What is a Pitch Pine Tree?

Here's everything you need to know about pitch pine trees, what they look like, how they reproduce, how it is used and where they usually grow along with FAQs.

This is a close look at the walkway that is lined with tall pitch pine trees on both sides.

Pinus Rigida

The pitch pine tree is an evergreen conifer that is native to eastern North America. These trees are unique in the way that they can grow in some of the most desolate and low-nutrient soils around. They are semi-fast growing, and medium-sized. They have a lifespan of around 200 years.

Pitch pines are sometimes referred to as either candlewood pine or torch pine. These nicknames come from a traditional use for them before there was electricity. Pine knots would be removed from trunks and fastened to the end of a staff or pole. Because of the high resin content of pitch pine wood, the knots light on fire extremely well. These staffs would be used as lanterns.

These cold-hardy trees are an important source of food and shelter for wildlife, and the resin content of the wood has traditionally been used for medicinal purposes. Though their wood isn’t particularly valuable, it is often used for rough construction purposes.

If you’re curious about other types of trees, head on over to 101 Types of Trees!

What do Pitch Pine Trees Look Like?

Root System

Because pitch pine trees grow in such harsh conditions and dry, low nutrient soils, they need to develop root systems that can reach areas with better nutrients. Pine species will grow deep into the earth in order to access water reserves.

Dimensions

Pitch pines grow to be between 6 and 30 meters depending on their growing site. They will experience more height when they grow in areas with more sun exposure and moisture and will be much smaller if they are growing in the shade or in dry soil.

This is a full view of a mature tall pitch pine tree in a field.

Growth Pattern

Pitch pine trees have an irregular shape. Because of their knotty, curved trunks and twisted, gnarled branches, they tend to be very varying in shape. Their branches are horizontal and create a broad irregular crown.

Bark

This is a close look at the bark of a pitch pine tree.

The bark on a young tree is lighter gray or brown, with small defoliating plates. Mature trees develop much thicker, larger, and irregular plates of bark that peel off.

Foliage

This is a close look at the foliage, leaves and branches of a pitch pine tree.

Pitch pines are covered in evergreen leaves in the form of needles. Needles grow in bunches of 3 and are 2-5 inches in length. They are stout and slightly twisted. These stiff needles emerge as a yellow-green color and eventually grow into a dark green.

Trees will hold dormant buds if they do not grow in the correct growing conditions, or if they experience too much shade.

How do Pitch Pine Trees Reproduce?

Seed Cones & Pollen Cones

This is a close look at the branches of a pitch pine tree and its seed cones.

Pitch pine trees are monoecious, meaning that both the seed cone (female cones) and pollen cone (male cones) grow on the same tree, though they do not usually self-pollinate to prevent lack of genetic diversity. Pollen cones produce pollen which is then transported to the seed cones by the wind.

Once the pollen is present inside the seed cones, they will mature for up to 2 years until they are fully mature. Seed dispersal will then occur over the following fall and winter.

A pitch pine cone is 1-3 inches long and is ovular with sharp prickles on the scales. These cones can remain on the tree for many years, up until they are opened by fire damage. These types of cones are called serotinous cones.

Trunk Sprout

Pitch pines are high regenerative. They are able to produce saplings from the stump of a tree that has either been cut or killed by a forest fire.

Natural Hybridization

Pitch pines will cross-pollinate with other pine species, and easily hybridize with the shortleaf pine (pinus echinata), the loblolly pine (pinus taeda) (which are both yellow pine) and the pond pine (pinus serotina).

Sexual Maturity

Pitch pines are able to start bearing cones after about 3 years of age, though if they grow in shady conditions it may take much longer. They are able to produce productive cone crops every 4 to 9 years on average, with unproductive crops in the years in between.

Seed Dispersal

This is a close look at a couple of pine cones up a pitch pine tree.

Pitch pine seedlings tend to struggle with germination because they are constantly eaten before they are able to grow into a sapling. They are browsed upon by many different bird and animal species.

Where do Pitch Pine Trees Grow?

The pitch pine tree is native to eastern North America. From central Maine towards northern Georgia, through Kentucky, and northwards to the St Lawrence River in Quebec and Ontario.

They tend to grow in swampy lowlands, and in areas that are unsuitable for most other plant species. Forests of pine are called pine barren, and the greatest occur in the New Jersey pine barrens.

What are the Growing Conditions of Pitch Pine Trees?

Soil

The most impressive feature of the pitch pine tree is its capability of growing in the most acidic, least well-drained, lowest nutrients, and driest soils. They can grow in the most compact sandy soil or aerated soil and still thrive.

Sun Exposure

Though they can grow in nearly any type of soil, pitch pines are completely intolerant to shade. They prefer to have full shade all day every day, which is a very typical requirement of evergreen trees.

How is Pitch Pine Trees Used?

Wood

This is a close look at a cross section of a pitch pine tree log.

Pitch pine wood is not a major source for timber and lumber industries because of its slow growth, crooked trunks, and high quantity of knots. However, traditionally they were a common source of wood for ship building, mine timbers, and railroad ties.

Nowadays, pitch pine wood is used for rough construction purposes, and for pulpwood. It is also used because of the high resin content that prevents it from quick decay and has been used for the purpose of decorative carvings.

Wildlife

This is a close look at a brown squirrel eating a pine cone.

Pitch pine trees provide a habitat for many species of birds. They include; black-capped chickadees, black and white warblers, blue jays, chestnut-sided warblers, great crested flycatchers, pine warblers, Nashville warblers, and red-cockaded woodpeckers.

Deer eat seedling and new sprouts, and small mammals and bird species eat seeds. Their foliage is heavily foraged upon by the southern pine beetle.

Ethnobotanic

Many First Nations communities, like the Iroquois, Shinnecock, and Cherokee, have used pitch pine resin to help treat rheumatism, boils, burns, and cuts. Pitch pine wood has also been used for canoe construction and for creative decorative carvings.

FAQs

Are pitch pines a pioneer species?

A pioneer species is the first plant species to repopulate a site after there has been natural devastation. This can be an avalanche, flood, drought, or forest fire.

Pitch pines are a pioneer species because they have developed many different features that prepare them for fire damage. They are covered in a thick bark scales that protects them, their cones open when there has been a forest fire in order to disperse seeds in ideal growing conditions, and the trees themselves are more than capable of growing in mineral ash soil.

How fast do pitch pine trees grow?

Pitch pine trees are medium to fast-growing and can grow around 12 inches in a year for the first few decades of their life.

How long do pitch pine trees live?

Pitch pine trees have an average life expectancy of around 200 years.

How tall do pitch pine trees get?

Pitch pines grow to be between 6 and 30 meters depending on their growing site. They will experience more height when they grow in areas with more sun exposure and moisture and will be much smaller if they are growing in the shade or in dry soil.

Can you bonsai with a pitch pine tree?

As long as a pitch pine starts out its life in a pot, it can be an exceptional bonsai tree. They are a very popular choice because of their irregular shape and gnarled branches because they make for a very interestingly shaped tree.

Is it easy to shape a pitch pine?

Pitch pines are actually pretty terrible at self-pruning, and so they respond rather well to being pruned and shaped. Their branches will grow in gnarled ways and strange directions, possibly because they usually grow in very low nutrient soil types.

Is pitch pine hardwood or softwood?

Although pitch pine wood is classified as softwood, it is actually a very hard and strong type of wood.

What is the difference between white pine and pitch pine?

White pines and pitch pines have similar needles, but their growth pattern is entirely different. White pine trees have a much more reserved and organized type of growth, where the pitch pine can be severely misshapen and irregularly shaped.

Why do pine trees smell?

Pine trees contain a biochemical called terpene which is what gives them that distinct smell. Terpene is present in their needles, twigs, bark, inner bark, and wood. Terpene is used to make turpentine.

How many needles does a pitch pine have?

Pitch pines grow their needles in clusters of tree, and this is one of the easiest ways to identify a tree as being a pitch pine, along with their gnarled branches.

How can you tell a white pine?

The easiest way to tell that a pine tree is a white pine (pinus strobus), is because its needles will grow in clusters that contain 5 needles.

How can you tell a red pine?

Red pines (pinus resinosa) are dark brown-reddish bark, and they have needles that grow in large clusters with long needles.

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