The graceful white pine might be the official Maine state tree, but it’s the gnarled and twisted old pitch pine that ought to hold that title. There’s no grace in the pitch pine, no beauty to be found. There’s no trademark statuesque appearance and no landscape enhancement with the old pitch pine. It’s just a twisted, gnarled, grumpy, tattered old tree--and that’s why it’s perfect!
The pitch pine (Pinus rigida) is native to eastern North America and can thrive in dry, acidic soils as well as swampy lowlands. It can deal with very poor conditions. The needles are terribly prickly and twisted, and the pinecones have horrible sharp thorns on them! I have gashed my hand on them many times by accident. It has the really weird ability to resprout from “epicormic shoots” when the bark is damaged, especially by fire, and it’s common to see tiny little shoots coming out from all over the main trunk or branches. Many people like to use it for bonsai training because of this feature, and it is this very gift of the pitch pine that makes it such a tough survivor when other pines would have died.
|Sharp, thorny pinecones of the pitch pine.|
The pitch pine is slow-growing and crooked, and it has a high resin content that helps to preserve it from decay. In the past, this feature made it very suitable for railroad ties and mine timbers. It’s not used as often these days, and because of its often twisted trunk, it’s hard to find pitch pine of “high quality” lumber. However, when it is found, it can fetch a very high price.
So why do I think that the horrible old pitch pine ought to be the Maine state tree instead of the beautiful white pine? Simple. Because the pitch pine is a survivor, a thriver. The pitch pine is an opportunist. The pitch pine is stubborn and resilient. The pitch pine is adaptable and smart and knows its way around many difficulties. The pitch pine is unconcerned with looks and appearances and ego. It has its own terrible beauty and proudly displays it.
Now, those are qualities that I like! Those are qualities of resilience, determination, and success. Those are the qualities of a tough northern state that can be very cold and difficult to live in at times. Those are qualities I look for not only in the place I live but in the people with whom I associate. I should be very proud, indeed, if someone were to call me a grumpy old pitch pine. It would mean that I'm as resourceful and wily as this tough old tree, which to my way of thinking is the real Maine state tree.