Eric’s Pet Plant: Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida)
It must be spring – after a string of posts from the greenhouses, our friend Eric over at Yale is moving outdoors again. But he’s still in highlight-the-underdog mode. Today’s pet plant is pretty much the Rodney Dangerfield of conifers.
Granted, Pinus rigida isn’t usually much to look at, but it is singularly resilient, and perhaps fittingly, it does approach genuine beauty just where it’s needed most: at the salty, wind-scoured seaside and on rocky slopes, where it can survive in crumbs of soil too scant for anything else.
Pitch Pine (Pinus Rigida)
by Eric Larson
First, a bit of New Haven news. The past month has brought us several solid snow storms here in coastal Connecticut. Nothing like further south to be sure, but still we had our share of the white stuff.
For us, most of these snows have been dry and fluffy, easily removed from streets and walks, and extremely photogenic. The storm of Friday, February 27, for instance, left every tree a work of art, every seedpod a captured moment. The snow is a good thing for ground water replenishment and also protects the roots of some plants from harmful cold.
If you can stay home and enjoy it, snow is one of nature’s gifts. If you have to move around in it, just go slow. By the way, despite the snow, our first beekeeping workshop as was a roaring success. Stay tuned for news of the next one, sometime in May.
is an odd plant in many ways. Its name seems to imply a relation to baseball, but not the throw to the plate from the mound. It’s one of the sources of pine tar, which was the focus of a famous at-bat by George Brett against the New York Yankees.
For those who are not sports nuts or Kansas City Royals or New York Yankee fans, George Brett hit a go-ahead home run in the late innings of a game at Yankee Stadium in1983. That wily fox, manager of the Yankees Billy Martin had noticed that the pine tar on Brett’s bat exceeded the allowable limits according to an arcane rule in the major league baseball book.
After the umpiring crew inspected the bat, they called George Brett out, his home run nullified and the Yankees winners of the game. One wag noted that, “Brett has become the first player in history to hit a game-losing home run.”
On appeal, the ruling by the crew was overturned, the home run and resultant scores were reinstated and the game was finished at a later date, with Ron Guidry in left field if I remember. The Royals won the game in the end. Not that I’m a sports nut, and please don’t accuse me of being a Yankees fan.
Pitch Pine’s Latin species name, rigida, refers to the stiff branching habit and the way the needles are tensed against gravity. Its genus, Pinus, which needs no translation, has well over a hundred species and many cultivars and varieties. The Pine family, Pinaceae, in turn, has 11 genera and over two hundred twenty species when they all sit down to Thanksgiving dinner. The genus and the family are cosmopolitan, with world-wide distribution.
P. rigida is native to the eastern half of North America, from Georgia to New Brunswick, westward to Ontario and down to Kentucky. This species is a bit odd in that it will grow in an assortment of forbidding conditions: it is one of the few woody plants that will tolerate the sands of the Pine Barrens, the rock crevices of Cadillac Mountain, the peat soils of Cape Cod, the marl of Isle au Haut and the top of Whiteside Mountain in North Carolina.
As one would suspect, its form is variable as well. If soils and conditions permit, it can grow to a hundred feet in the wild; the national champion in New Hampshire tops out at 94 feet. Or it will twist and turn, crab along the ground and mimic a natural bonsai. The poorer and drier the soil, the windier the conditions, the more likely it is that the tree will have some posture issues.
Pitch Pines grow at a medium pace – 6-18 inches/year – as youngsters, slowing as they grow older. Pyramidal in youth, they become, as Michael Dirr puts it, “‘gnarled and more irregular with age,” often with an open and sometimes flat-topped visage. The 3-5 inch needles are held in bundles (called ‘fascicles’ by botanists) of three, and are usually a dark to medium green, although in some difficult sites with poor soil, expect a more yellow-green color.
One aspect of Pitch Pine that we like here is that they bear cones at a young age, often maturing after only twelve years. The smallish cones (2-3 x 1 and 1/2 inches) are produced in whorls of three to five, and stay on the plant for two years.
Although it’s not not a major timber source, pitch pine wood has been used for railroad ties, radio towers (in Germany, at Muehlacker and Ismaning), crates and pallets, and rough construction. Because of the high resin content, it is also a source of pitch, useful not only as a hitter’s aid in baseball, but also for waterproofing ropes, wood, boats and roofs.
Pitch pines are not recommended for your yard or small property. There are many more ornamental pines, to be featured in an upcoming column. We have the species here at the gardens by request from professors in the department of Forestry and Environmental Studies, because we are nothing if not quirky (!) and also because of Tom Siccama, who retired from FES in 2008, after a long and distinguished career.
In his honor we created a small garden of plants native to the (Pitch) Pine Barrens of New Jersey, where he did his graduate field work so many years ago. Our youngest P. rigida is thriving there.
Disclaimer: The opinions and thoughts expressed within these columns are not those of Yale University, Marsh Botanical Gardens, any of our partners or Leslie Land. They are personal reflections on life, plants, humankind and the daily miracles that come my way.