Western White Pine

Spring 2021

Our series of native tree species continues with western white pine (Pinus monticola).  Perhaps, because of its ecological and economic importance, we should have featured this important tree earlier.  After all, the Idaho legislature recognized it as our state tree in 1935.

Taxonomists classify western white pine as a “white” or “soft” pine.  By contrast, ponderosa pine is a “yellow” or “hard” pine.  White pine needles are bluish-green, about 3-5 inches long and grow in fascicles (bundles) of five.

White pine occupies a prominent position in Idaho’s moist forest habitat types.  Ecologists call it a seral, or early successional, species.  It prefers direct sunlight and, despite relatively slow juvenile growth, will race western larch for first place to catch the sun as the dominant species in the forest canopy.

Historically, white pine evolved with few forest health concerns. Various needle cast fungi infected juvenile trees resulting in “casting off” of needles in the lower crown; pole blight (a mysterious malady) occasionally caused mortality in pole-sized trees, and, for the most part, the various pine bark beetles only marginally affected white pine.  With few enemies, fast growing white pine accounted for roughly one-third of the species composition in the Inland Empire’s moist, mixed-conifer forests.

All that changed in the early 1900s, however, with the impact of a one-two punch of logging and exposure to an exotic fungal disease.

Logging took off when lumber barons (including John Humbird and Frederick Weyerhaeuser) migrated to the virgin forests of the Northwest following the cut-out/get-out practices in the Midwestern Lake States.  Humbird alone eyed the vast white pine stands surrounding Sandpoint for lumber potential.

The qualities of white pine wood filled several important market niches.  Its soft, smooth grain produced ideal boards for trim and finish applications, and the colorless “vanilla” appearance readily accepted paints and stains.  The soft, smooth grain also made it ideal for wooden matchsticks. Humbird Lumber Company milled and marketed Idaho White Pine lumber while Sommers Brothers Company, Diamond Match and Ohio Match turned-out millions of matchsticks.

The second punch, white pine blister rust, almost KOed this important species.  White pine blister rust infects five-needle pines including eastern, western, whitebark, sugar, and limber pines.  It spreads through an alternate host of plants in the Ribes genus such as gooseberry and wild currants.  While having little effect on these shrubs, it is deadly in white pine.

Over time, this disease threatened to decimate the white pine component in our forests, but, thankfully, after years of selective breeding, foresters now plant seedlings that have a high degree of resistance to blister rust.

Much more can be written about the ecological and economic importance of western white pine, but the wise prose penned over a century ago (see below) sums it up pretty well.

 

WHITE PINE

The words “White Pine” are words of charm.  They bring to mind visions of forests illimitable, of lakes as clear and pure as the mountain streams that feed them; of deep, dense and silent woods where the foot of man has hardly trodden.

 Or they bring us under the spell of a mighty industry, the wealth of which has made an empire.  We can see the work in the forest, the gigantic mills and the busy traffic.  We see a happy and prosperous people.  We see, in fact, our own northern Idaho in its prosperity, its beauty and grandeur.

 Introduction to “The White Pine” Student Yearbook

Sandpoint High School 1914

Interesting perspective from a group of students whose family members likely worked in sawmills, the forest or businesses that supported the timber industry.

By the way, sometime after 1914, Sandpoint High School changed the name of its yearbook from “The White Pine” to “The Monticola.”  The species name for western white pine, monticola, translates from Latin to “living in the mountains.”

(TRIVIA ALERT:  The SHS student newspaper, the oldest continually published newspaper in Bonner County, Idaho, is “The Cedar Post.”  Get it?  The Cedar Post.)

-Bill Love, Certified Forester