A Closer Look at White Pine
By Karen Sullivan

Reprinted with permission from
Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum
Vol 9 No 3 Autumn 1999

As autum colors fade and leaves drop in preparation for another New England winter, the feathery green canopy formed by the eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) in Medicine Woods stands out in sharp contrast to bare branches. These imposing pines with their tall trunks are dwarfs compared to the immense virgin stands that once covered the Northeast. The white pine was once the tallest and most abundant tree in its range, and many individual trees reached more than 200 feet in height.

White pines are conifers (cone-bearing trees) whose narrow needle-like leaves are not lost all at once in autumn but drop gradually over time, giving the impression that they are "evergreen". New growth occurs in the spring. Needles are better able to shed snow than broad leaves, and their smaller surface area and waxy coating greatly reduce water loss. Even in winter, conifers can photosynthesize on warm days.

The nedles of the easter white pine grow in bundles of five. Male and female cones grow on the same tree, and vast clouds of fine yellow pollen are dispersed by the wind each spring from ale to female cones where seeds will develop. Anyone who has experienced a good pine pollen year such as this last one will appreciate how effective wind dispersal can be. Pollen hs even been found far out to sea.

Before the arrival of Europeans, American Indians had only stone tools and were unable to take full advantage of the pine's excellent wood, but they did use the huge, straight trunks of white pines for their dugout canoes. Imagine the labor-intensive job they faced in felling one of these giants. A fire was built around the tree's base and the charcoal was continually scraped away until the tree finally fell. The other end was then burned through to the correct length. THe canoe was hollowed out by burning as well, and the edges were kept wet to prevent the fire from burning through. The canoe was rounded and shaped with fire and stone axe. The result was a very stable and maneuverable craft. The largest dugouts were 40-50 feet and could hold 40 people.

The white pine was also an important medicine. Pine pitch was poulticed on boils, abscesses, rhuematism, broken bones, cuts, bruises, inflammation and chewed for sore throats. Twig, bark and leaf teas were taken to reat a variety of ailments: kidney and lung problems, colds, coughs, sore throats, etc. Teas were also poulticed for headaches and backaches.

Girls often cut and sharped tufts of pine needles into "dolls". Gently agitating the tufts on a piece of wood made them bounce and sway as if dancing, and contests were held to see whose dolls would stay upright the longest. Needles were also used to make intricate baskets for trade.

With the arrival of metal tools, thegiant trees could be processed into lumber. White pine wood is soft, easily worked, light-weight and extremely strong. it soon became the most valuable tree in the Northeast and the most generally useful in this country. The wood has been used for everything from matchsticks and shingles to lumber for houses, covered bridges, and furniture. Its tall, straight trunks make superior masts for the ships of England's Royal Navy in colonial times, and many conflicts resulted from the Crown's attempt to appropriate the best trees for its use. The supply seemed inexhaustible, and trees were cut with abandon for export, use at home, and to clear the land for agriculture.

Today the bast stands of virgin trees are gone. Although pine forests again cover much of New England, these third-growth trees seldom reach more than 100 feet in height.

As you walk in Medicine Woods (at the Mt. Kearsage Indian Musium, Warner NH), pause a moment to look up at these impressive trees, and try to visualize what a virgin stand of 200-foot trees might have looked like 400 years ago. Then you can visit the dugout canoe on display in the museum with a new appreciation of the time and effort that went into making it.
--Karen Sullivan is a MKIM Trustee and active volunteer.

West Greenwich, Rhode Island, is known throughout the state for its stands of white pine, because the white pine grows the fastest here than in other Rhode Island towns - one foot per year. During colonial times, the shipbuilders in neighboring towns came to West Greenwich for the white pine. Our Native American neighbors, the Narragansetts, used the white pine for their dugout canoes.

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