Roy & Charlotte Lukes: Pine Trees


Eventually the northern forests of Door County will be decorated in their finest “ermine of the kings.” A deep blanket of snow will bring the evergreens to their loveliest of the year. Pines, firs and spruces reach their peak of perfection when robed in white.

In my 50 years of hiking during all seasons in the various woods of the county, few experiences surpass those spent on snowshoes exploring out-of-the-way trails that are sometimes ruled in summer by mosquitos. The outings will be sublime when a person is far enough from roads and people that all unnatural sounds cease to exist. It is then that the stillness amidst the pines and snowclad spires of spruces and firs makes you want to whisper. This crystal-lined palace is far better than those built by human hands.

Pines, the red and white in Door County, are beautiful to behold during all seasons, but it’s when their dark green needles are decorated with snow flowers that these stately trees attain their greatest majesty. Lucky for those in this county at the middle latitudes, home of both snow and especially the king of them all – the white pine – that the winter landscape takes on such beauty.

Standing knee deep in a snow-covered field of grasses, goldenrods and Queen Anne’s laces, no manmade sounds to be heard, staring in wonderment at a towering pine draped with immaculate whiteness, one can easily come to agreement with Pliny. Two thousand years ago this Roman scholar concluded that trees and the forest were the most sublime gift with which nature had endowed people.

The bark on a red pine has a rosy tint to the flat scale-like surface. Photo by Roy Lukes.

The bark on a red pine has a rosy tint to the flat scale-like surface. Photo by Roy Lukes.

The pine that is becoming more and more important in this region in terms of planting is the red pine. This is largely due to the vulnerability of the white pines to the dreaded white pine blister rust. Years ago roughly 15 percent of the vast pinery of the eastern U.S. was made up of red pines, Pinus resinosa. White pines comprised the major portion of this spectacular stand.

Red pines frequently grow in a mixture with white pines and jack pines as well as with hardwoods. They grow especially well in sandy soils, sandy loam and gravel. Their growth is vigorous and it is common for them to grow a foot or more annually for the first 60 to 70 years. Seldom do they grow more than 300 years.

The Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris, has been widely planted in the United States, northern Germany and Russia. Its gracefully arched branches, rich orange-red bark and bluish spiraled needles in clusters of two all make for an exquisitely handsome tree. They are a common sight throughout the winter countryside of Door County.

It is thought that the great forests of white pines in northern Wisconsin and Door County, nearly all cut down between 1870 and 1910, stemmed from widespread catastrophes during the 13th century including fires, tornadoes and droughts. Following fires, for example, seeds fall from the small number of surviving pines, land on the forest floor now burned clear of the thick litter that inhibits growth of plants, germinate in the newly exposed mineral soil and begin to grow.

During the first dozen or so years the white pine is pyramidal in shape, having quite regular whorls of branches, each swirl indicating one year of the tree’s life. Later the pine begins to spread in its growth, producing a somewhat flattened top. Now its leader loses dominance while the tree’s upper branches compete, producing a broad crown.

White pines, like most evergreen trees, need a lot of light. How do they get this light? White pines grow tall, taller than any other native tree in Wisconsin. Maples, for example, get their light by producing large leaves.

Maples are kind to the soil. Pines on the other hand are very hard on the soil because most of the nutrients are literally “wolfed” from the soil and locked up in the mass of trees, similar to what occurs in the tropical rain forests. Good growth in the pines will require about 20 inches of rainfall during the growing season and 100 inches of snow (equal to 10 inches of rain) during the winter.

Chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, brown creepers and kinglets all are very beneficial to the white pines and other winter trees, helping to reduce the number of insect pests. Consider, too, the other hazards these magnificent trees face such as droughts, wind storms, blizzards and the build-up of tons of wet snow and ice especially in the crowns of evergreens. Being so tall, lightning strikes can do severe damage to the pines as can injuries from other trees when neighboring large branches fall on them. One cannot overlook insect and fungus attacks, mice and rabbit damage, deer browse, buck rubs and human encroachment bringing about soil compaction above the roots, etc., etc., whew!

And so we hold dear and cherish with all our hearts these splendid trees fastened in their appointed places, faced with challenges, but invariably adding great pleasure to the lives of people who take the time to be in their midst, and, more important, are willing to be stewards of their environment.

May the towering pines, dressed in their white winter robes, smile down upon you as they whisper songs of delight. Welcome to winter in Door County!

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