Naturalist John Muir called the majestic Pinus lambertiana the “Queen of the Sierras”. It is also claimed that Muir preferred the sap of the tree to that of maple trees. Native people of the Cascade and Sierra Mountain areas called them “sugar trees”.
The name, “sugar pine” is derived from the sweet tasting resin in the wood and bark of the tree. The variety of tree was categorized and studied by botanist David Douglas. Some historians say he discovered the plant, but that is only true in a Eurocentric way of thinking. The tree should not be confused with the Douglas fir, which also has a sweet, edible sap.
David Douglas was born in Perthshire, Scotland in 1798. He was attracted to horticulture and botany at a young age. In 1824, Douglas was sent to the Pacific Northwest of North America by the Royal Horticulture Society of London. His base of operations was out of Fort Vancouver, Canada.
He travelled as far south as Coos Bay, and the Willamette Valley of Oregon. His voluminous knowledge of flowers and trees gained him the respect of native people of the area, so he was left alone in safety. While in the Pacific Northwest, Douglas went on to discover more than 50 tree species.
There was one exception to his safe passage, it happened while he was investigating a type of pine tree that was important to a band of Native Americans, with whom he was not familiar. Douglas had found a stand of several of the trees. In his journal, he wrote, “I put myself in possession of a great number of perfect cones, but circumstances obliged me to leave the ground hastily with only three; a party of eight Indians endeavored to destroy me.” This stand of trees was among those that Douglas named “sugar pine”.
Sugar pines are also linked to the California 49ers Gold Rush. Many historians believe that the site of John Sutter’s Mill at Coloma, where the first gold nugget was found, was the home of many sugar pines. The mill was apparently built to cut sugar pine trees into logs and lumber for construction purposes.
The sugar pine is the tallest of the pine trees. They frequently grow up to 60 metres (200′) tall and 3.5 metres wide. The tallest one on record is in California, that tree is nearly 66 metres tall, with a circumference of one and a third metres. Its cones are the world’s largest. They’re as long as .6 metres (2′). The oldest specimens are over 500 years of age.
You can identify them from a distance when you notice the more open, narrow, flattened crown. The long branches droop at their ends because of the heavy cones that are clusterd at the branches’ ends. The short, stiff needles give the branches a fuzzy appearance at a distance. Close up, the younger trees have a greyish-green bark, the older tree bark is more of a reddish brown color. The sap and seeds are edible.
The sugar pine is found as far north as British Columbia and as far south as the Sierra Padres in Baja California. However, around 80-percent of them grow in the State of California. They’re acclimated to areas with warm dry summers and cool, wet winters.
Even though the trees are hardy, they are susceptible to the recent attacks of mountain pine beetles, red turpentine beetles, and sugar pine cone beetles. They are sensitive to root rot and to various rusts. They are very susceptible to current conditions of climate change. It is expected that this year’s drought will negatively impact the population of sugar pine tree stands.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes David Douglas, “A forest of these trees is a spectacle, too much for one man to see.”