Pine, Pinus: “Faithful Old Retainer”
Pine trees are distinct from fir and spruce, though they are all members of the Pinaceae family, better known as conifer. The three are valued during the holidays, with pine’s specialty being cones and garlands. As trees, their distinctive canopies are usually out of reach for grazing animals or licks of flame. The utility of natural pine, a softwood timber, is restricted to indoors.
Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer, except where noted.
Above: There are more than one hundred varieties of the evergreen, resinous pine. Included in this family group is the hard-living bristlecone pine, with a reputation for extreme longevity (around 5,000 years), in high altitude and aridity. Geriatric specimens battle on at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, in eastern California. In gardens, they cast a light shade and look good as part of a collection.
Above: Holford pine (Pinus x holfordiana) at Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire, where it first appeared, a cross between Mexican White pine and Bhutan pine. The area of the arboretum dedicated to pines is, of course, the pinetum.
Holford pine (and parent Bhutan pine) provides the kind of luxurious needles that are a gift for garland-minded people. Bringing greenery indoors is a way of reminding us of growth, during the shortest days of the year.
Above: Pine cones are so decorative in their natural state that they don’t depend on being sprayed or stuffed, or dipped in glitter. Photograph courtesy of Bob Vila.
The hard outer shell of pine cones opens up to disperse seeds. Edible pine nuts are harvested just before the green cone opens; around 20 species of pine are fit for this purpose. In the US, the pines most valued for food are pinyon pines, while in Europe it is sourced from the stone pine.
• Pinus shares the needles and cones of the conifer group. Other conifers include cypress and cedar, with scale-like leaves.
• Pines prefer light for germination. When forests are allowed to develop naturally, seedlings spring up near older trees with thinner canopies.
• Conifers are slow-growing. The smallest pine is Siberian dwarf pine, Pinus pumila, which clings on mountains as an impenetrable ground cover, and can survive for 3,000 years.
Above: A conifer alley, or allée, in an English formal garden, overseen by a leaning Scots pine. Although forests of Scots pine are spread around the northern hemisphere, a single specimen or small group of Pinus sylvestris are sometimes grown as a symbol of Scotland.
Keep It Alive
• Conifers need to be established with care, with initial watering and an annual feed. Their natural resilience takes over after the first few years.
• Young pine trees need to be protected from deer.
• Pine is a useful tree for windy areas, with sandy or stony soil.
Above: Stone pine (Pinus pinea) is a strong visual motif around the Mediterranean, accompanied by the sound of cicadas. The high, spreading canopy is invaluable not only by the rocky coastline but in town squares and streets. Photograph by Sarah Webster.
For further Mediterranean greenery, see Hike of the Week: Camino de Cavalls, Menorca.
Above: The profile of Scots pine distinguishes it as a periphery tree, and gives a place character.
N.B.: Would you like to add a tree to your yard, see our Garden Design 101 guides for help:
- For more on evergreen trees see Holly 101 and Yew Tree 101.
- Interested in a different sort of evergreen? See Ivy 101 in our Vines and Climbers 101 guide.