When decorating for the holidays, don’t overlook the lovely White Pine, Michigan’s state tree

Go green by considering a native tree species to help dress up your December.

As many find themselves in some stage of preparing for the holidays, including choosing the right Christmas tree, wreath and other holiday greens for decorating, consider making a green choice this season. Michigan State University Extension encourages you to consider a native species, the magnificent white pine, which also just happens to be the state tree of Michigan. White pine, also known by the scientific name Pinus strobus as well as the common name Eastern White Pine, is one of two Michigan native conifers commonly used for Christmas trees, the other being the balsam fir.

While it is not uncommon to find white pines in home landscapes, they also occur as part of several natural community types found all across Michigan. The University of Michigan Herbarium describes the white pine as being found “often in mixed forests (hemlock-white pine-northern hardwoods) but also on sandy plains and dunes with red and sometimes jack pine, bogs with tamarack, in swamps (mixed or on banks, rather than deciduous swamps or floodplains) on rock ridges, and even in cedar swamps.”   

There are many reasons why the white pine makes an excellent choice for a Christmas tree. It has a great light green color, a soft feathery texture due to its long thin needles making it less stiff compared to other varieties, and a pleasing dense and bushy form. In addition, it also has good needle retention throughout the holiday season unlike other varieties which can get dry and drop. A great characteristic of the white pine that makes it a suitable choice for those who have sensitivities or allergies to other strong-smelling trees is that the white pine is less fragrant than other varieties, but is by no means scent-less.

The white pine also has multiple characteristics that make it very identifiable. For example, it is the only pine in Michigan with five soft, flexible needles in a cluster. It also has a cylindrical seed cone which is at least twice as long as it is wide and whose scales overlap to create a flexible cone. The branches are arranged in a distinctive whorl, with another ring of branches added each year. Finally, branches at the top of tall trees in exposed situations tend to become bent away from the direction of the prevailing winds, giving it a distinct wind-swept appearance and unique shape, making it identifiable from a distance.  Some branches are so high up that they sway in the wind, and were called the “whispering pine” by Native Americans.

Not to be overlooked, the white pine is Michigan’s most historically significant tree species. The white pine was the backbone of the lumber industry for centuries because white pines have few knots, or scars, from lower branches. White pines tended to have few lower branches and were mostly trunk, growing so close together that only the very top-most branches received sunlight.

The white pine was the subject of a lumber boom in Michigan which took place during the last part of the nineteenth century from about 1850-1900. During this time, Michigan led the nation in lumber production. Between 1834 and 1897, an estimated 160 million trees were cut in Michigan. Michigan provided much of the lumber that was needed to rebuild Chicago after it was destroyed by fire. Hartwick Pines State Park is the site of the largest areas of remaining old growth forests in the Lower Peninsula, which is the last place logged in the Lower Peninsula during the logging boom, and where you can get a feel for what the State used to be like. It is located in Crawford and Otsego counties.

For more information about choosing the right Christmas tree, visit the Michigan State University Extension website

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