by Matt Strieby

Anyone who has visited the southern Oregon Cascades or the Sierra Nevada in California has no doubt encountered Sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana). These stately conifers rank among the world’s tallest and largest pine trees, sometimes exceeding 200 feet in height. The tree’s most recognizable feature is its incredibly large cones–measuring  up to 20 inches long–that dangle like over-sized Christmas ornaments at the tips of long, sinewy branches high up in the tree. The “sugar” part of the name comes from the sweet resin that exudes from wounds and cuts in the wood or trunk- it hardens into crunchy, candy-like lumps. The resin is edible, but was eaten in small quantities by Native Americans due to its purported laxative properties.

The first European explorer to describe and collect specimens of this magnificent conifer for western science was the Scottish botanist David Douglas. One encounter he had with the tree was particularly memorable, as Douglas recorded in his journal on October 26, 1826:

“The large trees are destitute of branches, generally for two-thirds the length of the tree; branches pendulous, and the cones hanging from their points like small sugar-loaves in a grocer’s shop, it being only on the very largest trees that cones are seen, and the putting myself in possession of three cones (all I could) nearly brought my life to an end (emphasis mine). Being unable to climb or hew down any, I took my gun and was busy clipping them from the branches with ball when eight Indians came at the report of my gun. They were all painted with red earth, armed with bows, arrows, spears of bone, and flint knives, and seemed to me anything but friendly. I endeavoured to explain to them what I wanted and they seemed satisfied and sat down to smoke, but had no sooner done so than I perceived one string his bow and another sharpen his flint knife with a pair of wooden pincers and hang it on the wrist of the right hand, which gave me ample testimony of their inclination. To save myself I could not do by flight, and without any hesitation I went backwards six paces and cocked my gun, and then pulled from my belt one of my pistols, which I held in my left hand. I was determined to fight for life. As I as much as possible endeavoured to preserve my coolness and perhaps did so, I stood eight or ten minutes looking at them and they at me without a word passing, till one at last, who seemed to be the leader, made a sign for tobacco, which I said they should get on condition of going and fetching me some cones. They went, and as soon as out of sight I picked up my three cones and a few twigs, and made a quick retreat to my camp, which I gained at dusk.”

Sugar pine was once more abundant, but a combination of logging and disease has drastically reduced the number of large trees. The pale wood is straight-grained and relatively knot-free, so it was much sought after during the latter half of the nineteenth-century well into the twentieth. 

The accidental introduction of white-pine blister rust, a fungal disease, has taken a heavy toll on sugar pine as well as on the related western white and whitebark pines. The fungus, which lives one stage of its life on currant bushes (genus Ribes), is always fatal and has decimated native populations of all three pine species. Sugar pines near the northern limit of the tree’s range in the Oregon Cascades have become extremely scarce. The reported “northern-most” population of sugar pines in Clackamas County, Oregon, just 50 miles southeast of Portland, consists now of only dead snags and fallen trees.

Still, there are many places to see large, healthy sugar pines. Probably the best two places are Yosemite National Park and the Lake Tahoe region. If you aren’t partial to those kinds of crowds, you might try a visit to Crater Lake National Park, Oregon. Trees are also easily spotted driving Oregon highways 140 or 66 over the crest of the southern Oregon Cascades.

Above, top: sugary resin encrusts an open sugar pine cone. Above: large trees in the southern Oregon Cascades between Ashland and Klamath Falls.

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