south; foliage is bluer in northern California variety, greener in the south.
Grows within about 12 miles of the Pacific shore, in mild, foggy areas, including bluffs and headlands.

Coulter (or "big cone") pine (Pinus coulteri).
Needles in bundles of 3; thick, rigid, deep blue-green; 8" to 12" or 14" long. Shiny, stiff, sharp-tipped.
Cones very large and very heavy, between 8 and 12 inches long, to 6" diameter on a long stalk.
Bark very dark brown. Furrowed, separated by wide scaly ridges.
Occurs in dry foothills (2500-7000 feet) and the coastal mountains of southern California between 3000 and 6000 feet (from Mt. Diablo and the Santa Lucia Mountains to the San Bernardino, San Jacinto, and Cuyamaca Mountains).

gray (or "foothill" or "Digger") pine (Pinus sabiniana).
Needles: in bundles of 3; stiff gray-green, 9". Sometimes droopy.
Cones: Oval, 5-8" long. Sharply pointed tips: "nasty" hooklike spurs. Seeds eaten by native Californians.
Bark: Gray.
To 50 feet high, 2 feet diameter. Trunk slender and often forked or branched. Usually in open woodland rather than forest. Whispy crown.
Common in Sierra foothills. Primarily in the coastal mountains of southern California between 3000 and 6000 feet. Found from Mt. Diablo and Santa Lucia Mountains in the north to San Bernardino, San Jacinto, and Cuyamaca Mountains in the south.

Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi).
Needles in bundles of 3; 5" to 10" long. Large and elongate cones, 5" to 15".
Cones: to 10" long. A long, reflexed spine terminates each cone scale; smooth to touch because the prickles on the cones curve inward so they are not felt on the surface.
Bark Bark in large scaly plates. Vanilla or pineapple scent in the deep narrow fissures in the dark reddish-brown bark.
Compared to ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa):
  1. More tolerant to cold and more resistant to drought, so more common than ponderosa pine at higher altitudes;
  2. More fragrant.

Matures at 80 to 150 feet.
A montane species that grows on dry, exposed slopes up to 7000 feet.

knobcone pine (Pinus attenuata).
Needles: Stiff needles in bundles of 3; 4" to 5" long; pale yellow-green.
Cones: 3" to 6" long. Clusters of 3-5. Remain sealed; most widely-spread closed-cone pine. New cones are green, yellow, brown. Older cones are grayish. Distinctive, knobby, oblique cones bent at the apex; cones occur in whorls on the branches; cones so persistent that some get overgrown by the wood of the tree.
Bark: Trunk with major limbs bristles with cones.
To 30 feet high; some can reach 100 feet; open crown.
Grows on dry, rocky, or other poor montane soils like serpentine outcrops from 1000 feet to 4000 feet.

lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta).
Needles in bundles of 2; 1" to 3" long; stiff, dark green, often twisted ("contorted") in a spiral with sharp points. Cones 1" to 2" long; seed scales tipped with sharp prickles. A straight, tall, and slender tree, to 80 feet tall, 3 feet diameter.
A very adaptable tree that can grow in many environments, from watery bogs to dry sandy soils. One of the first trees to invade after a wildfire. From 6000 to 9000 feet in moist sites. To 11,000 feet on drier sites. Found throughout the Sierra Nevada.

Monterey pine (Pinus radiata).
Needles: in bundles of 3 (rarely in bundles of 2), flexible, bright blue-green or grass-green.
Cones: Oval, 3-7" long, with light-brown rounded scales. Branches retain cones in many whorls or circles. Closed, but open and close frequently with changes in humidity.
Bark: brown to grey-black.
To 100 feet tall, to 3 feet diameter, dense crown.
Found in three rare small California mainland locations and two off-shore islands; but widely planted in New Zealand, Australia, and Chile. Prefers humid and foggy coastal areas, from sea level to 1000 feet in the Santa Lucia Range. Up to 2100 feet on Cedros Island.

ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa).
A.k.a. Sierra or (western) yellow pine.
Needles: Needles in bundles of 3 (rarely some bundles of 2 also occur); 5" to 10" long, in tufts toward the ends of branches; dark yellowish-green.
Cones: Oval cones to 3" to 6" long. Prickly.
Bark: Yellow to reddish-brown. Sheds thin flakes.
To 180 or 200 feet tall, 4 feet diameter, of "ponderous" size; grows a broad, open crown. Its long, deep root lets it access deep moisture, and prevents wind-throw. Can live to 500 years.
Fire suppression has removed the view that John Muir saw of 200-feet-plus trees in separate park-like stands.
Found at 7000 to 8000 feet in southern California, and at 5000 to 6500 in northern California. Dominates mid-elevation Sierra Nevada.

Torrey pine (Pinus torreyana).
Torrey Pine is unique: the only hard pine with 5 needles per bundle. Egg-shaped cones to 5" long. A 40-foot tree.
Natural occurrence is now limited to two dry, sandy coastal regions of southern California (coastal San Diego County and Santa Rosa Island off the coast).

Similar trees: When is a pine not a pine?

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When is a pine not a pine? When it's:

  1. Not in the Pine genus, Pinus.
  2. Even if it's in the Pine family, Pinaceae.

Such "non-pine" Pinaceae members include:

Book Choice: Ronald M. Lanner's Conifers of California

Resources - Related pages.

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