PART 4 – THE 2-NEEDLE PINES OF AMERICA
In this series of blogs we are taking a deeper look at our native pine trees, both in the wild and in our gardens. In the first part we looked at how to identify pine trees, and then we looked at our native 5-needle pines, and the 3-needle pines. To finish this series we will examine the 2-needle pines, and a couple that can be 2 or 3-needle, depending on which side of the bed they got out of.
Our most northerly pine, and therefore the most hardy, Jack Pine will grow in zone 2 and in invaluable for gardeners in the coldest parts of the country. Named after the famous botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who explored Labrador and Newfoundland in 1766 while a young man, Pinus banksiana can perhaps be seen as the northern equivalent of the Pitch Pine. It typically grows on poor soils, throughout eastern Canada, around the Great Lakes and in Pennsylvania. Because of the poor growing conditions it tends to be a twisted, irregular shrub-like tree, but it does have the potential to grow over 30 feet, and even reach 70 feet, in better conditions.
The needles are short, just 1 to 1½ inches long, twisted, and of course in pairs. The cones are small too, just 2-inches long, and they are unusual for staying on the tree for many years. They only open when exposed to fire – more than 120 degrees is needed, and also in intense cold, when the thermometer drops to minus 50. This creates a crop of new trees only when they could be needed – after fire or deep cold has killed or damaged the existing trees.
This tree is attractive in a garden when you want a rugged, wild look, or when planting on very poor soil – and of course in zones 2, 3 and 4. It makes a good screen or part of a windbreak.
Also very cold-hardy – to zone 3 – the Red Pine, Pinus resinosa, is found growing in eastern Canada and from Minnesota to Maine, through our north-eastern states. It was once the most important timber tree of that region, and it can grow to 120 feet with a broad trunk up to 5 feet across. the bark is a bright red-brown, especially in the upper branches, and divided into rectangular plates. The needles are more or less straight, 5 to 7 inches long, and the snap easily, rather than bending. Cones are almost spherical, red-brown, and 1½ to 2½ inches long.
The state tree of Minnesota, there it is often called ‘Norway Pine’, because Norwegian loggers came over to cut them for lumber. It isn’t widely grown in gardens, but would be attractive and useful in exposed sites, where it has exceptional tolerance of high winds.
Growing over a large part of the southeast (and obviously very common in Virginia), Pinus virginiana is an attractive tree that often has a lot of character. More wide-spreading and irregular than many, it tends to have a broad, pyramidal crown when young, becoming more twisted and picturesque with age. It grows from New York state to the northern parts of the Carolinas, away from coastal areas, in scrub on poorer, sandy soils, although it does grow better in richer soil. Trees are often small, between 20 and 60 feet, although in ideal conditions it can grow taller. The trunk is often thick, giving this tree a lot of character.
The short, often twisted needles are 1½ to 3 inches long are yellow-green, and unlike many pines, which drop their needles in two years, these persist for 3 or 4. This gives the branches a denser look, despite the short length of the needles.
You can see that among the 2-needle pines, Jack Pine has the shortest needles, in Virginia Pine they are longer, and they are longest of all in Red Pine, so separating these species is pretty easy.
Cones are 1½ to 3 inches long, shaped like a long egg, and red-brown. They sit almost directly on the stems, and remain attached for up to 5 years.
Virginia Pine is hardy to zone 5 or 6, and makes an attractive garden tree, with a rugged character – easily increased with some creative pruning – and good drought resistance combined with the ability to grow on poor soil in dry conditions, once established. A pine that should be planted more often.
AMERICAN PINES WITH VARIABLE 2 OR 3 NEEDLES IN EACH CLUSTER
These pines are not too sure – sometimes you will see 2 needles in each cluster, and sometimes 3, so we are grouping them together here.
Found only in the hottest parts of the country, Pinus elliottii, is one of our fastest-growing pines. Adding 3 feet a year is nothing to it, and in some years you can expect 4 feet. Native to Florida and southern parts of adjacent states, it is often planted outside that range, even though it is only hardy to zone 8, and cannot take much frost. It is a tall, slender tree that can reach 100 feet, often with a long stretch of clean trunk, as it is prone to dropping lower branches – like many pines. The needles are in clusters of 2 or 3, and are 6 to 8 inches long. They are slightly twisted, and yellow-green to blue-green. Cones are 3½ to 7 inches long, egg-shaped, and carried on a stalk. They are light brown, similar to the color of milk chocolate.
Given how low-lying much of Florida is, it won’t come as a surprise that this tree is happy in wet soils, but it does need water-flow, and won’t grow in stagnant wet ground. It grows in both clays and sands, but prefers acidic soil. Because it is so fast-growing, it is used for lumber, and also for gardens, where a tree will be 30 feet tall within 10 years. It throws light shade, so it’s a great choice for creating the slightly reduced lighting so many plants enjoy in the hottest parts of the country.
Growing in the east, from New York to northern Florida, and west into Texas, the Shortleaf Pine, Pinus echinata is valued for its timber. Mostly growing straight, trees can also be more crooked, and reach between 60 and 100 feet, with a relatively narrow trunk, no more than 3 feet across. The bark is red-brown and scaly, and the needles are typically in pairs, but can also be in threes. They are 3 to 4½ inches long, and usually straight. The small cones can be single or in clusters, and tend to stay on the tree. They are small, just 1½ to 2½ inches long, and have no stalk, or only a very short one. Young cones are red-brown, and older ones are gray.
A fire-tolerant species, it grows both in exposed, rocky places, and in wet, low-lying areas, but is rarely seen in garden settings.
And So. . .
This brings to an end our tour of America’s fascinating collection of native pine trees. So many of the plants in our gardens are not native that planting more of our own pines – instead of always choosing Austrian pine or Scots pine – is a great way to bring more diversity into your garden, and to help, in a very small way, to preserve our native plants.
I also hope that now, when out walking, you will be able to identify some of the pines you come across, and enrich your experience of the natural world around us.