Monterey Pine Plant Profile

Shapely mature pine trees against a mountain backdrop.
Though cultivated worldwide, Monterey pines are native to very specific coastal regions in California and Mexico.

 pete veilleux / Flickr / CC By 2.0

Monterey pine, or Pinus radiata, is a species of pine tree that is native to Mexico and the central coast of California. In fact, its native origins can be traced to only a small number of regions: Santa Cruz, Monterey Peninsula, and San Luis Obispo Counties in California, and Guadalupe and Cedros Islands in Mexico. The tree has been adapted for a wide range of uses, including pulpwood; though it is cultivated worldwide for lumber, the native Monterey pine is considered rare and endangered in its preferred habitats.

The Monterey pine can live to be as old as ninety. They're an important habitat and food resource for wildlife, for their leaves, branches, bark and seeds, as well as the insects they attract: all are eaten by a variety of birds, rodents and mammals. Their nuts are described in a 1937 journal entry by naturalist Pedro Fages as being "very good and pleasing to the taste." The gathering method he describes involves building a small fire near the base of the tree and waiting for the heat to cause the closed cones to open so the nuts drop to the ground. Like the pond pine, Pinus serotina, they are serotinous, meaning the nuts need a heat source to be released.

The nuts can be ground into a flour also, and were used as food for early Western settlers. In a very harsh winter, the inner bark of pines would serve as an emergency food source. The needles can be made into a tea that is rich in vitamin C. Pine resin was used well into the twentieth century for various medicinal purposes, including treating burns and wounds, and even made into a sort of chewing gum said to be beneficial for rheumatism.

These picturesque trees grow quite tall in maturity, reaching over a hundred feet. The needles are dark green and glossy, but may turn a more blue-green color on older trees, and the bark is reddish brown to black with deep furrows and a rough texture. They're highly ornamental; in California they are one of the most popular varieties of Christmas trees at "chose and cut" farms, because the young trees have a full and lush appearance.

Botanical Name Pinus radiata
Common Name Monterey pine, insignis pine
Plant Type Evergreen tree
Mature size 40 to 90'
Sun Exposure Partial to full sun
Soil Type Sandy, sandstone
Soil pH 4 to 7
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Catkins are pale beige to pink
Hardiness Zones 7 to 10
Native Areas Central California Coast, parts of Mexico
Cluster of three pine cones amid long green needles.
The attractive cones of the Monterey pine conceal delicious nuts that are only released after exposure to heat or fire.  paper lens / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

How to Grow Monterey Pine

Monterey pines are sometimes planted for erosion control. In its young form it has a nice pyramid shape, but as it grows taller, the canopy tends to flatten out. The wind may shape its branches into various shapes, especially in coastal areas or on windy mountaintops. They tend to self seed and may become invasive in some areas. They grow rapidly, up to six feet in one year, and are the most rapidly growing pine tree in the world. This makes them useful as a landscape tree, but given their height when mature, they're not appropriate for all locations. Pruning new growth back in spring can help keep their rapid growth rate under control. Dead or dying branches should also be pruned when possible. They do best planted near the coast; when planted inland they may not survive more than a few years; perhaps they have this in common with true native Californians, who feel out of sorts if they don't live by the shore.

Soil

To reach their majestic heights, Monterey pines need a fairly rich soil with good drainage. It grows best in soils with a fair amount of sandstone nearby, hence its propensity for flourishing in specific coastal areas, like dunes or coastal bluffs. The soil must reach down deep to allow plenty of space for the roots; if the roots hit rock the tree may become unstable over time. If conditions are right, these trees can be effective for erosion control.

Light

Monterey pines can grow in partial shade to full sun. Their native habitats tend to be fairly sunny year round.

Water

Locations that tend to get waterlogged are not good for Monterey pines. But during times of drought, they can benefit from deep watering.

Temperature and Humidity

Monterey pines will not flourish in areas where temperatures go below freezing, though hey will tolerate cold temperatures as low as 20F. Their moisture needs are very low, but since they seem happiest and healthiest when growing on coastal bluffs, the humidity of the sea air may be a key to their long-term survival, including the coastal fog that proliferates on the central California coast.

Propagation

Monterey pines can be propagated by seed, though stratification may be necessary. Though these trees are widely cultivated via seeds or bare root plants, they have a tendency to be short-lived if their basic growing conditions are not met. In ideal conditions, they are long-lived and beautiful trees.