What is it about White Pine? No other tree species in Ontario seems to inspire as much reverence and passion.
The history of White Pine is deeply intertwined with the history of people in Ontario. It has been an important species for Indigenous people for millennia, played a huge role in establishing Ontario’s cities, and has faced some tough challenges, including one that led to one of our province’s most amazing ecological restoration stories.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves — let’s start at the beginning!
When nature made this tree, it was having a very good day. With its soaring height, massive, straight trunk, and almost primeval-looking crown with long, feathery needles, White Pine can’t help but impress.
Walking in a grove of old growth White Pine is often compared to walking through a cathedral. The sound of the wind whispering through pine needles, especially in the soft hush of winter, is one of the most peaceful sounds on earth.
White Pine is the tallest tree species in Ontario (and in eastern North America). The tallest known White Pine in Ontario is a 47-metre-tall specimen near Ottawa.
White Pine is also one of the longest-lived tree species in this part of the world. Traditionally, it was thought to live for at least 400 years, but a former MNRF scientist who analyzed tree rings in White Pine logs lying along lakeshores in Algonquin Provincial Park determined the species can live well over 500 years!
White Pine is also a pillar of the ecosystem. Bear sows use large pines (and other trees) as daycare centres, sending cubs up the trunks to stay safe from predators while momma looks for food. Many songbirds eat its seeds, while beaver, Snowshoe Hare, porcupine, Red and Grey Squirrels, mice, White-tailed Deer, and other mammals eat its seeds, bark, and foliage. Ospreys and Bald Eagles like to nest in the tops of large White Pines, and use them as perches to scan for prey.
History of Ontario’s White Pine
This tree species is also important to many Indigenous cultures. Traditional uses include relying on the inner bark as an emergency food source and the resin to seal canoes. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy near Brantford refers to it as the Great Tree of Peace — its needles grow in clusters of five, symbolizing the unity of the Confederacy’s nations.
When European settlers arrived, they saw the immense economic value of White Pine. The wood of this species is durable and resists warping, and the massive, straight stems were ideal for use as main masts for English tall ships and for building cities, including Toronto.
Settlers began clearing the White Pine forests in southern Ontario for farming and construction. But then something disturbing happened….
In many areas cleared of pine, the topsoil blew away, exposing a sandy layer below in which nothing would grow. These desert-like areas were called the blowsand areas, and the farms in them had to be abandoned. In many harvested areas that still supported plant life, White Pine did not grow back, resulting in the species being dramatically reduced across its range in Ontario.
The reasons are complicated:
- The historic harvesting practice of cutting the biggest and best pines first slashed the amount of seed produced and created open conditions, producing thick leaders on young trees (these are like candy to the White Pine Weevil)
- Fire was suppressed, and White Pine relies on wildfire to regenerate (it exposes the mineral soil that White Pine likes, reduces overhead shade, and knocks back competing plants)
- White Pine blister rust arrived about a century ago, and our pines have little resistance to this invasive disease, which is another stressor that thrives in open conditions
But all was not lost
In the early 1920s, the Ontario Government started the Agreement Forest Program, a partnership with counties and municipalities to plant Red and White Pine in the blowsand areas.
A century later, the former blowsand areas are teeming with life — trees, plants, wildlife. Ecosystem water functioning has been restored, and MNRF’s science experts have been studying how to manage these plantations to become more natural forests, as well address some disease and invasive species issues.
Over the years, MNRF scientists and partners such as the Canadian Forest Service have done many other studies on White Pine (including some in provincial parks such as Algonquin and Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater). Their findings are helping to ensure that our provincial tree will be around for many future generations to enjoy in Ontario, as well as other provinces and states.
Some examples of what they’ve learned:
- White Pine logs lying along lake shorelines play an important role in the ecosystem by providing habitat for fish and other aquatic life — and some of these logs are as much as 800 years old! One log sampled in Algonquin Provincial Park in the mid-1990s came from a tree that was estimated to germinate in about the year 1100, died in the early 1500s, and had been lying in the water ever since. The log was remarkably free of decay and still retained some bark
- Left unchecked, competing species may use up resources and shade out the slower-growing pine seedlings. So fire (or, in managed forest areas, vegetation management) is important
- Shade matters! Young White Pines need just the right amount — too much, and they grows poorly; too little encourages White Pine Weevil, resulting in bushy trees
- Big White Pines matter. They are the ones that produce the lion’s share of the seed — and only every 7-10 years (known as a mast seed year)
- Ontario’s White Pine has a lot of genetic variation that will help it adapt to climate change. Research shows that trees grown from seed from more southern sources grew better near Sault Ste. Marie than trees grown from local seed, which means White Pine seed from the south could be moved north as the climate changes
Major advances have been made in understanding and managing these trees. Scientists will continue to study, and Ontario Parks will keep on protecting our beautiful White Pine ecosystems.
Want to explore White Pine forests?
If you’d like to go for a ski or snowshoe through old growth White Pine, Algonquin Provincial Park is a good bet! Nearby Bonnechere Provincial Park is another great spot, especially its “Tall Pines Campground.”
Likewise, Temagami-area parks protect famous old growth White Pine ecosystems. The combination of towering pine forests, rugged scenery and beautiful waterfalls and rapids make the Lady Evelyn River a “bucket list” canoe trip for paddlers.
The Obabika old growth forest’s huge stand of ancient pine may be the largest in Ontario. Trails wind through groves of towering trees hundreds of years old.
Want more White Pine info?
You can request two MNRF science reports: one on White Pine in northwestern Ontario, the other on northeastern Ontario (Ecology and management of eastern white pine; White pine in northwestern Ontario (2); White pine in Lake Abitibi and Temagami).
Email MNRF’s Science Branch for details.