Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) grows in subalpine and alpine regions up to the tree line – from 6,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation. It grows on exposed ridges, broken bare rock and shallow rocky soils. This cold, windswept home with deep winter snowpack results in trees that are small, twisted, gnarled and multi-stemmed, partially fused at the base. The branches are tough and flexible to withstand the high winds. Amazingly, whitebark pines can live from 400 to 700 years of age in this harsh environment.
Whitebark pine bark is greyish white, separated by furrows when the tree is mature. The inner bark under the scales is red brown and often is visible between the scales. The needles (leaves) are tightly clustered and grow in bundles of five. There is a stomatal bloom on all the needle surfaces.
The cones of whitebark pine are the shortest of all the pines with needles in bundles of five. Maturing in the second year, the cones are purplish brown to tan, have short stalks and have thick scales with pointed tips. Whitebark pine cones do not open to release their seeds until they disintegrate on the ground or birds and animals tear them apart. When the brown seeds are in the cone they have wings, but when released the seed wings remain on the scales. Without wings the seeds remain confined near the mother tree unless they are carried off by animals or birds. About 90% of the seeds are dispersed or cached by birds, squirrels and chipmunks. Clark’s nutcrackers (Nucifraga columbiana)at high altitude are particularly dependent on whitebark pine seeds for survival. (see posts on Clark’s nutcrackers from 11-02-12 and 10-01-14). Leonard and I spent at least a half hour searching for a complete whitebark pine cone at Cloudcap (Crater Lake National Park in Oregon where these photographs were taken) without success. Every cone was torn apart, presumably by the Clark’s nutcrackers.
There are many threats to the survival of whitebark pine stands. Not only is this high elevation species intolerant to shade and easily killed by fire, white pine blister rust, mountain pine beetle and limber pine dwarf mistletoe also imperil whitebark pine.
Native Americans used the fibrous roots of whitebark pine to sew together bark and to make watertight containers. They also removed the seeds from the cones, roasted them and either ate the roasted seeds whole or ground into a flour.
I love these hardy, picturesque trees even though we must often endure cold temperatures, high winds and even snow to enjoy them. (Notice the remains of a September snowstorm in the picture labeled “Gnarled and Twisted”.)