There are more than 100 species of pine trees (Pinus) in the Northern Hemisphere. Part of the large Pinaceae family, they are related to other common cone-bearing trees like hemlocks, cedars, firs and spruces. Pines have longer needles than other evergreens and pine cones that look and feel woody. Pines have long been important to humans in a number of ways, and there are numerous unusual facts, lore and legends associated with them.
The sugar pine (P. lambertiana), native to the American West Coast, is the tallest of the pines, reaching up to 246 feet. It also has the longest cones, which can grow to 20 inches long. The intermountain bristlecone pine (P. longaeva) is the longest-lived tree in the world, with one Nevada specimen estimated to be about 5,000 years old.
Flavor and Fragrance
Many species of pines produce edible nuts, and the largest number of nut-producing pines are native to North America. Some of the best pine nuts come from the pinon-type pines, native to Mexico and the American Southwest. Oil from Scotch pine (P. sylvestris), which is used in soaps and detergents, loses its aroma 24 hours after being applied to a blotter. This oil is also used for aromatherapy. Resin from the Jerusalem pine (P.halepensis) is used to flavor the Greek wine retsina.
Pine resin, obtained by tapping pine trees, has been used since ancient times to seal ships. It is also is distilled into two products, turpentine and rosin. Turpentine and rosin have long been components of paints, varnishes and coatings, plus a host of other products. String players use rosin on their bows to decrease slippage. China leads the world in production of pine-resin products. In Vietnam, where rosin is a major export, resin tapping is a job often done by women.
Pine Trees and Fire
Some species of pine need forest fires to grow and flourish. The longleaf pine (P. palustris) retains its soft, juvenile leaves until it is subjected to fire. The cones of the Monterey pine (P. radiata) are shut tight until the heat from a fire forces them to open and release their seeds. Shut away in the cones, the seeds can remain viable for long periods of time.
Myth and Legend
According to ancient Greek myth, a nymph, Pitys, was charged with tending the pine trees. Her jealous suitor, Boreas, suspected her of flirting with fellow god Pan and threw Pitys against a rocky ledge, after which she turned into a pine tree.
The pine tree was also sacred to the king of the Greek gods, Zeus. Romans regarded the trees as symbols of purity and worshipped them at a special spring festival.
Pine cones have long been regarded as symbols of fertility and as such have often been carved on the tops of bedposts.