Jeff Green | Mar 05, 2009
Back to HomeOutdoors in the Land O'lakes - March 5, 2009 The Eastern White PineBy Lorraine Julien
High above other trees in the forest tower the magnificent eastern white pines. The eastern white pine is native to North America growing across eastern Canada from Newfoundland to Manitoba. This is one of four native Ontario pine trees made famous by landscape artists. The eastern white can be identified from the other pines by the bundles of five soft green needles. Since one of its preferred habitats is along lakeshores and points, it’s no wonder we still have a fairly large number of these trees in the Land O’Lakes.
According to history, in 1806, Napoleon effectively cut off lumber supplies to Britain from the Baltic countries. As a result, in 1809, the huge British trading fleet turned their sights toward Canada. This eventually led to a logging boom that spread quickly up the Ottawa Valley and into the vast pine forests. Tens of thousands of pines were cut annually as wood quickly became Canada’s largest export. Intense logging continued for 100 years.
The ancient pines that once dominated the virgin forests soared more than 10 stories high. The size of the pines made them very desirable for British ship masts which had to be 75-100 feet in length and 2-3 feet wide at the base. The very best trees were then stamped by the Crown and reserved for the British Navy. Many other pines were cut into shorter lengths: 40-60 foot long square timbers which were bound together and floated down the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers in huge rafts bound for British sawmills.
As the lumberjacks pushed further into the interior, the quickly expanding U.S. construction market eventually replaced Britain as the major customer for our Ontario pines. Most of the great stands of white pine were gone by the Second World War and today barely 2% of Ontario’s forests are white pine. Ontario’s largest remaining old-growth white pines are in Obabika, Temagami – 6,000 acres.
It’s interesting to note that the old growth pines had a lifespan up to 450 years! This means that any of the surviving old growth trees could have started life in the 1600’s! They reached maturity at about 250 years and could reach a maximum height of 240 feet.
In contrast, today’s white pines average 72-188 feet high. As huge and majestic as these trees are, they are still no match for the fury of Mother Nature though. It is only a few years ago that a microburst swept through parts of North Frontenac Township wiping out a beautiful stand of white pines in the village of Cloyne as well as touching down in a number of other nearby areas.
Though many animals and birds visit and make their homes in these pines, a most frequent visitor is the pine warbler. It loves to use the sheltering branches for its nests that are usually built in a clump of pine needles or on top of a pine bough between 15 and 80 feet from the ground.
The eastern white pine was called the Tree of Peace by the Iroquois because of its size and grace, and the many medicines it yielded. Because of its antiseptic value, resin was smeared on wounds as a healing ointment and was also boiled to make a tonic drink! The needles are rich in Vitamin C and when boiled made a tea that helped to prevent scurvy.
The resin was also used by First Nations people to seal the seams in canoes; later pine resins became the source of industrial products such as pitch and turpentine.
In the late 1800s, pine became a popular ingredient in many medicines. The strong scent penetrated blocked sinuses and the smell, alone, made the user feel as though it was doing some good.
To this day, there are still some cold remedies sold to relieve coughs and congestion that contain chemical compounds derived from pines. (I checked my Buckley’s cough medicine and, sure enough, one of the ingredients is pine needle oil!) Another chemical found in pines is stanol which is said to help to reduce LDL “bad” cholesterol levels.