Eastern White Pine Trees: Benefits and Drawbacks

Too Messy for Many Homeowners

Eastern white pine tree in the wild with lake in background.
David Beaulieu

If you were composing a dictionary entry for "messy tree," you might very well 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

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, rather than being 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, Identifying Features

While the West Coast has taller trees, eastern white pine is the biggest conifer native to eastern North America. It is commonly found as far north as Newfoundland and as far south as northern Georgia, a span covering growing zones 3 to 8. This behemoth can grow to be as tall as 80 feet and as wide as 40 feet. 

It is the only pine tree in the East that bears five needles to a bundle. These bundles form clusters that look like little brushes. The cylindrically-shaped cones are the largest pine cones found in many areas of its range (the New England states, for example), reaching as much as 6 inches long. By comparison, the pine cones 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 the 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." Incidentally, despite its common name, the Japanese umbrella pine tree is not a true pine (Pinus) at all.

Drawbacks: Messy, Hazardous Trees

Even lovers of evergreens have good reason to be down on Eastern white pines, especially Northerners. Whenever they get a bad ice storm or wet, heavy snowfall, they are reminded of a drawback to having large evergreen trees with brittle branches around. 

Large Eastern white pine trees just don't mix well, in the wintertime, with wires, driveways, and houses. 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 is that 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) in fall (adding to your leaf-removal chores), 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

But the trees also offer benefits, such as:

  • Their lumber
  • Their gracefulness
  • Their ability to serve as windbreaks
  • The shade they cast (if that's what you're seeking)
  • The fact that they're a "pioneer" species, repopulating 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 pine cones, 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, it can be 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 while they're still young and plant them in a row as you would any hedge. Then head them back regularly to keep their growth in check.

A Pine Is a Pine? Not Really

When you hear "pine," don't jump to the conclusion that the speaker is necessarily talking about these massive specimens. Mugo pines stay so short that they're used as ground covers, and other pines are also available that fall into the "dwarf" category.

Other types of large pines commonly found in parts of North America include:

  • Jack (Pinus banksiana): 70 feet, East
  • Lodgepole (Pinus contorta): 80 feet, West
  • Ponderosa (Pinus ponderosa): 100 feet, West
  • Red (Pinus resinosa): 80 feet, East

Should You Grow Eastern White Pine Trees?

Given their benefits and potential uses, don't let their messiness scare you off from considering growing Eastern white pines. Simply take how messy they are 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 one 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 makes more sense to grow a dwarf variety, such as a Japanese dwarf pine tree. But 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're magnificent shade trees