The world’s largest pine, the sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana), is native to the mountains of the Pacific Coast from Oregon to Baja CA. Sugar pines can live 400 or 500 years and attain heights of over 200 feet with trunks over 31 feet in circumference – truly majestic trees!
Crooked trunks are rarely seen in sugar pines. As the tree grows older the lower limbs fall off leaving a trunk clean of branches with very little taper. The crown, which begins high up on the bole (trunk), does not display the symmetrical form of many conifers, but rather is irregular. I had to search a long time to find a young sugar pine with needles within reach since the bottom branches of mature trees are so high.
For such a large tree the needles are small, growing only 2 to 4 inches in length in bundles of five. The cones, erect at first then pendulous in the second year, are the longest of any conifer, up to 24 inches in length. The red-brown scales on the cone are unarmed with a purplish brown interior. The seeds are large, approximately 1/2 inch in length. The tree exudes a sweet, gummy sap (resin) which forms rock-candy like shapes.
The light wood is easily milled or worked, resists deformity, is straight grained and is free from odor, making it most desirable for a multitude of uses including finishing, boxes, and even organ pipes.
Unfortunately sugar pines are highly suseptable to white pine blister rust, which is caused by the fungus Cronrtium ribicola and is attacked by the mountain pine beetle, Dendroctonus ponderosae.
Native Americans collected and ate the large, nutritious seeds and the irregular resin exudate. The sap and resin are sweet, thus the common name. Indeed the sap is sweet. However, every time I collect and eat sugar pine resin I manage to get my hands, clothes and camera all gummy and sticky so do not taste it often.
The species name honors the British botanist, Aylmer Bourke Lambert (1761-1842), who illustrated a folio of all the conifers known at the time.
These specimens were near Lotus Pond in Lassen Volcanic National Park (CA).
An East Coast native, I was an adult before encountering my first sugar pine. This grand tree rapidly became one of my favorites.