December 18, 2012 by Deborah W. Trotter
Like it or not, this is the season for transforming evergreen trees. In December, all over the world, indoors and out, people decorate pines, spruces and firs with lights and ornaments to celebrate Christmas.
Maybe you like Christmas trees, maybe you don’t. But no matter how you feel about them, if you like nature, and trees in their natural habitats, then you
will want to continue reading this post about a particular evergreen tree, a conifer, that grows in the mountain forests of the Pacific Coast of the United States. From Oregon, through California and down into Baja, at elevations of from 3,000 to 7,000 feet above sea level, the sugar pine (pinus lambertiana) is a happy native.
In his book The Mountains of California, naturalist and conservationist John Muir describes the sugar pine as “the noblest pine yet discovered, surpassing all others not merely in size but also in kingly beauty and majesty.” Full-grown adult sugar pines tower well over 200 feet tall, and their diameter near the ground is usually six to eight feet. That is a BIG tree, worthy of admiration!
You may know that pines and other conifers are identifiable in part by characteristics of their bark (color, pattern, even scent),
their needles (length and number in a cluster) and their cones (shape and size).As a young hiker, I was quite up to snuff with conifer characteristics because my dad never missed an opportunity to teach us how to identify the trees we were hiking beneath. I remember knowing when we were among sugar pines mostly because of their huge cones scattered on the ground around their trunks. I don’t, however, have memories of looking up at their crowns.
That changed on my most recent trip to Lassen National Park last month. I had already left the Park and was driving back down toward Mineral on Highway 36 when my eyes were drawn upwards and captivated by the sight of what I knew from its cones to be a sugar pine tree, one among many, its branches stretching like long arms out from the trunk at its crown, dangling their cones like ornaments over the roadway. The tree, and the way the sun shone through its branches dazzled my senses, and I drove right past before I could stop. In fact, I was lucky I didn’t drive off the road, looking up at the pine and its companions instead of ahead! Feeling the need to linger among those glorious forest specimens, I turned my car around as soon as I could and went back to take some photos and revel in nature’s majesty.
From close contact with fallen sugar pine trees, Muir describes the wood as “deliciously fragrant” and “of a rich cream-yellow, as if formed of condensed sunbeams.” (What a delightful image!) He also favored the pine’s sugar as the “best of sweets,” exuding as it does from wounds in the bark in the form of “irregular, crisp candy-like kernels.”
In my own forest experiences, I have never tasted sugar pine sugar, nor do I recall the fragrance and warm yellow color of the tree’s wood. Nevertheless, I do know that the next time I am in the woods and find sugar pine cones on the ground, I will look up and gaze, if I can, at the crown of the majestic sugar pine.