Saturday, May 5, 2012

Eastern White Pine: Ontario's provincial tree

Species name: Pinus strobus

Common name: Eastern White Pine, White Pine, Wheymouth Pine

Location: Ontario

The Eastern White Pine is a native evergreen tree to Eastern Canada (Newfoundland to Manitoba), and has now been naturalized in the mountains of Poland and Czech Republic (naturalized meaning it is not native, but not out-competing native species). These trees are incredibly important in Canadian industry for timber and in the pulp and paper industry. They are the provincial tree of Ontario, and the state tree of Maine and Michigan. In the photo are the male or staminate cones, which are the cones that produce pollen. The pinecones that fall off the tree in the fall and are often used for decorative purposes are the female or carpellate cones which eventually produce the seeds. Staminate cones are the reason for many pollen allergies in the spring. These staminate cones are even the state flower of Maine!

Eastern White Pine trees were historically very susceptible to a fungus called the White Pine Blister Rust, which was introduced from either Asia or Europe during the 19th century. By the early 20th century the mortality of White Pines in some areas was as high as 80%. The Blister Rust is a fungus that requires an alternate host to complete its life cycle (in this case Ribes, or Gooseberry or Wild Currant). In the mid- to late-20th century, it was suggested by the US Department of Forest Pathology that if Ribes plants were removed from surrounding forest with White Pine, the disease can be controlled. This method was actually incredibly effective, and now mortality of "natural" pines (not ornamental pines, but those occurring naturally in forests) is about 3%. Now in New England in the US it is actually illegal in some locations to plant wild currant or wild gooseberry plants.

In the forestry industry, White Pines have historically been used to make masts for boats and some were even marked with a blue arrow as reserved for the British Royal Navy. This was a practice of great controversy in the US, leading eventually (at least contributing to) to the American Revolution. There are now more than just North American White Pines that are used as lumber to make masts of ships, should they be made of wood at all (most are now metal). Instead of growing trees for masts, we now grow pine plantations for Christmas trees and other lumber/pulp/paper purposes (building materials, furniture, carving, etc.). The sap of the White Pine is purified to make turpentine.

Surprisingly enough, White Pine trees are also used for food and as medicine by some native North American people. Pine needles themselves contain about five times the amount of Vitamin C as lemons (the typical Vitamin C benchmark), and make a great "Vitamin C tea." The cambium of the tree (the fast-reproduicing cells that produce the wood and inner bark of the tree) is commonly eaten by the Algonquin people. It is a good source of a chemical called resveratrol which has been touted as the "new cure" for just about everything that affects humans from diabetes to cancer. It has shown some promise as a chemical that will significantly reduce blood sugar as a potential treatment and/or cure for diabetes, but only in extremely high doses. The only human trial that has shown this was sponsored by a drug company, so any results that come from it have to be taken with a grain of salt. Other medicinal uses of this tree: as an anti-microbial agent used to treat gangrene by the Chippewa, and using the residue of slowly burning branches and roots as a treatment for dandruff.