White Pine

Pinus Strobus

by John Brouwer

White Pine is the tree immortalized by the Group of Seven in their paintings of Ontario's rugged north along Georgian Bay and Lake Superior These are the tall (150 feet plus) wind swept straight conifers with few branches except at the bushy top. White pine needles are grouped in bundles of five and are soft and flexible. Trees can live for 450 years.

White pine is a dominant tree in the northern forest. And as we are at the southern limits of this forest we also have white pine as a native tree. Its height allows it to tower above the surrounding hardwoods. White pine is the only native pine in the Carolinian zone of southern Ontario.

In our region white pine starts in open areas – historically after forest fires. It needs sunlight so it survives by out-competing the hardwoods and eventually towers above the hardwood canopy. However this feature prevents it from re-establishing itself, as the seedlings and saplings require full sunlight. As a long-lived tree, it evades this problem as over the 400 year life span at least one fire or hurricane will create the open forest conditions required for seed to germinate and grow.

White pine was adopted as Ontario's official tree in 1984.

Because it has few branches along its trunk in a forest setting, white pine is the ideal forestry tree.

White pine was the basis of Upper and Lower Canada's forest industry starting in the mid 1700's. Sagas have been written and continue to be sung of the experiences of the French and English lumberjacks who spent their winters harvesting white pine. Powerful men organized society so that the poor had no option except to do whatever they could to obtain food for their families. Across Ontario and Quebec, tens of thousands of men spent the winters cutting white pine. Hundreds of men would live in very crowded log bunkhouses, for six months cutting and trimming pine with hand tools. Horses were used to drag the trees to the river banks and, with the spring melt, the logs would be rolled into the rivers so the flood waters would carry them down to the towns.

Depending on the situation white pine logs would be squared with adzes in the lumber camps or hand sawn in sawyer pits. Squared timber was required for loading into the sailing ships which carried white pine timber from Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence to Europe. White pine logs could be processed in other centers as the logs don't split as they dry, so that logs could be kept for a year before being sawn into lumber.

The length of the white pine was ideally suited for masts on the oak sailing ships. And since it was through ships that England, France and Holland controlled their empires, their minions ensured that white pine suitable for masts were allocated to the crown. The royal practice of arbitrarily going through the forests of the colonies and designating the good white pine for the crown was a major aggravation leading to the American revolution as well as our local rebellions. During the revolution it was considered great sport to cut and process trees which had been marked with the king's arrow.

It was inconceivable that the vast white pine forests of Ontario and Quebec could be denuded with hand tools. But as the forest represented immense wealth for the powerful in the empires, vast human effort was organized to ensure that wealth was exploited, sold and the proceeds converted to the palaces, estates, manor houses, and parliament buildings of the old and new world. The result was a complete removal of the old growth forest. Today only a few isolated pockets remain in protected areas.

The large and tall branchless trunks which made white pine such an attractive lumber tree are characteristics which make white pine a prized lumber tree today. White pine wood is the hardest of the softwood pines and is easily worked, making it suitable for all type of finish carpentry. Because older trees have no branches for up to 80 feet, the resulting boards are knot-free. Old boards which are salvaged from barns are generally white pine.

Pine sap was used to waterproof baskets. It is antimicrobial and was used to treat even gangerous wounds. It was mixed with beeswax or butter to create a salve which was used to prevent infection.

The inner bark of white pine was used as famine food. Needles are a source of vitamin C and the seeds are used in the same way as other pine nuts. Pine sap is the basis for turpentine.

We have a number of young white pine in the co-op about 15 years old. It is a tree that is slow to start but once it reaches a sapling stage growth rate exceeds neighbouring trees so it can become a dominant tree.

May 2009