At one point today we ended up at Wagon Hill Farm, a nice conservation area on the shores of the Great Bay Estuary in Durham, New Hampshire. There are sweeping views of the Bay, stands of arching oaks, and large fields mowed late in summer to allow birds to nest and forage. Bluebirds chirp from a few remnant apple trees. We made our way to a narrow point that juts out into the Bay. Wave action and a bit of overuse by humans is causing this sandy point to erode away over time. Still, it is a favorite little spot, in part because of the pitch pines.
A dead pitch pine with live pines behind at "pitch pine point"
at Wagon Hill Farm, Durham, NH
Pitch pine (Pinus rigida) is a beautiful native pine (okay, another one of my favorite trees), that does well on sandy soils. The tree is well-adapted to fire: bark with thick plates and deep furrows, seeds that readily germinate in soils exposed to fire, and epicormic branching -- shoots grow from the bark (especially if the crown is killed by fire). Some of the squat, stiff cones are serotinous, remaining closed until the heat of a fire melts the glue that holds the cone scales tight.
Fire is now curtailed in most places within the pitch pine range in the eastern U.S., allowing other trees to encroach and eventually overtake pitch pine. Some of the best examples of pitch pine are in "pine barrens," in New Jersey, Long Island, and Cape Cod. Here in New Hampshire, the Ossipee Pine Barrens are managed (using prescribed fire) by The Nature Conservancy. A map and guide of the hiking trails at their reserve is available here. In addition to the pitch pines, these barrens harbor rare moths and butterflies and birds that are in decline including whip-poor-wills, common nighthawks, and rufous-sided towhees.
Elsewhere you might fine a pitch pine here and there. Look for them as you hike throughout New England and points south. Here are some more photos from the pitch pine at Wagon Hill.
The bark and the cones should tip you off that it is a pitch pine. Another key feature is the 3 needles per bundle. The other native pines that you commonly see in New Hampshire are the white pine (5 needles) and red pine (2 needles).
The thick bark is evident in this photo from a different day.
Pitch pine often takes on a bonsai appearance, another interesting trait of this beautiful tree.