• Why hate the beautiful Bull pine?

    by  • August 4, 2013 • CA natives, Plant Profiles • 23 Comments

    Myths and facts about the Sierra Foothills Bull pine

    From the time we moved into the mountains, I heard from neighbors and local friends about the Bull pines.  Bull pines, Pinus sabiniana, are seemingly hated, seen as ugly, messy trees and reputed to somehow(?) suck water from people’s wells and aquifers. You must cut down the huge trees if you wanted to save your well water supply, they said.

    A representative from The California Chaparral Institute stated that this tree does not ‘suck’ water any more than any other tree would. It’s probably not advisable to site a well close to any tree, but this tree’s reputation in our local area is undeserved!  Don’t hate this tree,…but recognize it’s quiet beauty and distinctive qualities.

    A majestic Grey pine on our property line

    A majestic Bull pine on our property line

    The presence of several bull pines in the oak-pine community provides favorable perching and nesting sites for various hawks. Great blue herons, osprey, and bald eagles where bull pines grow near lakes, like our local Bass Lake and other wetlands.

    Bull pines tend to survive better than many pines because they continue to photosynthesize during the winter months and early spring when there is lots of moisture and thy loses little moisture in summer due to relatively few needles. They have an open, lacy look and don’t thrive where there is any shade or root competition so they are normally widely-spaced on a hillside.


    Two young bull pines

    Two young bull pines

    These two young Bull pines stand in our lower 40. They haven’t yet formed the distinctive forked trunk they will have as mature trees.


    Close-up of the distinctive Pinus sabiniana bark

    Close-up of the distinctive Pinus sabiniana bark

    Alternate names for the Bull Pine are Ghost Pine, Foothill Pine, Grey Pine, Digger Pine and Gray Leaf Pine. In our Mountain Community around Oakhurst, CA, they are known as Bull pines.

    From the ‘The Original Californians

    “The term “Digger” as applied to the California Indians is a pejorative misnomer, based on the mistaken idea that they lived largely by grubbing up roots. American pioneer immigrants, seeing Indian women busy with digging sticks, were unaware that they wanted root fibers for basketmaking more often than for food. The diet of the California tribes did include certain roots and bulbs, but perhaps the real reason the Digger legend persisted was that it was easier to deprive the Indians of their lands and their lives if it could be believed that they were only miserable and subhuman creatures anyway. Racism has many insidious uses.”


    New cones

    The male pollen cones emerging…   The large pine cones we see most often are yhe female seed cones


    Rosin covered Bull pine cones can be 2-3 pounds

    Rosin covered Bull pine cones can be 2-3 pounds

    Bull pine cones are as large as a football and incredibly heavy and sharp.  They can pop a car tire. Inside are the hard-to-reach pine nuts.


    Bull pines in a swath at 3000'

    Bull pines  are back lit in a ribbon-like swath at 3000′. Mountains north of Mariposa, CA

    Bull pines are native to dry, western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California’s Central Valley, Bull Pines can be reliably found between 1,000 to 3,000 feet.  So reliable is this fact, that as you drive the back roads of the foothills, you can tell at what elevation you are.  The sparse, wispy needles make Bull pines look a bit grey from a distance and their distinctive forked trunks makes them easy to spot.


    Bull pines try to grow straight on steep hillsides

    Bull pines try to grow straight on steep hillsides

    To the logging industry, Bull pine wood is expensive to log due to the sparse stand density and therefore not highly valued, but one advantage is that their low altitude location makes them easier to harvest in winter when other pines are inaccessible.


    Typical coverage on the foothills

    Typical coverage of Bull pines on the hillside, mixed with Sticky-leafed Manzanita and scrub oak.

     Bull Pine companions

    In the Sierra Nevada, Bull pines grow along with these trees:

    • California buckeye Aesculus californica
    • California scrub oak Quercus dumosa
    • California black oak Q. kelloggii
    • Interior live oak Q. wislizeni

    And these shrubs:

    • Manzanita A. manzanita
    • Manzanita  A. viscida,
    • Buckbrush Ceanothus cuneatus
    • Redbud Cercis occidentalis
    • Birchleaf mountain mahogany Cercocarpus betuloides
    • Silktassel Garrya fremontii
    • Toyon Heteromeles arbutifolia
    • Hollyleaf buckthorn Rhamnus crocea
    • Western poison-oak Toxicodendron diversilobum
    A myriad of cones hang on the upper branches

    A myriad of cones hang on the upper branches


    Dramatic snowy bull pine in March

    Dramatic snowy bull pine in March

    John Muir in My First Summer in the Sierra: “This day has been as hot and dusty as the first, leading over gently sloping brown hills, with mostly the same vegetation, excepting the strange-looking Sabine pine (Pinus Sabiniana), which here forms small groves or is scattered among the blue oaks. The trunk divides at a height of fifteen or twenty feet into two or more stems, outleaning or nearly upright, with many straggling branches and long gray needles, casting but little shade. In general appearance this tree looks more like a palm than a pine. The cones are about six or seven inches long, about five in diameter, very heavy, and last long after they fall, so that the ground beneath the trees is covered with them. They make fine resiny, light-giving camp-fires, next to ears of Indian corn the most beautiful fuel I’ve ever seen.”


    In some areas, loblolly pines and even Ponderosa pines are sometimes called ‘Bull pines.’

    ‘The Original Californians’ by James J Rawls and Walton Bean


    Sue Langley, a passionate gardener and photographer lives and gardens with her husband and Corgi, Maggie on 7 acres just south of Yosemite, Zone 7 at 3000 feet. She also manages the Flea Market Gardening Facebook page and website.

    23 Responses to Why hate the beautiful Bull pine?

    1. Michele LuValle
      August 4, 2013 at 8:54 am

      Thank you for this lovely article, Sue. I live at 2,000′ in the foothills between Fresno and Sequoia/Kings Canyon. I’m going out to look for Pinus Sabiniana to add to our oaks.

      • Sue Langley
        August 4, 2013 at 9:41 am

        Thanks, Thanks, Michele, you may be able to spot some already in your area…They’re lovely when you know a bit about them!

        • Michele LuValle
          August 4, 2013 at 9:50 am

          I’m afraid I’m still adjusting to the natural environment hereabouts. Like you and your husband, we are transplants from Southern California.

    2. August 4, 2013 at 9:25 am

      How people so passionately espouse all these false beliefs continually astonishes me. I’m sure all my beliefs are true and valid! — well, not really. Human beings all, we are fallible and easily led into ‘group thinking” – it is very discouraging. One can only be aware and try to examine our own beliefs. I’m continually being challenged – like Richard Halsey recently challenged the belief that fire suppression has created hotter more frequent fires – that one knocked me sideways. It’s on his chaparral institute web site. Thanks for an interesting post and lovely photos of the gray pine. I love to see your snowy ones – they always hit me with a bit of a shock! Oh – snow! I’d forgotten that exists! haha!

      • Michele LuValle
        August 4, 2013 at 9:58 am

        Dear Mz. Mouse! We appreciate the tip re the Chaparral Institute. Went to the site and signed up for the e-mail list. We have been getting “Forestland Steward” from the California Forest Stewardship Program for several years, even though we no longer have our piece of redwood forest in Mendocino County, and this publication has covered and debunked some of the myths you mention. California Native Plant Society has also done their bit to educate out the myths.– Maybe someday we’ll have snow again; it’s hard to believe this time of year.

    3. Sue Langley
      August 4, 2013 at 9:47 am

      Thanks, Mouse! I know what you mean! There is so much info out there to sort through, but common sense and a little digging can clear things up sometimes. I believe that the universe takes care of itself and humans can be mighty arrogant to think they can affect the results of whatever they think the ‘problem’ is.
      Right now, firefighters are ‘containing’ a 14,000 acre fire in an uninhabited area beyond our closest mountain and spending millions to do so. What a waste of money!
      I like those who challenge authority…I’m a child of the 60s. Ha!

    4. August 4, 2013 at 11:09 am

      Thanks for a fascinating and beautiful post. I started reading your blog because we also garden on a steep slope – there the similarity ends, although I have learnt useful things for my own garden (how you tackled your wildflower slope/meadow, for example).
      Now I keep on returning to your blog because I’m enjoying the things you write about your own environment. Especially the ‘Digger Pine’ info – how blind we often are to the lives of others! I need to open my eyes more to our own woodland, here in France.

    5. Sue Langley
      August 4, 2013 at 12:02 pm

      Thanks, Cathy. Do you have a blog,….I’d love to read about other gardeners’ experiences. My sis lives in NZ and not only are her seasons opposite, but she, a native Californian has adopted a love of native NZ plants. Fascinating…

    6. Carol Demann
      August 4, 2013 at 1:44 pm

      Hi Sue
      I had to comment on this I have always called them Digger Pines as I was told that was their name.
      I from the start didn’t like the tree we had so many they were so Ugly and leaning compared to all the other straight pretty green Pines so every time we came up from So Cal we would take one or 2 down until we had pretty much all of them down on our property we have maybe 5 or six left and I won’t miss them Sorry I don’t have the love for them that you true country People do Guess coming from Orange county where everything as neat and well planted I just couldn’t like this tree besides they Fall to easy so I am afraid of them as well.

      • Sue Langley
        August 4, 2013 at 7:48 pm

        Carol, I come from Southern California, too. When I moved here, I didn’t particularly care for oak trees,…thought they were so stickery and even messy.
        I changed my mind as I explored our woodsy place, I learned more and more about the native plants of California which used to survive throughout the state. I appreciate them more.

        It makes me happy to be called a true country person now,..I could be called that, I think. and I’d rather live here in my foresty home and dodge the deadly Bull pine cones…unafraid.

      • L. Oaks
        December 29, 2013 at 7:03 pm

        So saddened to hear that people who are non natives come to our mountains and destroy native trees and with that you are removing the wildlife that relies upon that native tree. The trees that you think are ugly are a life source for our wild species, if you think a native plant or tree is ugly then perhaps you would be happier looking at the man made landscapes in your orange county. Please respect our local species, I’m a Native American and it is sickening to hear in 2013 people with all knowledge at touch of a keyboard still are removing part of the land that does not belong to you. Keep L.A. do not bring it here to our beautiful native lands.

    7. August 4, 2013 at 3:01 pm

      Thanks for such a meaty and informative post. I’ve heard of digger pines and knew that it was a perjorative, but I hadn’t heard all the rest.

      • Sue Langley
        August 4, 2013 at 7:51 pm

        Thanks, Brent!

    8. Kerry Hand
      August 4, 2013 at 10:02 pm

      Great post. None of them around here in New Zealand, but I will keep my eye out – you never know what somebody or the miners have bought here.
      And a great photo. The backlit trees on the slope.

      • Sue Langley
        August 9, 2013 at 7:18 am

        Thanks, Kerry! I miss reading your blog,..I’ll check it today…

    9. Kathy Cites
      March 26, 2014 at 8:50 pm

      I grew up and still reside in western Fresno County on a cattle ranch. Bull pines are abundant on our property and I love them. They are prone to lightning strikes and branches or entire trees can fall without warning. Rainfall followed by high winds will certainly bring down quite a few of them. We had several on the hill fall one night, they were far enough from the house that only the tips hit the house and didn’t cause much damage. It took months to cut them up. Generally we keep an eye on any that may fall and block the road or take out structures or fences and remove them. Aside from that, we leave the old guys alone. It’s like losing an old friend when one of the big ones fall. Excellent article. Thanks for educating those who are unfamiliar with this wonderful tree. A side note, as a child I loved the natural bridges that were created when one would by chance fall across the creek. Nothing like sitting on a big old tree trunk perched over the water, and being able to navigate the creek during flood stage.

      • Michele LuValle
        March 26, 2014 at 9:09 pm

        Kathy, I enjoyed your beautiful post!

      • Sue Langley
        March 26, 2014 at 9:56 pm

        Thanks, Kathy,…I’m glad to know others have an appreciation for this fine native tree. Always one to root for the underdog,…I was mystified by the neighbors denouncement that they were bad trees.

        How fun to look back on childhood memories. One day I noticed on our property that one tall bull pine was simply not there on the near horizon! It fell right across or stream, too brushy for us to cross, though… Guess you’re right that they can suddenly just fall.

    10. Milton Hare
      June 29, 2014 at 4:03 pm

      Christina and I have got several bull pines on our two and a half acres south of downtown Coarsegold, at 2100 feet elevation. I’ve noticed that their long, gangly arms fall fairly easily, taking out oaks that happen to be growing right next to them and extending the area around them so they don’t have to compete with so many large trees. In response, some species of deciduous oak have adapted by growing straight up, their own branches very tight to the trunk. One oak next to one of our giant bull pines has a piece of pine branch caught in its upper branches. Some of these upright oaks “twin” with others of their species, growing together to make very strong trunks. One of our bull pines has recently died, the one closest to our house. We had to do a lot of clearing of brush under this tree and we also run an eight-foot fire break around one side of it. Several of our bull pines have suffered from either drought or insect damage, but this tree just up and died — I think because we heated up its environment by scalping so much of the land right around it. Also, just underneath this pine tree there was a carpet of very heavy grass, two to three feet in height, full of slime mold which at spring clearing time sends an intense and remarkable cloud of dark brown spores rising up. I try to avoid breathing any of this, but there’s no particular smell and I haven’t suffered any bad effects. This mold is much more common under pine trees and may be an ecological partner. I’ve tried to avoid too much clearing around our remaining bull pines. They support a lot of life. The dead tree now supports a crowd of redheaded woodpeckers.

      • Sue Langley
        June 29, 2014 at 5:29 pm

        Interesting how trees coexist in our very natural properties. I imagine that broken branch will stay there for awhile! Our effect on the trees and shrubs around us can sometimes damage them, I’ve found. Interesting about the branching habits you mention.

        Grass under pines usually grows where there is a lot more water than natural conditions in Coarsegold. Are you near a stream? I find that if I water the manzanitas r our Hall’s Mule’s ears, they die so I’m careful not to. I also don’t plant within 10 feet of an oak or pine,…they don’t like the extra water.

        Some who are building houses in our area cordon off the trees they want to save,…even heavy equipment or driveways built over the root systems can damage them.

        Hmmm, mold… that’s something I haven’t seen, I guess. Sounds like you have a wonderful property full of wildlife! Our woodpeckers have arrived,..they seem to be teenagers and a bit clumsy.

        • Milton Hare
          December 25, 2014 at 11:36 am

          Since I wrote the last post, my tall dead bull pine has lost three 30-foot long vertical spires, all on the same windy night. One spire ended up landing on an oak next to the pine. It did very little damage and it’s just sitting there horizontally, very prominent, about 20 feet off the ground. Don’t know how I’ll get it down. Yes, any grass under a bull pine around here at least has slime mold in it.

    11. Robert
      August 6, 2015 at 6:14 pm

      Two reasons they are not desirable is the fact that they are somewhat fragile. They tend to just break and fall over for no apparent reason. I myself experienced this with a very large one closer to my house than I cared for. After having three large diameter branches, 10″+ just break and fall for no discernible reason over about a five year period, I decided to remove the tree before it fell over on my house. The other reason is its not very good fire wood. Being very fiberous, it’s hard to split and only the cleanest rounds will split with any uniformity. All that and they are very rich in sap and deposit heavy creosote in chimney pipes. When I burn Bullpine, I don’t dare go more than a few weeks without cleaning the pipe or arresters.

      • Milton Hare
        August 6, 2015 at 6:56 pm

        Bull pines are adapted to their environment and are competing with oaks, mostly. I’ve noticed that those big branches can shear off branches from surrounding oaks when they fall, which in a brute sort of way clears the area for the pine. I agree with you about having one close to your house. We have two that could conceivably fall on our house but they’re leaning the other way. And I think some of the oaks have adapted too, by growing straight up while they’re young, and only spreading when they’re a dominant tree. Also, I’ve tried the pine nuts from bull pines — very hard to get out of the shell and very small, but a nice resinous taste.

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