Name That Tree

By Gil Medeiros, Fairfax Master Gardener
white pine treeIf you chose a. Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), you were correct! This is another tree that is fairly easy to identify when you are driving through a neighborhood; you likely have several on your street. It is shaped like a Christmas tree when small but becomes more flat-topped when mature. The long needles tell you it is a pine, not a fir, spruce, or cypress. If you get up close to an eastern white pine, the key to identification is that the needles come in bundles of 5. The other native pines have needle bundles of 2 or 3.

Needles may persist on the tree for two to three years. Some turn yellow and drop in the fall — to the consternation of homeowners who think the tree is dying. Extension agents and master gardeners are practiced at dealing with this panic.

Eastern white pines may produce both male and female cones on the same tree. This occurs in the spring. The male cones release pollen into the air. The pollinated female cones produce seed.

needles

Needles in bundle of 5

Eastern white pine is a fast-growing tree that will reach 60 to 90 feet in height and 30 to 40 feet in width in the urban landscape. It was a dominant tree in virgin forests when Europeans settled in North America, sometimes growing to heights greater than 200 feet. Today, some state champion eastern white pines are in the 150 to 200 foot range. In the 1700s these old growth trees were used for ship masts and wide boards. As settlers moved west, they often planted eastern white pine because its wood was better suited for making coffins than difficult-to-cut hardwoods. For this reason it is sometimes called “coffin pine.”

yellow needles

Appearance of needles prior to normal leaf drop

Eastern white pine grows best in acidic soil and full sun. Alkaline conditions will cause it to yellow because it cannot take up enough iron. It is not a good street tree for several reasons: it does not tolerate road salt very well, it is susceptible to wind damage, and it is sensitive to air pollution. The tree is winter hardy to zone 3. In zones 7b and 8a, however, eastern white pines are at the southern limit of their range.

Eastern white pine is commonly planted in landscapes. It is favored for its fast growth rate, ease of planting, and low cost. One caution: this cute little Christmas tree grows into a very big specimen unless you specifically obtain a dwarf cultivar. Make sure you have enough room for any tree that you plant.

male pine cones

Eastern White pine male cones

White pine blister rust is a common disease of this species. Like other rusts, this one has alternate host plants — in this case currants and gooseberries. The problem can be particularly severe where currants grow wild (not usually in Virginia). White pine weevil is also a common problem.
female pine cones

Unripe female cones

References
Eastern White Pine, University of
   Kentucky Department of Horticulture
Pinus strobus, North Carolina State Extension

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