Around the Island

Mashomack Musings — White pines

Even as the last leaves cling to a few trees in a mostly bare landscape, there are still bursts of green along our streets and in New York’s forest.

Here on Shelter Island, evergreens of several species stand out in the mainly grey and brown landscape; native Eastern white pines and Eastern red cedar mingle with introduced Norway and other spruces.

As children, we were likely taught that unlike deciduous trees, pines, spruces and other conifers don’t lose their leaves or needles — therefore, the “evergreen” moniker. But, if you keep your eyes open in the fall and take a good look at the Eastern white pines, you can easily tell that they do lose their leaves. They just don’t do it all at once, so the tree is never bare.

The needles on white pines — their leaves — last for about three years. The newer growth at the tips of the branches is green, with the older, innermost needles turning yellow or brown in the fall and dropping off.

Although you may not have thought about evergreens losing their needles, they do. Otherwise, how could our steps be muted by carpets of brown needles when we walk through pine groves?

Of course, the browning and dropping of needles over an entire tree is cause for concern. Like many other trees, pines are affected by diseases, as well as by flood, drought and other unpredictable aspects of climate change.

White pines are amazing plants whose tall, straight trunks were once used as ship masts. The needles can be used in a tea which is rich in vitamin C and helps prevent scurvy.

The Native American Haudenosaunee (aka Iroquois) consider the white pine the tree of peace. The white pine’s bundles of five needles represented the original five Indigenous nations (the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca), which came together in a confederacy to work together for peace and mutual protection.

There are several stands of white pines on Shelter Island, along with some notable single trees. If you have walked in Sachem’s Woods in the center of town, there is a very large and impressive white pine in the center of those 24 acres.

The line of trees along the north side of Smith Street, near the old horse farm, is a great place to gather pine cones.

With the arrival of winter, take the time to appreciate the subtleties of our evergreen friends, and relish their part in bringing some delightful green to a landscape filled with brown and gray. 

Mashomack is owned and operated by The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental nonprofit working to create a world where people and nature thrive. Our mission is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. To learn more, visit nature.org.

MASHOMACK PRESERVE WILL BE CLOSED January 2-3, 6-10  and   13-17