Archived Mountain Voices

Table Mountain pine

Have you ever been walking one of the wind-swept, sun-bitten, high-elevation rock outcrops in the Smokies region when you suddenly encountered a grove of strange, almost stunted looking pines with outlandish cones? As described by Donald C. Peattie in A Natural History of Trees (1950), each such pine will bear “huge cones that encircle the limbs in dense clusters, each knob of the cone armed with a horrendous hooked prickle, as if to guard the harsh fruit.”

If so, you will have happened upon Table Mountain pine (Pinus pungens), one of the five pine species native to this region. The others are white pine, pitch pine, short-leaf pine, and Virginia or scrub pine. Of these, Table Mountain pine is the only one that is essentially restricted (i.e., endemic) to the Southern Appalachians.

Some sources state that the species is known as Table Mountain pine because it thrives on gravelly tablelands, ridges and slopes. Others assert that the name arose because the species was first collected around 1794 near Table Rock Mountain in Burke County, North Carolina.

According to Claud A. Brown and L. Katherine Kirkman’s Trees of Georgia and Adjacent States (1990), the essential range of Table Mountain pine extends from central Pennsylvania southwest to eastern West Virginia, on down through southwestern Virginia into the mountainous terrains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, and then, just barely, into the fringes of northwestern South Carolina and northeastern Georgia. Toward the southern end of its range, it reaches its highest elevation of 5,780 feet in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where a stunted individual grows upon Andrews Bald.

Table Mountain pine is also known as bur or prickly pine (because of the cones), mountain pine, hickory pine (because of limbs that are, as Peattie phrases it, “elastic but unbreakable by human muscle”), and squirrel pine (because the seeds are favored by red squirrels, locally known as “boomers”).

Table Mountain pine flourish where there is site disturbance, light, and heat. In closed stands on western and northern exposures, the cones are distinctly serotinous; that is, they require heat from a fire before opening to release seed. On southerly and easterly exposures, however, many cones open soon after maturing. A large number of closed cones remain on the trees from five to 25 years, with the retained seeds remaining viable for 10 or more years.

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Table Mountain pine has limited human uses as pulpwood and low-grade charcoal. On the other hand, the serotinous cones on many trees provide seeds for wildlife, including red squirrels and various bird species, on a year-round basis.

It is reputed that lyricist Ballard Mcdonald, whose most famous song is perhaps “Beautiful Ohio” (1917), had a Table Mountain pine in mind when, in 1913, he penned the words to “In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.” Mcdonald called it a “lonesome pine,” and that is perhaps an apt description. But Peattie’s description is more to the evocative: “This intransigent pine has no business future, nor will it-slow-growing, stingy of shade, without one concession to grace-ever find a role in horticulture. Its place is high on the mountain ridges, where it looks down on the soaring buzzards, where the wildcat lives and the rattler suns his coils.”

For the ancient Cherokees, Table Mountain pine was a symbol of health and long life. It is a wonderful tree that, in my opinion, should be the arboreal emblem of the Southern Appalachians.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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