The King's Pines

Pines in our East Meadow

Pines trees can live a long time. The oldest living known plant is a bristlecone pine, currently approaching its 4,842nd birthday.  Eastern white pine, common in the Catskills,  is the tallest tree in eastern North America. In natural pre-colonial stands it grew to about 70 m (230 ft) tall, but current trees typically reach 30-50 m (100 - 160 ft) tall with a diameter of 1-1.6 m (3-5 ft).  Very few of the original trees remain.  Extensive logging operations in the 1700s and 1800s harevested most of the pines for their valuable wood.  We rarely see pines above 80 feet these days, since reforestation has only been going on in the Eastern US within the past hundred years.

The white pine is an excellent tree of many virtues, but to the Europeans arriving on the east coast of North America during colonial times, it was an amazing tree--twice as tall as other trees back in England and continental Europe.  Huge, straight, lightweight, durable, the least resinous of all pines, it provided the lumber for houses, furniture, coffins, and boats as well as masts for the tall ships.

The first English language account of Pinus Strobus, eastern white pine, was in John Josselyn’s Two Voyages to New England, 1674. He wrote, “The Pine Tree is a very large tree, very tall….”. In fact, it was at least twice as tall as the pines (Pinus sylvestris) back home in England, and this made it very noteworthy indeed.

In 1605, Captain George Weymouth of The British Royal Navy took seeds and logs to England, where the Naval Board realized what an important asset this tree could be. In the 1750’s, King George I claimed exclusive rights on the best of these pines in New England, which were called “King’s Pines” and marked with a blaze called The King’s Broad Arrow. Since all of New England was considered "Crown Land" of the British Empire, King George I took control of the tallest and largest of these great trees.  This signified property of the King and the trees were to be harvested and used solely for building ships for the Royal British Navy.

In 1761, the Crown decided that future land grants restricted the cutting of timber over 24 inches diameter. The colonists considered the white pine on their land to be their own important economic asset, and ignored, circumvented and in one case rebelled against this.  In New Hampshire, The Pine Tree Riot of 1772 protested the law that made settlers pay for the right to cut pines on their own land. It was considered a form of taxation, and we know how New Hampshire people have always felt about that.

The majestic eastern white pine, symbolic of the unique riches offered in North America, was depicted on the first New England Flag in 1686, and again appeared on the Massachusetts Coat of Arms and Naval Flag, the first seal of New Hampshire, and the current flag of Vermont. Perhaps the Arboretum should fly a flag at the entrance to our new Pine Collection, to celebrate the historic and economic heritage of the majestic pine.