Pollen cones and foliage, Bear Creek Summit, Nevada [C.J. Earle, 5-Jul-1985].

"Mountain pine tree, on Mount Shasta, Calif." [Carleton E. Watkins, ca. 1870] (99).

Pinus albicaulis Engelmann 1863

Common Names

Whitebark pine, whitestem, alpine whitebark, pitch, scrub or creeping pine (3); white pine (4); pine à blanche écorce (11).

Taxonomic notes

Syn: Apinus albicaulis (Engelmann) Rydberg. Belongs to subsection Cembra , the stone pines, so called for their large, wingless seeds.


"Trees to 21 m tall; trunk to 1.5 m diam., straight to twisted and contorted; crown conic, becoming rounded to irregularly spreading. Bark pale gray, from a distance appearing whitish to light gray and smooth, in age separating into thin plates. Branches spreading to ascending, often persistent to trunk base; twigs stout, pale red-brown, with light brown, often glandular pubescence, somewhat roughened by elevated scars, aging gray to pale gray-brown. Buds ovoid, light red-brown, 0.8-1 cm; scale margins entire. Leaves 5 per fascicle, mostly ascending and upcurved, persisting 5-8 years, 3-7 cm x 1-1.5(-2) mm, mostly connivent, deep yellow-green, abaxial surface less so, adaxial surface conspicuously whitened by stomata, margins rounded, minutely serrulate distally, apex conic-acute; sheath 0.8-1.2 cm, shed early. Pollen cones cylindro-ovoid, ca. 10-15 mm, scarlet. Seed cones remaining on tree (unless dislodged by animals), not opening naturally but through animal agency, spreading, symmetric, broadly ovoid to depressed-ovoid or nearly globose, 4-8 cm, dull gray- to black-purple, sessile to short-stalked; scales thin-based and easily broken off; apophyses much thickened, strongly cross-keeled, tip upcurved, brown; umbo terminal, short, incurved, broadly triangular, tip acute. Seeds obovoid; body 7-11 mm, chestnut brown, wingless, edible. 2 n =24" (11).

Foliage has sweetish taste and odor when crushed (4).


US and Canada: At montane to timberline elevations (1300 to 3700 m) in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, British Columbia, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming; in the Coast Mountains of British Columbia; in the Cascade Mountains of Washington and Oregon; and in certain isolated intermountain ranges of eastern California and Nevada (4,11). See also (15).

Although two reliable dendrologists, G.B. Sudworth (1917) and N.T. Mirov (1967), include Utah in the distribution of Pinus albicaulis , more recent workers have not found it to occur there (11).

Big Tree

Diameter 268 cm, height 21.0 m, crown spread 14 m, in Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho (10). Also, height 27.4 m, dbh 119 cm, in Alpine Lakes Wilderness, WA (13).


The oldest established date is a crossdated tree at 882 years, sampled by Brian Luckman in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta. I sampled a stand in the Independence Mountains of Nevada that probably contained comparably-aged trees, and I suspect that arid mountain ranges of the Great Basin contain trees exceeding 1000 years.


The species has not proven particularly useful because of poor latewood definition and low interannual ringwidth variation, and so has not been extensively sampled except for ecological research.


Interior Salish peoples harvested the seeds by removing the cones and roasting them overnight. The seeds were crushed to make a flour. The fibrous roots were used to sew bark together and to weave watertight containers. The western world values whitebark pine for its aesthetic qualities and for its value as wildlife habitat (9).


Seen widely throughout the US portion of its range. Have found particularly fine stands atop the Little Belt Mountains of Montana, at elevations above 1500m in the eastern Cascade Range of Washington, and near timberline in the Independence and Jarbidge Mountains of Nevada.


White pine blister rust ( Cronartium ribicola ), an introduced fungal disease, has decimated formerly extensive stands of this and certain other white pines. Mortality has been especially severe in portions of the range north of 45° latitude or west of 120° longitude (5).

Whitebark pine, like other stone pines, has coevolved with nutcrackers (in this case, Nucifraga columbiana ). The nutcrackers rely on stone pine seeds as their principal food source "for at least 9 months of the year and for raising the young. In addition to special adaptations on gathering, transporting, caching, and finding again the hoarded seeds, the whole annual cycle of the nutcracker's life (time of breeding and moulting), its mating system, and its habitat use are adjusted to the use of pine seeds" (7). Moreover, since the whitebark pine's cone do not open, seed hoarding and caching by the nutcracker and related corvids (e.g., jays) constitute the only reproductive mechanism available to this pine (7).

The seeds are also an important food source for certain mammals: "Whitebark pine seeds are an important high-quality food for bear populations that occupy ecosystems with continental climates south of the United States - Canada border. Availability of pine seeds affects human-bear conflict and bear mortality. In most areas bears acquire whitebark pine seeds by excavating red squirrel ( Tamasciurus hudsonicus ) food caches... Bear use of pine seeds is restricted to stands > 100 years old, and can persist for an additional 200 to 300 years" (8).


(1) Arno & Gyer 1973 .

(2) Elias 1987 .

(3) Peattie 1950 .

(4) Little 1980 .

(6) Schmidt 1994 .

(7) Tomback et al. 1990 .

(8) Mattson and Reinhart 1994 .

(9) Parish et al. 1996 .

(10) American Forests 1996 .

(11) Robert Kral at the Flora of North America online .

(12) Hoff, R.J.; S.K. Hagle and R.G. Krebill. 1994. Genetic consequences and research challenges of blister rust in whitebark pine forests. P.118-126 in W.C. Schmidt and F.-K. Holtmeier (eds). Proceedings -- International Workshop on Subalpine Stone Pines and their Environment: the Status of Our Knowledge. General Technical Report INT-GTR-309. Ogden, Utah: U.S. Forest Service Intermountain Research Station.

(13) E-mail communication from Robert Van Pelt, who measured this tree; 18-Mar-1998.

(14) Image available online from the Library of Congress as part of the exhibit, "The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920;" the URL for this site keeps changing -- go to the Library of Congress and search.

(15) Robert S. Thompson, Katherine H. Anderson and Patrick J. Bartlein. 1999. Atlas of Relations Between Climatic Parameters and Distributions of Important Trees and Shrubs in North America. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1650 A&B. URL= , accessed 22-Jan-2000.

See also:
Burns & Honkala 1990 .
Elias 1987 .
Lanner 1983 .
Lanner, R.M. 1982. Adaptations of whitebark pine for seed dispersal by Clark's nutcracker. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 12:391-402.

back  |  Pinus  |  Pinaceae  |  home

This page is from the Gymnosperm Database
Edited by Christopher J. Earle
Last modified on 24-Jan-2000