Winter’s Gift

text & photos : Norma A. Hubbard  (December 2018)

Winter is here. Snow covers the landscape. Our beautiful maples, oaks, and apple trees stand bare. Once the novelty of the first snowfall wears off, winter quickly becomes the least favourite season for many people. I love winter, but I have to admit, I love all the seasons and what each season has to offer. When I snowshoe on my trails in winter, I am in awe of how nature always provides a gift. Winter’s gift are the evergreen trees that provide colour in an otherwise cold, barren land. One of the most majestic evergreen trees are the pines.

Quebec has nine native species of pines. Two species of pine found in our area are the red pine (Pinus resinosa) and the eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). Red pine is an eastern hard pine, while white pine is a soft pine. Eastern white pines are taller than red pines, 30 meters compared to 25 meters; in fact, the eastern white pine is the tallest tree in eastern Canada. Look at our forests and you can easily see the pines dominating the tree line. The diameter of a mature pine is about a meter. White pines can live between 200 to 400 years, with the oldest on record being 600 years old! Red pines can live to 200 years.

White and red pine have needles (5-15 cm long) in clusters; white pine have clusters of five needles versus red that have only two needles in a cluster. White pine needs are soft and flexible, while red are brittle and break when bent. White pine have longer cylindrical cones, 8-20 cm long, while red pine have smaller ovoid cones 4-7 cm long. In the cold of winter, evergreens provide welcome shelter for birds. Squirrels often make nests in pine trees and store pine cones for winter food. I like to gather my fair share of pine cones to use as fire starters in my fireplace.

Pines are valuable lumber trees; sadly, because of this, pines were overharvested. It takes at least 40 years for a tree to be large enough to produce lumber. During colonial times, the finest white pines were reserved for the Royal Navy for shipmasts. Also, pine was used for furniture, as in the case today. Indigenous peoples used eastern white pine resin as an antiseptic and the needles, rich in vitamin C, was made into tea to help fight scurvy. Personally, I used boiled pine needles on poison ivy blisters and it worked for me.

Ironically, trees need fires to help with reproduction. While fire eliminates many competing plants, the thick bark of older white pine trees allows them to survive a fire. Sadly, very few pines grow naturally and many pines in our area are planted. However, as with any ecosystem, diversity is key. We must be careful when we plant to avoid monocrops. In natural forests, there are many species of trees, each playing a part of the system. White pine weevil (a bug) and blister rust attack white pine trees. If left unprotected whole stands can be killed, causing a large impact on the ecosystem. Removal of infected branches can partially control blister rust.

As the cold winds blow and the landscape is blanketed in white, rather than complain, take a moment to appreciate what nature does give us, our majestic pines. These incredible trees provide homes for our wildlife, plus protection from those cold winds for us, too … and nature gives us a little bit of green, the colour of spring, to remind us of what will come, again.

Sources: Great Pines in Quebec (Nature Resources Canada); Trees in Canada (Farrar)