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Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

In forestry circles, monocultures don’t get high marks. Most planted forests have just one kind of tree, and because of this they are often looked down upon as biological Levittowns: boring forests that are of little interest to other species.

Sometimes, however, nature does a pretty good imitation of a plantation, even if she does a poor job at keeping the trees in rows.

Pitch pine forests, like those that make up the New Jersey Pine Barrens, are a good example of a natural monoculture. The New Jersey forest is roughly 30 by 80 miles and has been dominated by pitch pine since the retreat of the last glacier.

How can one species dominate for so long? In this case, fire, and pitch pine’s adaptations to fire, have kept the forest in a state of ecological inertia. Continuous cycles of burning and re-sprouting prevent the progression of what would normally be considered a pioneer forest to one with more typical climax species.

Even when all of the needles on a pitch pine are burned, the crown can recover and be almost back to normal in just a few years. If the leader is killed, a new one may grow, and if most of the tree is killed, new sprouts will emerge from the trunk or the base of the trunk. The ability to sprout from the trunk is common in hardwoods but rare in a conifer. Dormant buds buried deep in the thick bark of a pitch pine come to life after a fire or other injury to the crown.

Like the more boreal jack pine, another “fire pine,” a percentage of a pitch pine’s cones are serotinous, which is another way of saying that they remain closed until the heat of a fire melts the resinous glue that holds the scales of the cone together. Only then are the seeds released. Pitch pines seem to spend their lives preparing for fire: they begin to produce cones when very young, and they hang on to them year after year. A tree crown with hoards of blackened cones is not pretty, but the abundant seed supply serves the tree well when bare, newly-burned land cools.

In the absence of fire, the monoculture breaks down. Most of Cape Cod and much of Long Island were once pitch pine forests, but because of development and the exclusion of fire, oaks, red maple, and other species have lately joined pine in the canopy.

By no means is pitch pine confined to pure stands. Throughout its range – from southern New England south to northern Georgia – small patches can be found among other trees on the rocky, dry, wet, or shallow soils that other species find challenging.

At present, uses for pitch pine are limited, but in early Colonial times it was an important source of pitch, tar, rosin, and turpentine, all vital to keeping sailing ships afloat. The tree has an unusually high concentration of these compounds, which were also important as exports. Sheila Connor, in her book New England Natives, writes that in 1628, the residents of Plymouth requested that “men skyfull in making of pitch” be sent from England. Indeed, this was a skill, involving the slow, controlled combustion of pitch pine wood for two weeks, with the pitch collected in ditches that circled the pitch kiln. Resin was gathered by cutting a channel in the trunk of a pitch pine with a hatchet and channeling it to a container.

In the early 1800s, a booming bog iron industry in New Jersey Pine Barrens used pitch pine wood to fire the smelters and forges. Each of the many furnaces used a thousand acres of pines each year; at the same time, pitch pine charcoal was being shipped to New York City by the schoonerful. The ability to recover from human abuses is another pitch pine trait. It can regrow from the stump and from seeds that do not depend upon heat to be released. Depleted soil is a plus – it helps keep other species out of the picture.

These survival mechanisms do take a toll on appearance.  Pure, natural stands that have been burned repeatedly tend to consist of short-bodied, misshapen trees. Their irregular profiles include heavy, lopsided lower branches, and many years’ worth of aged cones blacken the crown.

 
Discussion
  1. Rob Daniels → in Cape Cod, MA
    Apr 17, 2010

    Growing up on Cape Cod, pitch pine will always be a favorite species. On the Outer Cape (where soil is literally nonexistent), the tree still dominates, forming vast barrens of gnarled, stubby trees underscored by beds of needles and tufts of wispy grass. The smell of these forests is salty and unmistakable, and primal. Alas! These beautiful forests have reverted to sickly looking mixtures of white and scarlet oak, red maple, and nonnatives over much of the rest of the Cape. Pitch pine is a tree that’s not often paid attention to, but I think it’s beautiful in its own hunched, forlorn sort of way. Thanks.

  2. James Lacy → in Cape cod
    May 29, 2011

    An enduring symbol of Cape Cod - chickadees in a Pitch Pine.  I hate these Eastern White Pines that are spreading from so many yards.  The Pitch Pine is the most beautiful completely natural self reliant tree on the planet.

  3. Zack Hayman → in La Jolla, California
    Oct 18, 2012

    I have two mature Pinus Rigida less than two miles from the Pacific.
    Trees have three needles, female cones and winged seeds.

    Wish to replace mature Italian Stone Pines and their invasive roots with Pitch Pines in front, but no local source of 24” boxes.

    A nursery in TN sells 3-4’ bare root, which may work for my hillside in back, but if you know of any SoCal source, would appreciate a steer.

  4. Leonard → in Kingston NY Sawkill
    May 01, 2013

    I have about 4 growing in my yard. The saplings are somewhat difficult to keep alive due to deer and what I think are saw flys. But two are bigger and a bit healthier.

  5. John → in Long Island,NY
    Jun 23, 2013

    Living on Long Island I’ve firsthand seen decline of the Pine Barrens. There has been much development built, and it sadly continues, since the developers influence the politicians, and even so called environmental groups. Because of all the development, fires are put out quickly, and the pines are starting to get shaded out by oaks, maples, and sassafras trees.

    Fortunately every now and then nature allows a fire to be unstoppable, such as in 1995 in Westhampton and Rocky Point, and as a result, those areas remain Pitch Pine dominant. Pitch Pine is a beautiful tree that comes in a lot of great shapes, and I don’t understand the love affair with White Pine as a landscaping tree, especially after Sandy, when all the White Pines have got salt burn, and the Pitch Pines are green as always.

  6. Hans Holzschlag
    Jul 29, 2014

    PITCH PINE has to be planted as a 2 year, bare root seedling to adapt and reach its maximum growth rate. THEN IT CAN REACH 25 FEET IN ONLY 5 YEARS, IN FULL SUN. THEN IT SLOWS DOWN and is more wind firm than white pine. Landscapers are ignorant of ecology and very narrow minded about aesthetics.
    Make sure that you can feel the root collar when planting seedlings. never bury it. Croshaw Nursery in NJ and Pikes Peak in PA have P Pine.
    Also great if all the needles and branches are blown off-resprouts .

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