Eastern White Pine Trees: Benefits and Drawbacks

Too Messy for Many Homeowners

Eastern white pines (image) are magnificent in the wild. They can be problematic in the yard.
Eastern white pines are splendid in the wild. David Beaulieu

If I were composing a dictionary entry for "messy tree," I'd insert a picture of an eastern white pine tree to serve as an example. Ironically, it would serve just as well as an example of a graceful, magnificent specimen plant. These facts present something of a dilemma to the homeowner seeking a visually-appealing yet low-maintenance landscape. I'll explore this problem below, after first introducing the plant.

Eastern White Pine: Taxonomy, Botanical Classifications

The scientific name for Eastern white pines in plant taxonomy is Pinus strobus. These plants can be categorized in various ways, including as:

A gymnosperm (as opposed to an angiosperm) bears seeds that are unprotected (i.e., not enclosed in ovaries or fruits). The term comes from the Greek for "naked seed." As different as they look from Eastern white pine trees, Ginkgo biloba trees are also gymnosperms.

Native Range, Characteristics

According to one forester, "White pine is the tallest native conifer in eastern North America," where it is commonly found as far north as Newfoundland and as far south as northern Georgia, a span covering growing zones 3-8. This behemoth can grow to be as tall as 80 feet and as wide as 40 feet. The example in my picture above resides near Cadillac Mountain in Maine (U.S.), where it is the state tree.

As identifying features, the same source points out that it is "the only five-needled eastern pine" and that "needle bundles cluster in a brush-like formation." The cylindrically-shaped cones are the largest pinecones that I encounter in the New England states, reaching as much as 6 inches long. By comparison, the pinecones of a pitch pine (Pinus rigida) measure only about 3 1/2 inches long.

Eastern white pine is perhaps the most recognizable evergreen tree for non-botanists throughout its range. In fact, many people in this region who take little interest in the plant world but who have been exposed to Pinus strobus all their lives refer to any evergreen tree they spot (including sprucehemlock, etc.) as a "pine tree."

Drawbacks: Messy Tree par Excellence?

I usually smile favorably upon the presence of evergreens in the landscape, especially during northern winters, when I'm desperate for some landscape color. But whenever my region experiences a bad ice storm or wet, heavy snowfall, I am reminded, once again, of a drawback to having large evergreen trees with brittle branches around. I have two of them flanking my driveway.

You see, large Eastern white pine trees just don't mix well, in the wintertime, with wires and driveways. When dumped upon with heavy loads of snow or ice, their evergreen foliage holds an enormous amount of the frozen precipitation — too much for their relatively weak limbs to bear. The result: the limbs come crashing down, taking out whatever's under them. If it's a telephone wire, you’ll end up needing repair service from the phone company. If it's a vehicle or, worse yet, your home, you'll be cursing eastern white pine trees whenever you see them thereafter!

Nor is their messiness restricted to winter damage. You have to rake up the cones (which are very slow to decompose), and the fallen needles insert themselves in the darnedest places. Furthermore, in spring, the pollen gets all over car windshields. And the pitch (sap) makes an even bigger mess. There are various ways to remove the pitch from a car windshield, but here's one method:

  • Wipe the windshield with a solvent to loosen the pitch
  • Scrape it off with a single-edged razor (wear heavy gloves to avoid cutting yourself)
  • Apply additional solvent to a cloth rag and wipe the windshield clean
  • Enter the vehicle to check for spots you missed (the change in angle and lighting will help you detect them) and go back to remove them with the razor

Numerous solvents will do the job, including:

  • Nail polish remover
  • Mineral spirits
  • Rubbing alcohol

Benefits, Potential Uses for Eastern White Pine Trees

Tired of hearing the bad news about these iconic plants? Far be it from me to overlook their benefits. Pinus strobus plants are valued for:

  • Their lumber
  • Their gracefulness
  • The shade they cast (if that's what you're seeking)
  • The fact that they are a "pioneer" species (i.e., a species that repopulates a forest after clearing, often due to forest fire)
  • The fact that they can be clipped into hedges
  • Their usefulness in crafts and decorations

Regarding that last benefit, the boughs are commonly employed, for example, in outdoor Christmas decorations using greenery. The pinecones, as well, come in handy in creating decorations once you learn how to wire the cones.

While Pinus strobus is hardly a conventional hedge plant, I have, in fact, seen examples of it being used effectively in this capacity. If you live in a rural area and have lots of Pinus strobus saplings on your property, they can easily be turned into a free hedge (as opposed to going to the nursery and buying shrubs). Dig them up and plant them in a row as you would any hedge. Then head them back and keep their future growth in check to the degree that suits you.

A Pine Is a Pine? Not Really

When you hear "pine," don't jump to the conclusion that the speaker is necessarily talking about the kind of massive specimen shown in the photo above. Mugo pines stay so short that they are used as ground covers, and other pines are also available that fall into the "dwarf" category (see below).

Incidentally, despite its common name, the Japanese umbrella pine tree is not even a true pine (Pinus) at all.

Should You Grow Eastern White Pine Trees?

Given their benefits and potential uses, I by no means want this article's title to scare off readers from considering Eastern white pines as viable elements in their landscaping. Rather, my emphasis on how messy they are is intended to be a sober warning, lest you fail to take their drawbacks into account and act/plan accordingly.

Moreover, not only are they messy trees, but they also pose a clear and present danger to you and/or your property in some circumstances, as when a large Pinus strobus is located right next to a house in a region that receives heavy snowfalls.

If you love the look of pines but have a small yard, it probably makes more sense to grow a dwarf variety. For example, I grow a Japanese dwarf pine tree in my own landscaping. On the other hand, if you're lucky enough to own a big yard, there could certainly be a place in it for one or more Eastern white pines. If nothing else, they are magnificent shade trees. String a hammock between two of them and soak up the wisdom of the whispering pines.

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