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Article #68, February, 2003
By Bill Cook

     Hey, we sure have a lot of pines in the forest!  They’re easy to see in the winter, with all the leaves off the trees. 

     Actually, most of the “pines” aren’t pines at all.  Most of them are probably cedar, fir, or spruce.  We have only three native pines in our forest, white, red, and jack.  An exotic, Scotch pine, has established itself in a few places.  The other seven species of common evergreens, or conifers, are not pines.  And then, there are a handful of not-so-common conifer species.

     So, what makes a pine, a pine?  The easiest answer is that Michigan pines have either 2 or 5 needles bundled at the base by a small, papery wrapping called a “fascicle”.  The cones are also more woody than the cones from other conifers.  There are also a host of botanical differences that are less obvious. 

     The most common pine in the Upper Peninsula, by volume, is white pine, followed by red pine and jack pine.  In terms of the number of trees, reverse the order.  White pine is also Michigan’s state tree.  The species has the distinction of being Michigan’s tallest tree and played a key role in the settlement of the region.  It has five needles in bundle, with cones 3-7 inches long.  It’s beautiful tree with many uses.

     Red pine, or Norway pine, is one of the most commonly planted tree species.  Most plantations are red pine, although white spruce, jack pine, and European larch are common, too.  Red and jack pine reproduction ecology depends upon wildfire, a factor largely eliminated in our modern landscape.  Red pine is one of our swiftest growing trees and is excellent material for lumber and pulp.  It has the longest needles, up to 6 or 7 inches long, with two needles per bundle.

    Jack pine is the scrappy cousin.  It has the remarkable ability to grow on some of our poorest sands and won’t reach the size or age of white or red pine.  About three-quarters of jack pine cones are “glued” shut.  It takes a temperature of about 120 degrees to open these “serotinous” cones.  Typically, it’s a wildfire that generates enough heat to melt the “glue”.  For several days after the fires pass, the seeds fall on a perfect seed bed of scorched vegetation and mineral soil.  While jack pine provides good fiber for wood pulp and can also be used for lumber, it’s major claim to fame is probably its habitat association with the endangered Kirtland’s warbler. 

     Worldwide, there are about 90 species of pines, with about 35 species native to the USA.  Within the family Pinaceae, there are about 210 species throughout the world consisting of pines, larches, spruces, firs, hemlocks, and Douglas-fir.  

     Surprising to some, all conifers lose needles each year.  This is obvious to anyone who has a big pine in their yard.  The older needles are shed in the fall at the same as the leaves from deciduous trees.  Tamarack loses all of its needles each fall, making it a “deciduous conifer”. 

     Pines are important elements in our landscape, for many reasons.  Thermal cover and protection from severe weather are key wildlife habitat features.  Bald eagles prefer dead tops of tall white pine for nesting.  The contribution to forest products is significant, although Michigan is primarily a hardwood state and imports most of its softwood needs.  Pines comprise about 11 percent of Michigan’s wood volume, about 9 percent in the U.P. forests.  The species group also conjures up rich images of the forest and evokes striking aesthetic values.  Numerous lakes, roads, towns, and other place names reflect the presence of pine trees. 

     The next time you notice a stand of beautiful pines, make sure they are really pines, and enjoy the view!

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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at cookwi@msu.edu or 906-786-1575.

Prepared by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005 J Road, Escanaba, MI  49829
906-786-1575 (voice),  906-786-9370 (fax),  e-mail:  cookwi@msu.edu

Use / reprinting of these articles is encouraged. Please notify Bill Cook.
By-line should read "Bill Cook, MSU Extension" Please use the article trailer whenever possible.

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