How to Grow Lodgepole Pine Trees

Detail of lodgepole pine seed and pollen cones

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Lodgepole pines are survivors. They have evolved to live in less than favorable conditions and are highly adaptable. When hiking through the Rocky Mountains you might see a lodgepole pine at 6,000 feet, or while swimming in the shadow of those same mountains you might stumble on one rooted in the gravel beach along a cool alpine lake. A common thread between both of those trees is that they were both born in fire. Lodgepole pine trees seed cones require heat to open and release their seed.

Once germinated you will have a tall slow-growing tree that is present throughout 11 states in the United States and five Canadian provinces. The habitat stretches from the Pacific, where the variety is called the shore pine, inland to Montana.

It can be identified from other trees in the genus Pinus by its twisted needles, bunched in two, which is where it gets the botanical name contorta, meaning tangled. The needles are no longer than two inches long and are a bright almost turf green.

Though it is not often used today in industry compared to other timber trees, Native Americans used the wood for food and housing, the needles for tea, and the resin for medicine.

In today's landscape, the lodgepole pine has been mostly absent unless you see the dwarf selection Pinus contorta subsp. latifolia 'Chief Joseph'. This has been changing more recently as people have been embracing native plants. This is a good thing. With some easy to follow tips, the lodgepole pine is a cinch to grow and a pleasure to have in your garden in any form.

Botanical Name  Pinus contorta
Common Name Lodgepole pine
Plant Type Coniferous Evergreen
Mature Size Varies depending on Subspecies 3.5 feet to 160 feet. 
Sun Exposure Full Sun
Soil Type Adaptable
Soil pH 5.0 to 7.5
Bloom Time June
Flower Color Pale Yellow
Hardiness Zones  Zones 4-8
Native Area Western United States and  Canada, Baja 

How to Grow a Lodgepole Pine

Growing a lodgepole pine is easy. However, consideration must be given to whether it will be right for your garden. These trees can grow tall and have a long lifespan, 200 years at times. If you are making the decision to plant this the lodgepole pine, it is a commitment.

Consider needles (great mulch), sap (horrible mess), branches (expensive repairs), and future lighting conditions (shade garden?). The tree will grow at a rate of two feet per year so plan ahead.

If you are planting a stand and using multiple trees as a windbreak, realize a mature tree will have an average spread of 20 feet and their crowns can sway more than nine feet in high winds.

Give the tree room to grow in a spot with full sun to partial shade, and watch it grow. The perfect time to plant the tree is September to Mid-November depending on your climate. You'll want to give the tree a chance to take root prior to the winter.

When your site is selected properly plant the tree. Your lodgepole pine should be dug only three inches deeper than the root ball. The hole should be twice as wide as the ball or container, with the young tree centered in it carefully. If your roots are bound don't be afraid to cut into them and spread them out.

Most importantly make sure your tree is perfectly upright and straight. It is always a good idea to protect a newly planted tree with a grow tube or tree shield. If your newly planted tree is in a windy or unstable spot you may want to add stakes to support the tree till it establishes itself.

Soil

The wonderful thing about the lodgepole pine is its adaptability. The ideal soil would be well-draining and slightly acidic, but this tree really is suited for a diverse range of conditions.

Water

Initially, after planting, you will want to make sure you give your new tree plenty of water to promote root growth. Daily drenching for the first two to three months would be ideal.

The key thing to remember is that it is better to water a tree less frequently and soak the roots rather than watering more frequently and just moisten the surface. Your objective is to let the water penetrate the soil and foster new root growth deep beneath the surface.

Fertilizer

Once your pine is established you won't need to fertilize but, during the first year, feeding your tree a slow-release fertilizer meant specifically for pines would be a good idea.

Pruning

Lodgepole pines very rarely need to be pruned unless you are looking to fix damage or control new growth. There is a right and a wrong time and way of pruning, and doing this will save you the hassle of troubleshooting down the line.

The easiest way to control pine growth is to pinch off the candles, or new growth or shoots, in the early to mid-spring, before the needles come out. You want to simply pinch the candles between your fingers halfway down its length and snap. Do not use implements like clippers or scissors as these tend to make the candles turn brown. Also, be sure to leave half of the candle. Breaking the entire candle, or decandling, means you will have a lodgepole pine that grows buds during the summer that won't open until next year.

Close up of seed cones and candles of a lodgepole pine
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Damaged branches on pines should be taken care of immediately. Never trim a pine tree branch to shorten it. If a branch needs to be trimmed remove the entire branch down to the trunk. Always remember to sterilize your tools before and after every pruning job!

Common Pests and Diseases

There are numerous pests that attack the lodgepole pine, the Mountain pine beetle being the most troublesome and widespread.

Since 1996, the Mountain pine beetle has destroyed millions of acres of pines in Rocky Mountain National Park. The beetles lay eggs under the bark introducing blue stain fungus which blocks water and nutrients from being moved through the tree. The duel attack can quickly kill the tree within weeks of successful attack.

A symptom you will notice are popcorn-like puffs of resin leaking out of the bark called pitch tubes, these are the entry points of the beetles.

Treatment with pesticides by a licensed applicator is the only true method to handle the mountain pine beetle. The pesticide required is very harmful to mammals, aquatic animals, and beneficial insects.