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White pines. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

THE WHITE PINE TREES AROUND THE HOUSE sure get scruffy this time of year. This is a normal phenomenon and is called seasonal needle loss or fall needle drop. In the spring a tuft of new needles forms on branch tips. Toward the fall and winter, the oldest needles, about 2-3 years old, turn brown and are shed. So, if you are wondering about the health of your pine trees this may explain a recent change. It seems to be occurring early this year and may be related to our unusually cool, wet weather.

Eastern white pines, or Pinus Strobus, are beautiful trees and have been referred to as the “monarchs of the forest.” If you have visited Saratoga Springs think of the Avenue of the Pines, which is a landmark site on the way to the Gideon Putnam Hotel. The trees there are mature and tall, exhibiting their usual height of 50-80 feet or more, and spread of 20-40 feet wide. They grow fast (over 25” per year) and do well in sunny locations under a variety of conditions. They make good windbreaks and evergreen fillers for many spaces.

I located my house between several old white pines for these reasons and because they attract many birds. Woodpeckers and chickadees, pine warblers and others are drawn to them. In winter, the soft needles and old woodpecker holes make great shelter, and the rich seeds are enjoyed by wildlife as well as birds. In Columbia County there are nice examples of white pines anywhere, including many in the Cedar Park Cemetery in the City of Hudson.

It is hard to believe, but back in colonial times there were white pines that reached a height of 250 feet and had trunks 6 feet in diameter. These very tall trees were perfect for ships masts, and as their numbers decreased, the English Navy got Parliament to make a law in 1691 that reserved all these large trees as property of the English government. This was the beginning of the “broad arrow” acts, named for the axe mark placed on these trees. Colonists resented the crown confiscating all the best trees, and this, along with that famous Boston Tea Party, contributed to the start of the American Revolution. The first flag of the revolutionary forces had a white pine emblem on it.

White pine has other uses, particularly as lumber for houses, knotty pine paneling, flooring, and furniture. The wood is light in weight and has fewer tendencies to warp or check than some other woods. Since it is softer than woods like oak, it is easily marred when used as flooring. But then, these wear marks add to the floor’s character.

The six tribes (the Cayuga, the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Seneca, and the Tuscarora) of the Iroquois League of Nations called it the Tree of Peace. In the early 1800s the warring tribes decided they had had enough fighting and agreed to bury their weapons under a giant white pine tree. Native Americans revered these trees and used them for many things. They ate the inner bark of white pine for food during the winter and made a drink of steeped pine needles that contained high levels of vitamin C which prevented scurvy. The name “Adirondack” is an Iroquois word which means tree-eater.

Being around these magnificent trees is peaceful. When the needles are sun warmed on a hot summer day, they give off a wonderful scent and offer cooling shade. When fall arrives and there are piles of soft brown needles all around, they silence footfall. The pines will look much better in time for Christmas, and many will be harvested as one of our favorite Christmas trees. The lovely evergreen needles will brighten winter, and against the snow, give us hope for spring.

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