Tuesday, November 27, 2012

One of the Austrian pines

Species name: Pinus nigra

Common name: Austrian pine, European black pine

Location: Ontario

The Austrian pine is native to Europe, in countries surrounding the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas. There are actually two subspecies of the Austrian pine which rarely interbreed (but are still capable of forming hybrids in a very small overlapping zone as well as when they are brought together under artificial conditions like a greenhouse): the western subspecies existing in southern Italy, southern Spain, southern France and North Africa and the eastern subspecies in Austria, central Italy and Turkey. The needles of the two subspecies are quite different and you can easily tell them apart when side-by-side; the needles of the eastern subspecies are much fatter and much more rigid than the western subspecies. They both have different liveable temperature ranges, too, with the eastern subspecies being able to tolerate much colder minimum temperatures (down to -40 degrees Celsius with no adverse effects) compared to the western subspecies (only about -25 degrees Celsius or so). I believe the subspecies on campus would be the eastern subspecies, P. nigra subsp. nigra.

One major attractive feature that probably led to its widespread planting across Europe and North America is that it is a very fast growing tree, relative to other needle-bearing trees. It was originally thought to be an excellent lumber tree, so it was planted in large numbers in North America. Unfortunately, the grain of the wood is very rough and quite variable across the height of the tree, so making long boards suitable for building is not feasible. It was turned to as a major source of pulp and fibres for making paper, as a fuel source, and is still used as a low-grade wood for some construction purposes.

Unfortunately, as with most plant species that have been transported out of their native range, the Austrian pine has a dirty secret. That secret is a fungus. The "red band needle blight disease", caused by the fungus Dothistroma septosporum, is especially toxic to North American Austrian pine trees because of their inability to breed properly here. Austrian pines have a hard time cross-breeding outside of their native ranges, and the seeds that are self-fertilized are much less likely to germinate. This causes something called "inbreeding depression," which can lead to a buildup of genes that make a tree (this happens in animals, too) more susceptible to a pathogen. The North American trees are very susceptible to this pathogen, and it is an almost certainty that every single Austrian pine tree in North America will succumb to this disease. There is no known treatment once a tree is infected other than cutting it down and burning the residues (especially the needles, where the pathogen is housed in the living tree). Planting this tree, even as an ornamental, is strongly discouraged and planting this tree in continuous stands is not only strongly discouraged, but carries quite a hefty fine if you're caught doing it in many states in the United States (but no provinces in Canada yet). You can see that the tree in the top picture is looking very unhealthy; it is likely showing the first signs of infection from the disease.