Long-needled pines

Judith Adam

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‘Vanderwolf’s Pyramid’ limber pine. Photo by Judith Adam
‘Vanderwolf’s Pyramid’ limber pine. Photo by Judith Adam
‘Vanderwolf’s Pyramid’ limber pine. Photo by Judith Adam

When there’s a thin blanket of snow on the ground, it’s just enough to put a silvery gloss on the winter garden. This is when I’m grateful for every conifer in my landscape, especially those with soft needles, three to five inches (8 to 13 cm) long. They’re graceful in all seasons, swaying gently in the wind, and have an elegant texture in snow.

There is a big Eastern white pine tree (Pinus strobus, 60 x 23 ft. /18 x 7 m, Zone 4) in the back corner with soft long needles, but it’s too far from the house to appreciate in this season. A neighbour brought it down from the north 60 years ago and planted it here when very young. The white pine is the largest of the northeastern conifers, and this baby is still growing — you wouldn’t want it anywhere close to the house!

Just 10 feet (3 m) from the front door, I planted a hybrid limber pine tree, ‘Vanderwolf’s Pyramid’ (Pinus flexilis ‘Vanderwolf’s Pyramid’, 16 x 8 ft. / 5 x 2.5 m, Zone 5), that’s more upright and narrow than others cultivars of the species, with an open, see-through branch structure. Sunlight falls through the tree, and in summer clematis vines wander around the branches, filling it with flowers. The pine’s long blue-green needles catch falling snow, suggesting an enchanted forest on a Hollywood movie set. This is a fast-growing tree (about 24 in. / 60 cm a year, once established) and doesn’t keep anyone waiting. It has strong vigor and shoots upward, with the branches extended in a relaxed, graceful posture.

In the back garden, there’s another long-needled tree, ‘Chalet’ Swiss stone pine (Pinus cembra ‘Chalet’, 13 x 5 ft. / 4 x 1.5 m, Zone 4). It’s a slow-growing, compact tree and has a dense conical form that makes a prominent winter profile in a perennial border and adds distinction and structure to deep summer borders.

There is also a dwarf version of Eastern white pine. Called weeping white pine (Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’, 2 m x 3 m, Zone 4), it’s trained on stakes in youth to develop an upright leader, and then allowed to cascade in a strong weeping form that’s wider than it is tall. Each has a unique shape, and should be selected to suit its location. The branches sweep the ground and breezes easily catch their long blue-green needles. This is an elegant tree and should be placed where it can be readily appreciated.

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5 thoughts on “Long-needled pines”

  1. Hi Susann (Feb. 1),

    From what I know about pioneers, they had little time for pleasure gardens. Food gardens were very important, as well as whatever they could get from the landscape. Wild grapes and berries were certainly available and sought after, also dandelions and wild onions; but that’s about my limit of information on useful indigenous plants. I think you might get good information from someone at Black Creek Pioneer Village (blackcreek.ca). To get an idea of the limited diet for settlers, scroll to the bottom of this page, http://www.projects.yrdsb.edu.on.ca/pioneer/pioneer_home.htm.

    Your presentation in March might be an opportunity to show the differences between heritage and modern hybridized vegetables. Settlers brought seeds from home, and grew primitive versions of many vegetables we find in supermarkets: deeply lobed tomatoes, warty squash, etc. You can certainly find pictures of these things by doing a Google image search, print them, and then supply the modern vegetables for contrast. An interesting way to introduce kids to information about plant hybridizing.

    Hope that helps.

    — Judith

  2. Morning Judith … I too love my long-needled pines. Our property is ringed with them and after every snow fall we get a beautiful “Christmas Card” landscape. This year the hydro had to trim some of our pines to keep them off the wires, I took most of the branches and used them to fill my planters for Christmas and even dressed up my bird feeders and the birds loved having a little shelter from the wind when dining. I have a request of you, our Garden Club has been asked to conduct a March break program for children at our local Library, the topic being “Days Past” centering on Native plants and what our settlers and pioneers grew. Any thoughts or ideas would be so helpful.
    With thanx!

  3. Hi Sue,

    Without seeing a sample of the tree, I can’t be sure of what the problem is. There is a common fungus disease of Austrian pines (Pinus nigra) in the region and it has been documented on the University of Waterloo campus. You can read more about it here (scroll half way down the page): http://www.adm.uwaterloo.ca/infowast/watgreen/projects/library/860/final.html

    The disease pathogen is Sphaeropsis sapinea (or Diplodia pinea), and the condition is referred to as Sphaeropsis blight or Diplodia blight. This is likely the problem afflicting Austrian pine trees in your area, and it’s commonly found throughout southern Ontario. Your description of brittle wood is one characteristic of the disease infection. The infectious spores overwinter on second-year cones (still on the trees), and infect the new needles appearing in spring. You’ll notice new growth on branch tips turning brown and beginning to die back.

    Many Austrian pines have been planted in the landscaping of large public areas, such as parks and shopping centres, and university campuses. They will grow in poor soil conditions, and in shade from large buildings, and have a strong branch structure that resists the weight of snow and ice. Sphaeropsis blight infects Austrian pines growing in stressed conditions, particularly when irrigation is insufficient. Large trees require significant amounts of moisture, and water delivered from in-ground sprinkler systems is inadequate to penetrate the tree root zone.

    Clusters of Austrian pine trees planted in public spaces act as incubation pools for disease pathogens. Culling or removing some of the trees to increase distances between them may help stop the spread of disease spores. Pruning off the dead tip ends, and collecting all fallen green cones from under the trees will also help. But this is a difficult problem to entirely eradicate. The key to keeping Austrian pines healthy is to plant them as single specimens and provide adequate and consistent moisture.

    Hope this information is useful.

    — Judith

  4. The long-needled pines do look so graceful but here in London, the Austrian pines are dying. Long needles and groups of needles, foot-long bits of branches, all go flying in every storm. I’ve been told that within another 3-4 years, every one in this area will be dead. Do you know what is causing it?

    • I would like the sale of Austrian Pines to stop.
      The trees have diplodia tip blight. They will die once they get the disease. Our native pines are resistant to the disease.
      The original owner of my house in London, planted 5 of them in the back yard. Only one remains and it is very unhealthy. It has cost me thousands of dollars to remove the trees. They grow incredibly tall and wide, making them unsuitable for most city lots. It is heart breaking to see a habitat for wild life destroyed so quickly. One needs no more proof than this example, to see the importance of planting native trees.


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