Pitch pine, also known as Pinus rigida, is a tree native to North America that's 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. Pitch pine is actually the tree that makes up most of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, and there are also large numbers of them in upstate New York, on Long Island, and on Cape Cod.
Best planted in the spring, pitch pine trees will grow slowly, often taking between 20 and 30 years to reach maturity (and continuing to grow into their 90s). 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. This tendency can create an unusual, somewhat "open" shape to the tree, and makes the pitch pine 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 tree produces 2-inch small cones that take two years to mature and grow in clusters of three to five. Unlike many pine trees, the cones on a pitch pine tend to remain on the tree for several years, instead of falling off. As pitch pines grow older, they tend to take on interesting shapes, as branches regenerate in response to wind or other weather damage, making them a picturesque landscape option.
|Botanical Name||Pinus rigida|
|Common Name||Pitch pine, candlewood pine, torch pine, black pine|
|Mature Size||40–90 ft. tall, 30–50 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun, partial shade|
|Soil Type||Sandy, well-draining|
|Soil pH||Neutral to acidic|
|Flower Color||Green (insignificant)|
|Hardiness Zones||4–7 (USDA)|
|Native Areas||North America|
Pitch Pine Care
Hardy pitch pine trees come in several cultivars, and features a thick bark that grows like armored plates around the tree's trunk. The bark starts out a reddish-brown color, then matures to grey and eventually almost to black. 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 pine forest over time. They tend to be fire-resistant, making them long-term survivors in the woodland.
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.
Pitch pine trees grow best when planted in full sunlight. That said, they can grow in partial shade conditions, as long as there's not too much nearby competition from oaks or other hardwood trees. Ultimately, you should plant your pitch pine tree somewhere that gets six to eight hours of sunlight daily for optimal growth.
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. They are also tolerant of salty soils, which explains why they flourish in coastal locations like Cape Cod.
Pitch pine treed will grow well enough in extreme conditions, including drought. 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 are very hardy in cold temperatures and will survive in places as cold as -25 degrees Fahrenheit. They also don't have any needs in terms of humidity and get enough moisture in their native Northeast regions, where they tend to grow near deciduous forests.
Pitch pines do not need fertilizer applications to thrive, but applying a well-balanced blend once a year won't hurt the tree. That said, doing so is unlikely to help the slow-growing tree grow faster.
Common Pests & Diseases
Pitch pines may encounter several issues throughout their (long) lifespan, many of which are damaging, but not deadly. The most common occurrences are fungal-related issues, which can manifest as pitch canker (which results in wood discoloration and dieback), white-pine blisters (characterized by oozing orange substance or white blisters on the tree), needle rust, and more.
Unfortunately, there are not too many ways to treat these diseases, especially if you're landscape has a robust pitch pine population. Your best bet is to periodically clear the trees of any damaged branches or needles and rake any dead leaves or debris away from their base.
Fire Ecology. United States Department of Agriculture.
Chwalkowski, Farrin. Symbols in Arts, Religion and Culture: The Soul of Nature. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016.
Pine Diseases. Clemson University Cooperative Extension Home and Garden Information Center.