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The History of Pine Trees

By DianaM ; Updated September 21, 2017
Towering pine tree forest
pine-tree image by Maxim Prikhodko from Fotolia.com

L.H. Bailey authored the widely acclaimed “Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture” (1947), where he stated, “What the apple is among the fruits, what the oak is among the broadleaved trees of the temperate zone, the pines represent among the conifers, excelling all other genera in this most important family in number of species, in field of distribution, in extent of area occupied, in usefulness and importance to the human race.” The pine trees' long history speaks of species perseverance and survival, with their beginnings dating back to ancient forests.

The Origin of Pinus species

Cross section of a pine tree shows thousands of years of growth.
Pine Tree Cross Section image by Guy Ellis from Fotolia.com

The oldest fossils from the pine group came from trees that grew in the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth over 90 million years ago. The oldest known living pine, the Bristlecone Pine, is estimated to be over 4600 years old. It is located on a dry cliff in Inyo National Forest in California.

Pine Tree Distribution

Pine trees grow well in cold winter climates.
Snowy pine tree image by yokulla from Fotolia.com

The Pinus species grows naturally and abundantly throughout the Northern Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to Central America, and in China, South Africa, and Europe. The trees' survival comes from its ability to grow in dry, lean soils, to survive in cold winter temps at higher altitudes, and due to its natural adaptation to arid or tropical (high elevations) climes. There are over 120 Pinus species spread throughout the world, with over 30 species being native to North America.

Pine Trees of the Past

Mature pine tree.
divided pine-tree image by Vladimir Volkov from Fotolia.com

Pine trees are the source of Native American legends, who used the pines for shelter, fire, tools, building and for food. The Eastern White Pine greeted the first settlers. The forests of the day were not the heavy tree growth stands we have now. Rather, the pines were spaced far apart and adjoined wide open areas (savannas). Fires were rampant (every 15 to 20 years), occurring naturally or accidentally. Consequently, the young trees succumbed to the fire, leaving the oldest and most fire-resistant varieties standing.

Uses of Pines

Pine trees in fire aftermath.
forest fire image by Mat Hayward from Fotolia.com

The mature pine trees were favored by the settlers for building homes, heating, cooking and later for lumbering and timbering enterprises. The practice of harvesting and processing pine sap into turpentine spirits surged in the 1800's, furthering human impact on the history of pine trees. The frequency of fires, the increase in settlements across the nation, a flourishing timber industry and use of pine tree bi-products affected the species numbers, the maturity of the forest and diminished the size of the pine tree stands.

Present Day Pines

Young pine trees make up today's forest.
Pine Forest image by Aric from Fotolia.com

Present day pine tree forests are a much more diverse forest than in the early settlement years. Now there are many different pine species mixed with other broadleaved trees, with an increased number of varied genuses of understory plants. There are more young pine trees intermingled with lesser mature trees. Pine trees are now available in all sorts of varieties, cultivars and grafted types, making them suitable for planting in residential settings. Advanced propagation technologies made it possible for pine trees to be marketed and planted in the Southern Hemisphere in Australia, South America, New Zealand, and South Africa. The history of the pine tree continues to be ever changing and now that the species is grown world wide, its story will be as diverse as the regions it grows in.