Archived Mountain Voices

A special place in the heart of arborists

Winter is the season for thinking about pines. For the ancient Orientals, pines signified dignity and vitality, especially in old age. In art, a wand tipped with a pine cone was often carried by the god or his supplicants.

At the great spring festival in Rome, on the twenty-second day of March, a pine tree was cut and brought into the sanctuary by a guild of tree bearers, where it was treated as a divinity. The trunk was swathed like a corpse.  

Learning to distinguish the pine species of the southern mountains is a do-able project. There are just five native species, and they are easy to distinguish.

• White pine (Pinus strobus) is a common species from low to middle elevations with 5 needles per bundle.

• Shortleaf pine (P. echinata) is an occasional species from low to middle elevations with 2 to 3 dark blue-green, slender, flexible needles per bundle.

• “Pitch pine” (P. rigida), which is a common species in middle elevations with 3 yellowish-green needles per bundle that are less slender and flexible than those of shortleaf pine. (Look for bristly needle-cluster outgrowths along the main trunk.)

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• Virginia or scrub pine (P. virginiana) is a common species from low to middle elevations with 2 needles per bundle and a “scrubby” appearance due to the fact that many side branches persist for years after dying.

• Table-mountain pine (P. pungens) is an occasional species at middle elevations with 2 rigid, twisted needles per bundle and cones that are persistent with a stout, hooked spine at the top of each scale.

The white pine has needles with white accents in their polished surfaces and white lines of stomata (breathing holes) on their undersides. An annual growth of limbs presents a “wagon spoke” appearance near the trunk.

The best kindling is fat pine, which is created when resin has collected in the stumps and butt cuts of pine trees. The resinous stubs of old pine limbs are the second best kindling. Pitch pine is so-named because of its high resin content.

Short-leaf pine is sometimes called “southern yellow pine.”

Virginia or scrub pine is common in old fields as pioneer plants that form thickets.    

And that brings us to my favorite 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.” You will have happened upon Table Mountain pine (Pinus pungens).

It is the only pine species 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.

It 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.

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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