Pines are unique amongst conifers, as their needles are clustered in definite numbers. For those native to the Pacific Northwest, there are two-needled, three-needled and five-needled species. Cones range in size from two to over fifteen inches and the trees can range in height from under twenty to more than two-hundred feet.
Every area of our region has its own distinct species of Pine – from the twisted shore pine found along the coast to the massively upward, bold yellow pine in vast open areas east of the Cascades. Some are too gargantuan for the home garden and are best enjoyed in the wild or in urban parks and wild areas. Others can be kept pruned even as far as into a suitable bonsai specimen. Of the eight or nine species native to our region, there are several that are garden-worthy:
Pinus monticola – Western White Pine.
This is the bearer of the classic Pine Cone, and is probably the most widely distributed of our native pines, even though it is highly susceptible to the white pine blister-rust disease.
Easy to grow, the needles are soft and the bark has a slightly raised checkerboard texture. Though it can easily reach fifty feet in a garden setting, it is adaptable to pruning and shaping and so can be kept smaller and so more adaptable to the home garden.
Pinus albicaulis – Whitebark Pine.
Because of the slow growth of the Whitebark Pine, it might be best as a bonsai or miniature rock garden specimen. (Photo credit goes to Ben Legler, University of Washington)
Rugged and dwarfed by high alpine wind and weather, its stark beauty in the wild cannot be quite reproduced in our tamer gardens; still, it’s an interesting and attractive possibility for Westside gardens!
Pinus ponderosa – Ponderosa Pine.
This massive tree is highly recognizable with its five-inch long needles and bristly brown cones, buff-colored bark, either standing alone or mixed with other conifers, mostly east of the Cascades; this is the Yellow pine that can grow up to two hundred feet with a maximum girth of fifteen to twenty feet! But there is also a strain of Pinus ponderosa that is native to the Willamette Valley, a little smaller in stature and more adaptable to our wetter weather.
(There are other native three-needled pines, but they are not common in our area: P.. attenuate, P. jefferyi)
Pinus contorta – Shore Pine or Lodgepole Pine.
Pinus contorta is our only native two-needled pine, but one of the most common conifers, appearing from the wind-swept sandy coast to rugged timberline, and on either side of the Cascades.
The various forms of P. contorta, given their range and adaptability, are especially suitable for containers and bonsai, as well as manageable for smaller garden spaces.
So widespread, and in such dramatically different conditions and ecosystems, that it has developed very distinct and separate variations. Botanists have identified two separate races:
Pinus contorta var. contorta
This lowland variety is the western Shore Pine; found along the water in the San Juan Islands and along the coast of Washington and Oregon.
They are smallish trees, beautiful and sparse with tiny cones, often twisted and bent from the coastal winds, making them appear like oversized bonsai trees.
Pinus contora var. latifolia
The Lodgepole Pine and Sierra Lodgepole or Tamarask Pine (P. contorta ssp. murrayana) are similar in makeup but are found in higher elevation, upright stands that often appear after fire. The tall, straight matchstick form of the lodgepole pine can also be dwarfed and twisted like its coastal cousin in the face of harsh, high mountain wind and weather.
Common Name: Pine
Native Range: From low elevation to highest, coast to far east of the Cascades, depending on species
Characteristics: Evergreen, needle-like leaves bundled in twos, threes or fives. Slow to fast growing, in the wild some species can reach up to 200’ in height. All produce cones.
Culture: Prefers full sun and good drainage. Many are tolerant of poor soils. Some make excellent container/bonsai choices.
Pests/Diseases: Pines are susceptible to a variety of fungus and insect pests, though most are not severe problems in home gardens. The exceptions are white pine blister-rusts (five-needled species) and pine-shoot moth (especially two-needled species).
Pines are also sometimes compromised in general health and vigor due to urban pollution and situations of poor drainage.