Pitch pine, officially known as Pinus rigida, is a native North American tree seen throughout the northeastern United States and eastern Canada. On average, it reaches 30 to 40 feet in height but can grow to almost 100 feet tall under ideal conditions. The pitch pine has a tendency to regenerate growth after damage (like cutting or burning) and will sprout twisting branches that may curve in different directions. As pitch pines grow older, they tend to take on interesting shapes, making them a picturesque landscape option and a sought-after species for bonsai enthusiasts. The tree has rich, dark green needles, and new growth that comes in as a bright, yellowish-green. The small 2-inch cones grow in clusters of three to five.
Best planted in the spring, pitch pine trees grow slowly, often taking between 20 and 30 years to reach maturity—1 foot of growth per year is typical. These long-lived trees can live well over a century.
|Common Name||Pitch pine, candlewood pine, torch pine|
|Botanical Name||Pinus rigida|
|Plant Type||Coniferous tree|
|Mature Size||40–90 ft. tall, 30–50 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full, partial|
|Soil Type||Sandy, well-draining|
|Soil pH||Acidic to neutral (5.0–6.5)|
|Flower Color||Green (insignificant)|
|Hardiness Zones||4–7 (USDA)|
|Native Areas||Eastern North America|
Pitch Pine Care
The pitch pine will grow best in sandy, rocky soils where most trees struggle. In woodland plantings, it is best suited to grow in areas with poorer soil, as other trees can easily overwhelm it. Give it plenty of space—25 to 60 feet away from other trees
Care is minimal. This tree normally thrives with roughly 1/2 inch of water per week, but month-long droughts will not harm a mature tree. Prune away dead or diseases branches, but pruning for shape is not necessary, as a twisted, gnarly appearance is normal for this species.
Pitch pine trees grow best when planted in full sunlight, but they are fine in partial shade conditions, as long as there's not too much nearby competition from oaks or other hardwood trees. For optimal growth, plant it where it can get at least six to eight hours of sunlight daily.
The pitch pine is not very fussy about its soil makeup and is known for flourishing in blends that other plants can't survive in, including soil that is especially acidic, sandy, or nutrient-deficient. However, they will tend to self-seed better in areas where there is some leaf litter or compost, as well as decent moisture retention in the soil. Pitch pines are also tolerant of salty soils, which explains why they flourish in coastal locations like Cape Cod. These trees prefer an acidic soil pH, below 6.0, but can tolerate neutral soils. Alkaline soils will need to be amended if you want to grow this tree.
Pitch pine trees will grow adequately in extreme conditions, including drought, and will thrive with just a small amount of water each week. However, the tree's long-term health may suffer if drought-like conditions become the norm. Moisture retention is better when the tree is planted in a soil blend that has clay or loam, but pitch pine grows fairly reliably even with thin soils and infrequent rainfall.
Temperature and Humidity
These trees grow well in zones 4 to 7 and will easily survive temperatures as low as minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit. They need cool winters and do not do well in warm southern climates. Pitch pines accept both arid and humid climates, though extreme humidity can make them prone to fungal diseases.
Pitch pines generally do not need any feeding, but in very poor soils, perform a soil test to determine what deficiencies exist, if any, and what kind of fertilizer would be needed to address them.
Types of Pitch Pine
The native species plant is the one most often grown, but there are a couple of cultivars to be aware of:
- 'Little Giant' is a slow-growing dwarf form. It is sometimes sold as 'Sherman Eddy'. It grows to only about 15 feet, with pom-pom tufted branches.
- 'Sand Beach' is a low-growing prostrate form of pitch pine. It grows very slowly, taking 10 years to reach its mature height of 5 feet.
Except for the removal of dead or diseased branches, pruning is not necessary for this tree. It tends to take an open, irregular, twisted shape, especially when growing in an exposed location, and there is no reason to attempt taming it into a classic shape. In landscape use, it is the twisty, gnarly shape that is the appeal, and if anything, you might want to style the tree in a manner to exaggerate this.
Dead or diseased branches should be removed whenever they are noticed. Any other type of pruning is best done during winter dormancy.
Propagating Pitch Pine
Pitch pine in normally propagated from the seeds collected from the cones of mature trees (see below). Vegetative propagation is possible by rooting stem cuttings, though this is a more difficult process than with other plants. If you do want to try rooting some branch cuttings, here's how to do it:
- Use sharp pruners to cut some 4- to 6-inch stems of current year's growth from the tips of branches.
- Remove the needles from the lower one-third of each cutting, and dip the bare end into rooting hormone.
- Plant the cuttings in pots filled with a mixture of pine bark, peat or perlite, and coarse sand.
- Moisten the pot, then place it under a plastic cover (a loosely secured plastic bag works well).
- Place the pot in a bright location and watch until new growth appears on the cutting. This indicates the cutting has developed roots.
- Remove the cover and continue growing the cutting in a sunny but protected location for a full year. The pot can be dug down into the ground for winter protection. When the cutting is a full foot or more in height, it is ready to be planted in the landscape.
How to Grow Pitch Pine from Seed
Commercial propagation of pitch pines is normally done by planting seeds collected from mature trees. A pitch pine's cones do not begin producing fertile seeds until the tree is usually four to five years old. The seeds can easily be collected by picking off some dry, mature cones, and letting them continue to dry indoors until the seeds inside can be shaken loose. Plant the loose seeds on the surface of trays or pots filled with a mixture of coarse sand and commercial potting soil. Barely cover the seeds with additional potting mix. Cover the containers in plastic and place them in a bright, warm location until they sprout. Germination rates are uneven, so make sure to plant many seeds to ensure success.
After sprouting, remove the plastic and continue to grow the seedlings in a sunny but protected location. When the seeds are about 4 inches tall, they can be transplanted into larger pots, if necessary, to continue growing. Seed propagation is a slow process, as seedlings may require two years or more before they are sufficiently large to plant—1 foot or more in height.
These hardy trees require no winter protection against cold, but small trees can be the target for deers or rabbits, so you may want to shield them with shells of metal hardware cloth or fencing. Once the tree is four or five years old, they no longer need this protection.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
One of the advantages of pitch pine is that the species is much more resistant to many of the diseases and pests that affect more exotic pine species. But pitch pine can still be at risk from some pests and diseases, especially before they reach 10 years of age.
Southern pine beetle is the principal insect threat to pitch pine. The beetles burrow into the bark, which sometimes causes trails of the pitch to be evident. As insect damage grows, the tree's needles may first turn yellow, then brownish orange. In woodland infestations, the recommendation is usually to remove and destroy affected trees, but in a landscape situation, it's possible to have an arborist apply protective sprays of pyrethroid insecticides, though this is an expensive option.
The common diseases affecting pitch pine are usually fungal in nature:
- Blister rust is a fungal disease that may cause the bark on branches to swell and rupture. There is no effective treatment, other than to remove and destroy affected trees.
- Pitch canker causes wood discoloration and dieback. The tips of branches may turn yellow and die back, with damage gradually spreading to the entire tree. The fungus does not spread within the tree, however, so removing and destroying affected branches may control the disease.
- Needle rust causes yellow or orange spots or bands on the tree's needles, which gradually fall off. It is generally a mild disease, best handled by keeping the tree well-watered through dry periods.
Common Problems With Pitch Pine
Other than the insect and diseases issues common to this tree, pitch pine elicits only a few complaints:
The pitch pine has fairly rigid, brittle wood, and heavy snows and harsh winter winds may cause a substantial amount of limb breakage. Simply prune off the damaged limbs. Over time, this causes the tree to take on an interesting twisty, gnarly shape, which is one of the principal reasons people plant this species. This is not the pine species to plant if you want the classic Christmas-tree look.
No Pine Cones
Homeowners who like the look of the pitch pine's clusters of cones are sometimes disappointed when their new tree does not produce them. Be patient; it is fairly normal for a young tree to take as much as five years before it begins producing cones.
How is this tree used in the landscape?
Pitch pine does not have the classic shapeliness of other conifers, but its open, twisty shape can make it an interesting specimen for the landscape. It also can work well in native woodland locations where few other trees grow well. They tend to be fire-resistant, making them long-term survivors in the woodland.
Does the tree have commercial uses?
Pitch pine trees have a well-earned place in American history as a useful building material, thanks to the wood's high pitch content, which makes it resistant to decay. It has been one of the main choices for use in constructing radio towers and has found its way into the building of ships and railroad ties, as well as the making of tar and turpentine.
The tree also has storied medicinal uses—the Iroquois tribes of the Northeast used it for its various healing purposes, including making poultices for wounds, burns, and joint pain. Given that it is a fairly soft wood (yet mostly waterproof), it was also used for carvings and canoe making by various Native American tribes.
Do these trees attract wildlife?
The plentiful seeds shed from cones in midwinter are very important food sources for a variety of winter birds and small animals. This tree also hosts the non-damaging imperial moth larvae.
How long does a pitch pine tree live?
This is a long-lived tree that will survive about 120 years, on average. There are documented instances of pitch pines that are more than 300 years old.
Is the pitch pine dangerous to plant in wild-fire regions?
This tree is full of pitchy resin, so its wood does burn readily. But pitch pine survives fire exceptionally well. Even a tree that appears destroyed by fire will often begin growing again. That said, pine trees in general are not good choices if you live in an area where wildfire is a common danger.
Fire Ecology. United States Department of Agriculture.
Chwalkowski, Farrin. Symbols in Arts, Religion and Culture: The Soul of Nature. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016.