The beautiful and majestic White Pine; the chief of the forest, Ontario’s provincial tree towers above other trees, and provides direction literally and figuratively. The white pine, pinus storbus
, has been used for directions, as due to prevailing winds, one side normally has longer branches which can aid in determining cardinal directions. Figuratively it has been used to provide people with spiritual guidance as the white pine is seen a protector that brings peace and comfort. I can remember as a young girl, climbing up tall white pines, trying to reach the heavens. I would sit at the top, breathing in deeply the sweet scent and relishing in the feel of the breeze and sunshine on my face. I could look out and see for miles, everything so much smaller and inconsequential. I was on top of the world, free as an eagle. In a white pine tree, I found a place that I felt safe and could gain perspective. I was protected from a harsh reality.
It is seen as a protector, due to the animals that rely on the species. In fact, the bald eagle that I felt like, often use the white pine’s height above the canopy and strength of the trunk to build their 3 ton nest! The bald eagles that nested by Cootes Paradise are a perfect example of this. It is a home and food source to many more animals, including squirrels, porcupines, black bears, wood peckers, red backed salamanders… The dense branching that blocks harsh winter winds and provides camouflage, make roosting sites for great horned owls, red tailed hawks, and mourning doves.
We also are a species that has relied on the white pine, beyond the directions it provided us. The needles make a delicious tea, rich in vitamin C. The inner bark makes a great snack that treats coughs. The tree has been used treat to heart disease, high blood pressure, muscle pain, swelling… Beyond being edible and having medicinal purposes, the tree was valued for its wood. The white pine’s lumber has been commercially valuable since the 1600’s. It resistant to water damage and its ability to grow tall and straight made it quite valuable in the shipping industry. It was squared on used for ship masts, bows and spits. Canadian white pine became especially valuable in when napoleon cut of the Baltic pots, so the British could not receive their timber. It was in such demand that early deed, called the broad arrow policy, had a clause that one could not cut down a white pine greater the 2ft wide as it belonged to the government (King George). If you did, you could be fined up 100 pounds, the equivalent of $25,000 today. However, if it fell down naturally and was unmarked, one could sell it to the government (or illegally sell to the higher paying French and Spanish) and be rich for the rest of your life. (Hence the term “windfall” when someone receives a large amount of money ) The government was so profitable off of the policy, that it is estimated 1/3 of their income came from white pine auctions and fees.
The harsh reality is that the value of the white pine has led it to become overharvested with abundances severely declining. At the peak of white pine logging, Ontario harvested more the 4million m3 in one year, compared to the approximate 0.5million m3 Ontario harvests today. While is still used for it used for lumber (cabinetry, trim, caskets, and carvings), pulp, telephone poles and as christmas trees, it now faces additional threats from invasive species, ( i.e. A fungus called white pine blister rust from Asia), pests (i.e. the white pine weevil) and pollution (it can’t survive in more alkaline soils like those cause by road salt).
Before the white pine is no longer common I definitely recommend going out to the moisty sandy or loamy slopes it prefers, like those in our watershed, and see if you can find this culturally significant species! You will recognize it by the grey brown broad ridges and scaly plates of the bark, the softer round needles in bunches of five (Remember the word white has five letters!), and towering height. Who knows, maybe you will find one of the 450 year old white pines to provide you with peace and perspective.