What does White Pine have? No other species of tree in Ontario seems to inspire such reverence and passion.
The history of White Pine is deeply intertwined with the history of the people of Ontario. It has been an important species to Indigenous peoples for millennia, played a huge role in the establishment of 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’re getting ahead of ourselves: let’s start at the beginning!
When nature made this tree, it was having a very good day. With its towering height, enormous straight trunk, and almost primitive-looking crown with long, feathery needles, White Pine can’t help but impress.
Walking in a forest of old white pines is often compared to walking through a cathedral. The sound of the wind rustling through the pine needles, especially in the gentle silence of winter, is one of the most peaceful sounds in the world.
The white pine is the tallest tree species in Ontario (and eastern North America). The tallest known white pine in Ontario is a 47-metre tall specimen near Ottawa.
The white pine is also one of the longest-lived tree species in this part of the world. Traditionally, it was thought to live at least 400 years, but a former MNRF scientist who analyzed tree rings on white pine logs found along the lake shores in Algonquin Provincial Park determined that the species may live more than 500 years.
White Pine is also a pillar of the ecosystem. Sow bears use large pine trees (and other trees) as nurseries and send their cubs up the logs to stay safe from predators while mom searches for food. Many songbirds eat its seeds, while beavers, snowshoe hares, porcupines, red and gray 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 pine trees and use them as perches to search for prey.
History of the Ontario 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 groups of five, symbolizing the unity of the nations of the Confederacy.
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 huge, straight stems were ideal for use as the main masts of large English sailing ships and for the construction of cities, including Toronto.
Settlers began clearing the white pine forests in southern Ontario for agriculture and construction. But then something disturbing happened…
In many areas cleared of pine trees, the top layer of soil was washed away, exposing a sandy layer beneath on which nothing would grow. These desert areas were called bump and sand areas, and the farms that were in them had to be abandoned. In many harvested areas that still supported plant life, white pine did not grow again, causing the species to decline dramatically throughout its range in Ontario.
Blowsand area in York County, 1909
The reasons are complicated:
- The historical harvesting practice of cutting the biggest and best pines first dramatically reduced the amount of seeds produced and created open conditions, producing thick leaders on young trees (these are like candy to the white pine weevil).
- The fire is out, and White Pine relies on wildfires to regenerate (exposing the mineral soil that White Pine likes, reducing roof shade, and knocking down 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 not all is lost
In the early 1920s, the Ontario government began the Compact Forest Program, a partnership with counties and municipalities to plant red and white pine in sandy areas.
A century later, the ancient areas of Blowsand are teeming with life: trees, plants and wildlife. Water functioning in the ecosystems has been restored and MNRF scientific experts have been studying how to manage these plantations so that they become more natural forests, as well as addressing some disease and invasive species issues.
Over the years, MNRF scientists and their partners, such as the Canadian Forest Service, have conducted 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 is available for many future generations to enjoy in Ontario, as well as other provinces and states.
Some examples of what they have learned:
- The white pine logs found along the lake shores play an important role in the ecosystem by providing habitat for fish and other aquatic life, and some of these logs are up to 800 years old! A log sampled in Algonquin Provincial Park in the mid-1990s came from a tree that was estimated to have germinated around the year 1100, died in the early 16th century, and had been in water since then. The trunk was remarkably free of decay and still retained some bark.
Former MNRF research scientist Bill Cole and his partner sample old white pine logs in Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater, c. 1994
- If left unchecked, competing species can consume resources and shade slower-growing pine seedlings. Therefore, fire (or, in managed forest areas, vegetation management) is important
- Shadow matters! Young white pines need just the right amount: too much and they grow poorly; too little stimulates the white pine weevil, resulting in bushy trees
- Big white pines matter. They produce most of the seed, and only every 7 to 10 years (known as mast seed year)
Big Pine Trail, Algonquin
- Ontario white pine has a lot of genetic variation that will help it adapt to climate change. Research shows that trees grown from seeds from more southern sources grew best near Sault Ste. Marie. Marie that the trees were grown from local seeds, meaning that southern white pine seeds could move north as the climate changes.
Significant advances have been made in the understanding and management of these trees. Scientists will continue to study and Ontario parks will continue to protect our beautiful white pine ecosystems.
Do you want to explore the white pine forests?
If you want to ski or snowshoe through old White Pine, Algonquin Provincial Park is a good option! Nearby Bonnechere Provincial Park is another great place, especially its “Tall Pines Campground.”
Northwest parks, including Caliper Lake and Quetico, often shelter White Pine.
Additionally, Temagami area parks protect the famous ancient white pine ecosystems. The combination of towering pine forests, rugged landscapes, and beautiful waterfalls and rapids make the Lady Evelyn River a “bucket list” canoe trip for paddlers.
Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Provincial Park
Obabika’s massive ancient pine forest may be the largest in Ontario. The trails wind through groves of towering trees hundreds of years old.
Obabika River Provincial Park
Want more information about White Pine?
You can request two scientific reports from the MNRF: one on white pine in northwestern Ontario and the other on northeastern Ontario (Eastern White Pine Ecology and Management; White Pine in Northwestern Ontario (2); White Pine in the Lake Abitibi and Temagami).
Email the MNRF Science Branch for more details.