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What is a Pine?

What is a Pine? | Copyright GreenPlantSwap Ltd

Usually when we say “Pine” we mean a Pine tree, and that is a type of evergreen conifer which has long, thin, needle-like leaves.

Most Pines are initially fast-growing, but are surprisingly long-lived, from 100 to 1,000 years: in California there is an individual tree of the species Pinus longaeva (Great Basin bristlecone pine) which is reckoned to be an incredible 4,600 years old.

Despite their ability to grow to a great age, and a great height, most Pines are shallow-rooted, and if you ever find one that has been blown over, you may be amazed at the sight of the “plate” of roots they create around themselves – wide, but not deep.

The botanical name for the Pine is Pinus, which is very easy to remember. Members of this genus are Gymnosperms, which means their seeds are “naked” and are not contained within a fleshy fruit, in the way that pears and apples are. Instead, the naked seeds are stored within hard woody cones, which open when the time is right, to release the seeds.

Scots pine, Pinus sylvestrisThe Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris, is the most commonly planted in the UK and has a bark with a reddish tinge.

Which Pines will we find in the UK?
The most frequently planted Pine is definitely the Scots Pine, Pinus sylvestris, and parts of Scotland are covered in forests made entirely of this one species.

It can often be recognised from a fair distance by the reddish tinge of the bark, which can be seen in the upper levels of the trunk. Interestingly, if you take a single leaf or needle from a Scots Pine, grasp one end in each hand, and pull until it breaks, it does not break cleanly but leaves a small tuft of fibres projecting from the point of the break. This could easily be thought of as a beard – so the combination of “Scots” pine, red bark and a beard makes a great mnemonic: just imagine a red-bearded Scotsman.

The second most popular Pine is probably the Black Pine, a term encompassing the various sub-species of Pinus nigra: our own Plant Finder lists 10 species of Pinus nigra, variously called Austrian pine, Crimean pine and Corsican pine. The most obvious difference between the Black pines and Scots pines is the length of the leaf: Scots pine needles are 2-3” (5-8cm) long, whereas Black pine needles are 3-5” (8-13cm) long.

Black pine, Pinus nigraThe Black pine, Pinus nigra, can be identified by its longer needles (8-13cm), while those on the Scots pine are 5-8cm. Botanically the foliage is a leaf, but we call them needles.
Both of these Pines are found in plantations, for commercial use, but they are also found in parks and large gardens, as well as dotted around in the countryside. Once a small group of Pines establish themselves, a combination of rain shadow, and their propensity to suck all the moisture and nutrients from the soil all around, means that no other tree seedlings will be able to challenge them.

Not all Pines are huge, single-trunked giants: Pinus mugo is a shrubby, multi-stemmed conifer, very popular for ornamental planting, and available in half a dozen or more cultivars, including Pinus mugo 'Wintergold' with golden leaves, Pinus mugo ‘Ophir’ which has green leaves which turn yellow in winter, or there is always Pinus mugo ‘Mops’, with rounded mounds of bright green foliage. All the P. mugo cultivars have one wonderful benefit, which is that you can prune them: if they get too big, just cut off a branch or two, and another one will grow to take its place.

Incredibly, there are currently 65 different species of Pinus in the Plant Finder, which means there is a Pine for every need!

Pinus mugo 'Wintergold'The golden, pyramid-shaped Pinus mugo 'Wintergold'. Less lofty, multi-stemmed and more slow-growing than other species of Pine.

What are Pines used for?
In the garden, there are a few decorative cultivars that can be used to make an evergreen statement, but Pines are usually passed over in favour of [Cupressus](/plant_genera/638-cupressus/plants0, whose foliage is much denser: Pinus are fast-growing, and as they lose their lower branches, they can present a rather bare and dull trunk to the eye-line of the garden visitor.

Pines tend, therefore, to be planted as a cash crop, in plantations, and on reaching maturity they are felled and turned into planks and timber for indoor construction, into lightweight “softwood” furniture, and into pulp for making paper.

They are often planted as windbreaks, so you sometimes find a row of them along a footpath, especially on the top of a ridge: or you might encounter them as a shelter belt at the edge of deciduous woodland. They are often planted in small stands, or groups, in local parks, to give a bit of winter interest.

Both the cones and the needles of Pines are used for making decorative articles: the needles of longer-leaved species are used to weave items such as baskets, trays, and pots, while the cones are very popular for creating a huge variety of craft items.

Cones have even been used, like sea shells, to decorate the “grottoes” found in the grounds of stately homes: Englefield House in Berkshire has a particularly fine example, with walls and roof completely lined in complex patterns of cones.

Several species of Pine, including the Stone Pine (Pinus pinea) produce large quantities of edible nuts: or, should we say, all Pines produce seeds which are edible, but most of them are so small that it is not worth trying to collect them. But the Stone Pine seeds are large and easy to harvest, and have been cultivated since prehistoric times. Each cone takes three years to mature, and they are large, easily 6” long (15cm) and sometimes too large to hold in one hand. They are not the largest Pine cone, though: that distinction goes to Pinus coulteri, the Coulter Pine, whose cones are head-sized, can weigh up to 5kg, and, just to make matters worse, are spiny. Hard hats are advised when working underneath them!

The Pine in popular culture
“Ee's not dead, he's pining for the fjords!” Nothing to do with Pines as such, but this memorable Monty Python line was just too good to leave out.

Pine coneWhen air is moist pine cone scales are closed; when it is dry, they open, for the winged seeds to take advantage of the best conditions for wind dispersal.

Pine cones are sometimes used as weather foretelling devices: and there is an element of science in this folklore as, in many species of Pine, each scale on the cone is held in place by a membrane which is sensitive to moisture. When the air is dry, the membrane relaxes and the pine cone opens. When there is moisture in the air, the membrane contracts, thus closing the cone. You can see this for yourself if you bring a tightly-closed cone into the warmth of indoors: after a few hours, it will be fully opened. The reason they do this is to prevent the seeds being released until the conditions are best for dispersal – and as many Pines seeds are winged, and are dispersed by the wind, dry days are best.

The cells in a mature (brown) cone are dead, so this mechanism is passive: amazingly, the cones can still perform this function, repeatedly, even though they are technically dead, which can be a real problem for people wanting to use Pine cones for decoration in craft projects!

Not all Pines respond to humidity: some, such as Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) respond to heat. Their cones are covered in a sticky resin which holds the scales closed until a forest fire melts the coating, allowing the seeds to slide free. This allows the Pine to hold their seeds until after the fire has cleared out the competition and cleansed the ground, making the necessary chemical changes to the soil which these Pines need for successful germination. So their cones can remain tightly closed for years, for over a decade if necessary, until the heat from the forest fire cooks the cone sufficiently. You can emulate this by taking a cone from one of these trees, and cooking it in a medium-hot oven for an hour or more (checking at regular intervals, and always line the pan with foil!) until the scales start to open.

Pines in Mythology
In Greek mythology, Pitthea, the “pine goddess” was worshipped in autumn: and Dionysus/Bacchus carried a thyrsus, a particular type of staff, which was made from a fennel stalk with a pine cone on the top of it. There is, no doubt, some quite straightforward symbolism in that combination.

Pagan statues commonly feature Pine cones, and Pine cone staffs, but more surprising is to learn that the Pope has a staff or rod which features a Pine cone, and the world's largest Pine cone sculpture is in the Vatican.

In Egypt, the Pine cone staff was the symbol of Osiris, the sun god: in Babylon, their god Tammuz was frequently depicted with Pine cones which represented not just fertility but also his regenerative powers. This symbol is repeated over and over again, through the centuries, usually as a fertility symbol, and as an evergreen tree, the Pine would also have symbolised immortality.

In the Highlands of Scotland, long before plantations arrived, Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris were often used as signposts in the landscape, to mark burial places of warriors, heroes and chieftains: in more southern parts of the UK, at a time when Scots pine would have been quite uncommon, they can be seen to mark ancient cairns, trackways, crossroads and not only the drove roads themselves, but also the perimeters of meadows in which passing drovers and their herds could spend the night.

Many cultures have been fascinated by the elegant, spiral arrangement of the individual cone scales, using their arrangement in sculpture, in art and in decoration: and this fascination continues to the modern day, right up to the shape, style and complexity of the well-known London landmark, 30 St Mary Axe (better known as The Gherkin).

How do you know it's a Pine?
Pinus are easily distinguished as a genus, with their long, thin, pointed leaves. Botanically, the foliage is a leaf, but everyone calls them needles.

These needles are held in bundles: even if you can't reach the fresh foliage, you will nearly always find a thick mat of dead needles under the tree, so take a look, and count how many individual needles are in each bundle. If each fallen “needle” contains 2, 3 or 5 individual needles, you will know that it is Pinus. If there are more than 10 needles in each bundle, then it is either Larch (Larix or Cedar (Cedrus).

This bundle of needles is called a fascicle, which comes from the Latin word fasciculus which means, quite literally, “bundle”. Each fascicle has a brown base, where it attaches to the branch, and the green needles emerge from this base. If you pull a fascicle gently apart, you can see the shape of the individual needles: in a 2-needled Pinus, such as P. sylvestris (Scots Pine) each needle is semi-circular in cross-section, so that they fit neatly together into the round fascicle base.

A 3-needled Pinus, such as Pinus radiata (Monterey Pine) will have needles which are individually triangular in cross-section: again, so that they fit together inside the fascicle. And yes, a 5-needled Pinus will have needles of a very odd shape (rather like the cheeses in Trivial Pursuit, if you remember that board game), in order for them to be neatly packaged inside the fascicle.

From a distance, Pinus are often flat-topped in outline, as opposed to the pointy-top Christmas-tree shape of Picea (Spruce) and Abies (Fir).

They are initially fast-growing, so you rarely see a small one – and usually they are great towering monsters, rising high overhead with bare trunks all around. The branches tend to grow in an annual spurt, in whorls (great word!) around the trunks, and they snap off as the tree grows, so they often seem to have regular – if rather dangerous – steps up the trunks.

So what about other Pines?
Quite apart from Pinus, there are no less than 12 other genera which involve the common name of Pine, and they vary wildly in the appropriateness or otherwise of those names.

To start with, there are four genera that are quite close to Pinus in appearance – they are all trees, evergreen, and have narrow needles. The unpronounceable Sciadopitys – Sky-a-doppit-eece? Sky-a-doh-pie-teece? - ok, let's stick to Japanese umbrella pine then, has just the one species, as does Wollemia, the famous Wollemi pine rediscovered by an Australian ranger. Shortly after they were found, they were so rare that to buy one cost well over a thousand pounds. But they are now available for a mere £60 or so in your local garden centre, which is a tribute to their ease of propagation and the deliberate policy of securing their future through the garden retail market. The others are Athrotaxis or Pencil pine, and the genus Casuarina, whose common name is, to say the least, confusing: either She oak or Australian pine!

Wollemi nobilis - the re-discovered Wollemi pineThe extraordinary Wollemi pine. A tree long thought extinct, which was re-discovered by an Australian park ranger in 1994.

Rather less pine-like are Phyllocladus or the Celery pines – small evergreen conifers which have broad, celery-shaped leaves; the many species of Pandanus or Screw pine, which look more like a tender palm; and [Chimaphila](/plant_genera/481-chimaphila/plants0 – Prince's pine – which are a genus of just five small, evergreen flowering plants, classified in the Ericaceae family along with the heathers, and looking nothing like a Pine tree! There is no clue as to why they gained their common name, nor any idea which Prince the name refers to.

Anyone who has ever seen a Pinus plantation knows that Pines do not produce apples, but that didn't stop our forebears from giving plants in the genus Ananas the common name of Pineapple: even though it sounds more like banana, Ananas is indeed the edible Pineapple, something that many of us have grown in a saucer of water, like carrots, from a chopped-off top. Then we have Eucomis, the Pineapple flower, or Pineapple lily, so named because the flower really does look rather like a Pineapple.

Returning to conifers, most of us can recognise Araucaria from a hundred yards – the shape of the Monkey puzzle or Chile pine is instantly recognisable, although many people do not realise that every single one of the thick, tough, three-sided leaves terminates in a wicked, skin-piercing spine. Far better behaved is Cephalotaxus, which rejoices in the common name of Cow's tail pine or, more appropriately, Plum yew, as the flattened evergreen leaves are far more like those of Taxus than the narrow needles of Pinus.

And finally there is the genus Pinellia, which only pops up in the Plant Finder listing and is included here because the first four letters of the name are pine! This genus contains small herbaceous perennials, whose flowers are rather dull-coloured green and yellow spathes, looking like a strangely exotic version of our familiar Arum Lily (Arum maculatum or Arum italicum).

So, whether it is a piece of Knotty Pine furniture, a bowl of scented pot-pourri, a piece of Egyptian art or a magnificent bulging skyscraper in London, the legacy of the Pine tree will be with us for a long time to come.

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