The sugar pine received its name because of the sweet, resinous substance in the tree's bark and wood. John Muir used sap of the sugar pine tree instead of maple syrup. Sugar pines can easily grow 200 feet in height and are the tallest of all pine tree species. Sugar pines live up to 500 years. Their needles are short and quite stiff. They cover the small branches and look almost like fur in appearance from a distance. The tree's bark is quite thick and covered with reddish scales. Muir always called the sugar pine tree the "Queen of the Sierras."
The sugar pine has the longest cones in the world. Cone length can easily exceed 2 feet. The cones are suspended on the ends of the tree's long, sweeping branches. The weight of the cones often bends the branches downward because they grow in large clusters. The cones are very popular for use in crafts.
One of the largest gold strikes in the nation took place in Coloma, California, in 1848. The famous California gold rush took place after the monumental discovery. The gold was discovered at John Sutter's mill, which was built to mill local sugar pine trees.
Sugar pine cones release their seeds after two years. It is estimated that about only 40 percent of all seeds germinate to become seedlings. Squirrels, white-headed woodpeckers and other small mammals and birds enjoy feasting on the overly large seeds, and up to 50 percent of the seeds produced by the cones are unsound and unable to produce a seedling.
Native Americans used the sap, seeds and bark of the sugar pine for various food recipes. The sap also was used for a laxative, and the bark was brewed into a wide range of medicinal teas. The pitch of the tree is waterproof, and Native Americans used it on their canoes. They also used the pitch like glue to affix arrowheads and feathers to arrow shafts.
Sugar pines grow from Mexico through Oregon and as far east as Nevada, and they are valuable to the wood industry. They normally grow at a mid-mountain range of up to 10,000 feet. The 19th-century botanist David Douglas was the first to discover the sugar pine. He named the tree Pinus lambertiana Douglas after a friend of his, Aylmer Bourke Lambert, who also studied pine trees and was a founder of the Linnean Society of London. Douglas called the sugar pine "the most princely of the genus." The trees are somewhat fire-resistant.