Grace of a white pine monoculture

Guelph Lake Trail

Eastern white pine plantations are ubiquitous in Southern Ontario. We have one behind our house. The photo shows another one near Guelph. I can hardly think of any conservation lands where a person can walk far without encountering long straight rows of Pinus strobus. Officials at one time must have thought it good policy to cover countless acres with them. It was a stupid thing to do, but I will not hold a grudge. White pines are among the loveliest trees I know.

It is easy to understand how this error was made. Vast tracts of mature white pines apparently covered much of the habitable parts of Ontario at the time of European colonization. Subsequent logging of these forests played a significant economic role into the early 20th Century. Replacing them must have seemed an astute investment for the future.

As late as the 1960s, ecologists encouraged this policy. Pinery Provincial Park was established on the shore of Lake Huron in the belief that planting a lot of white and red pines could re-establish the original ecosystem. Later research revealed the failures of this approach:

  1. Monocultures of pine (or any tree, for that matter) provide about as sterile an ecosystem as anyone can imagine.
  2. Oak savannah which The Pinery replaced was probably the native ecosystem, and a much healthier one. In other words, pine forests had probably not dominated the site anytime within the previous 400 years.

Back-pedaling ensued. The park’s website now boasts, “the largest oak savanna woodlands remaining in North America.” We could save a lot of energy by leaving nature alone. Notice the white pine sapling (just right of centre) volunteering its time among these junipers and young oaks at The Pinery.

Oak Savannah at Pinery Provincial Park

Sometimes red pines, P. resinona, populate these plantations instead. White pine is the more elegant species. Its proclivity for thriving in rocky clefts, branches sprawling across the wind, has made it an emblem of the Canadian Shield. They are the largest trees in this part of the continent, reaching upwards of 50m. The oldest white pine in Ontario, estimated at 486 years in 1995, resides in a remote old growth stand at Dividing Lake Nature Reserve at the southwest corner of Algonquin Provincial Park, not far (as the raven flies) from my cottage.

The white pine has a secret character far gentler than its spiky red cousin. Its needles are incredibly kind. There is no mattress softer than a decades-thick copper-coloured bed of them. A dense tree also keeps the ground beneath dry from both dew and light rain. As a youth I spent one blissful night camping with no shelter but a white pine stand, so I can attest to the luxury.

My bones these days bear little longing to sleep outdoors. Still whenever I open the back gate and step into the plantation behind our house, I am in good company. My mind returns to that bed in daydreams. A long arched gallery opens like a cathedral. Rabbit droppings, scattered clumps of garlic mustard and the thin titter of chickadees remind me even a monoculture can harbour a community. It will grow richer with time, if we let time have its way.

4 thoughts on “Grace of a white pine monoculture

  1. Hello,
    I know this is a rather old post but I am interested in exploring the pine forest. Where exactly in Guelph is this located?
    Thank you!

    1. Welcome, Roberta. North of Guelph on Victoria Road there’s a bridge across the Speed River where lots of people park cars for access to hiking trails. If you follow the trails east and keep right, away from the stream, you’ll find the pine plantation. Enjoy.

  2. i suggest you begin to thin the plantation as the subsequent patches of sunlight (barring too many invasive plants such as Buckthorn/Dog-strangling vine) will allow natural regeneration of local native tree and shrub species and increase ecological diversity. The first thinning should be 1/4 of the trees either by taking out a row (for access) or picking and choosing based on health and tree spacing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *