What Is A Sugar Pine Tree – Sugar Pine Tree Information
By: Teo Spengler
What is a sugar pine tree? Everyone knows about sugar maples, but sugar pine trees are less familiar. Yet, facts about sugar pine trees (Pinus lambertiana) make clear their status as important and noble trees. And sugar pine wood – even-grained and satin-textured – is considered as good at it gets in terms of quality and value. Read on for more sugar pine tree information.
Facts About Sugar Pine Trees
Sugar pines are the tallest and biggest of the pine tree clan, second only to the giant sequoia in sheer bulk. These pine trees can grow to 200 feet (60 m.) tall with a trunk diameter of 5 feet (1.5 m.), and live past 500 years.
Sugar pines bear three-sided needles, about 2 inches (5 cm.) long, in clusters of five. Each side of each needle is marked by a white line. The pine tree seedlings grow deep taproots at a young age. Their early growth is slow, but it becomes more rapid as the tree gets older.
Sugar pine trees support some shade when they are young, but become less shade tolerant as they age. Trees that grow in stands with taller specimens decline over time.
Wildlife appreciate sugar pines when the trees are young, and even larger mammals use dense stands of seedlings as cover. As the trees grow taller, birds and squirrels build nests in them, and tree cavities are occupied by woodpeckers and owls.
Lumbermen also prize the sugar pine tree. They admire its wood, which is light-weight but stable and workable. It is used for window and door frames, doors, molding and specialty products like piano keys.
Where Do Sugar Pine Grow?
If you hope to see a sugar pine, you may ask “Where do sugar pine grow?” Emblematic of the Sierra Nevada, sugar pines also grow in other parts of the West. Their range stretches from the Cascade Range in Oregon through the Klamath and Siskiyou Mountain and into Baja California.
You will generally find these mighty trees growing from 2,300 to 9,200 feet (700-2805 m.) above sea level in forests of mixed conifers.
How to Identify Sugar Pine
If you are wondering how to identify sugar pine, it is not very difficult once you know what you are looking for.
You can readily identify sugar pine trees by their massive trunks and large, asymmetrical branches. The branches dip slightly from the weight of huge, woody cones. The cones grow up to 20 inches (50 cm.) long, with straight, thick scales.
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Pine Nuts From Sugar Pine Trees
I'm sure that others know all about the joys of fresh pine nuts, but for those who haven't discovered the amazing goodness that are large pine nuts harvested yourself.
In my area (far N. California
4000' elevation) the Sugar Pines (Pinus lambertiana) are dropping their cones, which means pine nuts!
For those not familiar with them, Sugar Pines are very large (150' tall plus) pine trees that produce cones over a foot long. If you can get a full cone before it drops it's seeds you can get over an ounce of nuts from one cone but with the size of the trees it's pretty hard to get to the cones while they're still on the tree. I have used my bucket truck to get to some, but most the cones are out of reach of even that monstrosity. What I tend to do is just comb over the freshly fallen cones that are on the ground and I can usually get a few nuts out of each cone. Be ready to get pitchy, the cones are covered. Another method (that I'll admit I've only bothered to use once) is to spread old sheets around the trunk of the tree held down with rocks. The nuts stand out quite a bit on the sheets and you can just gather up the sheet and pour what nuts it collected into a bucket. I've also heard of people shooting the cones down from the tree with a small .22 rifle but I don't have any personal experience with that.
As far as the pine nuts themselves, they are delicious! Most nuts are bigger than a sunflower kernel, smaller than a peanut. 20 min or so of foraging beneath a decent sized tree will usually yield a handful of nuts which makes for a great trail-side snack when hiking the woods around here. Eating them reminds me of eating sunflower seeds: Crack the shell between your teeth then eat the kernel inside while throwing away the shells. The flavor of the raw nuts is very similar to almonds in my opinion.
"Instead of Pay It Forward I prefer Plant It Forward"
Howard Story / "God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools."
Feeding is not mandatory, but if you do feed, do it once each year in the spring just before dormancy breaks, using a 15-5-10 slow-release fertilizer. Spread the fertilizer in a band just under the outer perimeter of the pine's canopy, raking it into the top layer of the soil. Water the tree thoroughly immediately after feeding. Mulch the area around the base of the tree to a depth of 3 to 4 inches, and reapply mulch every 1 to 2 years. Once established, this tree requires little care.
The Scots is suitable for growing in USDA hardiness zones 2 to 9, depending on the variety. Several naturally occurring varieties have been cataloged:
- P. sylvestris var. sylvestris is found across most of the naturally occurring range, from Scotland and Spain to central Siberia. This is the tree, along with its cultivated varieties, that are normally planted in landscape applications, and is the one planted and harvested for the Christmas tree market.
- P. sylvestris var. hamata Steven is native to the Balkans, northern Turkey, Crimea, and the Caucasus.
- P. sylvestris var. mongolica occurs naturally in Mongolia and in parts of southern Siberia and northwestern China.
- PInus sylvestric or Waterer Scotch pine is a modest-sized cultivar, growing to 20 feet with a spread of 12 feet. It is a relatively slow-growing form and is more useful as an accent specimen than other, larger varieties.
The Scots pine is monoecious, which means that it bears both male and female reproductive parts. A Scotch pine does not need another Scots pine to reproduce it can reproduce on its own.
Douglas, white and red firs grow in California. The red fir cones are the largest of the three types of firs. The 6- to 9-inch cylindrical shaped cones fall apart when mature. This is also true of the 3- to 5-inch cones on white fir. Red and white fir cones that stand erect on tree branches are rarely found on the ground. The 3- to 5-inch cones on Douglas firs have three-pronged bracts that cover the cone sides.
- Sugar pine cones are considered one of the largest cones in the world.
- The 3- to 5-inch cones on Douglas firs have three-pronged bracts that cover the cone sides.
Canary Island Pine (Pinus canariensis)
This very large tree gradually develops a parasol-like canopy as it matures. It is a very sturdy, durable tree that tolerates most soil types. However, it does not tolerate cold. It is not a common landscape tree but is often farmed for its valuable, aromatic lumber.
Canary Island pine has three needles per bundle.
- Native Area: Canary Islands (Spain)
- USDA Growing Zones: 9 to 11
- Height: 50 to 80 feet
- Sun Exposure: Full sun
The Great Sugar Pine
Article by Dr. Tom Atzet, retired Forest Ecologist, fomer SOLC Board member and hike guide
Looking down from a drone or at an aerial photo, sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana) stands out from its neighbors. It resembles a star or octupus. Branches stick out laterally and needles occur in short bundles of five. Ponderosa pine, a common neighbor, has three much longer needles and it is noticeably more compact. These differences can be used to discriminate between the two tree species even from the next ridge over.
Distribution range of sugar pine.
The widest part of sugar pine’s range is along the Oregon-California border, where it is lightly scattered throughout much of our unique and famously diverse Klamath Mountains. They grow north as far as Eugene, but just barely. Sugar pine trees lack the tolerance for cold fall events in the Willamette Valley, where Douglas-fir and Western hemlock are better adapted. To the south of our region, stands rapidly diminish to a few small secluded and disjointed populations scattered in the higher elevations of the Mexican Sierras. However, the most dense and extensive stands occur north of the Red Butte Mountains, within the Red Buttes Wilderness in far northern California, and southwest of Applegate Lake in Oregon.
Erosion of the Red Buttes, consisting of granitics, seafloor metamorphics, and peridotite (mantle rock), has provided a rich, deep, slightly basic (alkaline) mixture of soils, perfect for sugar pine. The Buttes (around 7000 feet in elevation) scrub the clouds of moisture keeping the soils saturated early in the growing season.
Sugar pine cones can grow up to 18 inches, but average a foot long. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.
Sugar pine is actually sugary. Its sap is sticky-sweet and its large seeds, often sold as pine nuts, are yummy. The kernels are lodged on the scales inside the longest conifer cone found anywhere in the world. They grow up to 18 inches, but average about one foot. However, the massive cone is still lighter than the resinous 13 pound Coulter pine cone. In either case, unless you’re fast, it’s a good idea not to linger under the trees during the fall squirrel harvest. Being hit by one of these cones can cause serious personal injury. But northwest squirrels are weak and have notoriously poor aim.
The big seeds contain enough energy to provide an initial germination advantage over Douglas-fir and Ponderosa pine. But, both competitors are more tolerant of hot, dry soil and shallow water reservoirs. Where sugar pine repeatedly wilts and gradually dies, Ponderosa pine prospers. Foresters see sugar pine as an indicator of deep moist soils and high commercial biomass production.
This sugar pine, found in California, made it on the list of American Forests Champion Trees in 2016. It is the largest known tree of its species in the country. Check out Champion Trees National Register to view more champions and submit nominees.
Where sugar pine occurs with Douglas-fir or ponderosa pine, it is usually the largest tree in the stand. It can be one quarter to one third larger. In the Red Buttes, trees with a diameter of eight feet (about 300 inches in circumference) can be found, but rarely. Although noticeably larger, they are usually similar in age as their neighbors. The ability of sugar pine trees to store processed sugars allow them to continue to produce wood later in the summer while their neighbors become dormant.