Pitch Pine Plant Profile

Pitch pine trees growing near water with lake in background.

 Tab Tannery / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Pitch pine, also known as Pinus rigida, is a native tree seen throughout the Northeast United States and eastern Canada. On average it reaches thirty to forty feet in height but it can grow to almost a hundred feet in ideal conditions. It's the tree that makes up most of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. There are also large numbers of them in upstate New York near Albany, Long Island, and on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Pitch pines can live to be over two hundred years old, and tend to achieve their maximum height after ninety years. This tree is known to hybridize with other pine species such as loblolly pines (Pinus tieda), or pond pines (Pinus serotina), also known as a subspecies of pitch pine. The pitch pine has a tendency to regenerate growth after damage (cutting or burning) and will sprout twisting branches that may curve in different directions. This tendency can create an unusual,somewhat "open" shape and makes the pitch pine a sought-after species for bonsai enthusiasts. It has a rich dark green color to its needles; new growth is a yellowish green, easily recognizable.

Pitch pine has a place in American history as one of the main choices used for constructing radio towers, ship building and railroad ties. It was also used to make tar and turpentine. Its high pitch content makes it resistant to decay and therefore useful for certain building purposes. The pitch also has medicinal uses; the Iroquois tribes of the Northeast used it for various healing purposes, including making poultices for wounds, burns and joint pain. Being a fairly soft wood, yet mostly waterproof, it was also know to be used for carvings and canoe making by various Native American tribes.

Botanical Name Pinus rigida
Common Name Pitch pine
Plant Type Evergreen Tree
Mature Size 40' - 90'
Sun Exposure Full sun to partial shade
Soil Type Well-drained with decayed material; tolerates most soils
Soil pH acidic to neutral
Bloom Time N/A
Flower Color N/A
Hardiness Zones Hardy to Zone 4
Native Areas Northeast USA, Eastern Canada
Brownish red cones clustered on tree with long dark green needles.
The pitch pines cones form in clusters and stay on the tree for several years.  Kent McFarland / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

How to Grow Pitch Pine

These hardy trees come in several cultivars, including "Sandy Beach" which is found in Maine, and is particularly tolerant of salt conditions and poor soil culture. Another is "Sherman Eddy," a dwarf form discovered in the Poconos of Pennsylvania. These majestic trees have a thick bark that grows like armored plates. The bark starts out a reddish brown color that matures to grey and then almost to black.

The tree produces small cones, about two inches long, that take two years to mature and grow in clusters of three to five. Unlike many pines, the cones on pitch pines tend to remain on the tree for several years, instead of falling. As pitch pines grow older, they tend to take on interesting shapes, as branches regenerate in response to wind or other weather damage. This makes them a picturesque landscape option. In woodland settings, other trees are more likely to overtake and crowd out these trees, especially if there are good nutrients and drainage in the soil. Planting them where little else will grow may just yield a healthy pitch forest over time. They tend to be fire resistant, making them long-term survivors in the woodland.

Soil

The pitch pine is not very fussy about soil, and is known for flourishing in soils that other plants can't survive in, including soil that is acidic, sandy or nutrient-deficient. They will tend to self seed better in areas where there is some leaf litter and some decent moisture retention in the soil. They are also tolerant of salt soils, which explains why they flourish on Cape Cod.

Light

Pitch pines can grow in partial shade conditions, if there is not too much competition from oaks or other hardwood trees, which, being faster growing than pitch pines, will often replace them after fire damages woodlands. They grow best with full sun and plenty of room to establish their roots.

Water

The pitch pine tree will grow in extreme conditions including drought, but its long term health may suffer if drought becomes the norm. Moisture retention is better with soils having a bit more clay or loam, but pitch pine grows fairly reliably even with thin soils and infrequent rainfall.

Temperature and Humidity

These trees are very hardy in cold temperatures and will survive in places as cold as USDA Zone 4. They don't have any needs in terms of humidity, and get enough moisture in the native regions of the Northeast where they tend to grow, near deciduous forests.

Propagation

The best way to propagate these trees is with seedlings. The young seedlings have a better chance of survival if soil is rich and with good drainage, and with full sun conditions.

Toxicity

Pitch pines are not useful for nutritional value for wildlife, but like many conifers and evergreens, the new buds in spring may be eaten. Other plant pieces are toxic if consumed. The wood has a high resin content, and so is not suitable for use in indoor fireplaces or wood stoves, but can be useful for outdoor bonfires. It is pleasantly fragrant when burned but due to the resin it may have a tendency to "pop" when burning, so caution should be used in outdoor settings.