The Whitebark Pine (Pinus Albicaulis) is a medium to large tree that grow to 5 to 20 metres tall. It is a long-lived species: the oldest one is 1200 years old, and it can be found in the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho. Its foliage is rounded and irregular. Above the tree line it takes on the characteristic ‘krummholz’ shape of a shrub.
Whitebark pine has five 4 to 8 cm long needles. The mature bark is whitish-grey, the twigs are yellowish and pubescent. Whitebark pine trees are monoecious, with male and female cones on the same trunk. The seeds are spread almost exclusively by Clark’s nutrcracker (Nucifraga columbiana), which hides the seeds throughout the year.
The whitebark pine grows in cold, humid or semi-arid climates. It is found on the cold mountain ridges of North America, often in geographically isolated areas. Because of this, genetic diversity between populations is very low. White pines are found from the coastal mountain ranges of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, south to the Sierra Range in California, and east to the Rocky Mountains of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Alberta.
Whitebark pines are a key species and an umbrella species, creating habitat for plants and wildlife on mountain slopes. Their seeds are a crucial component of the diet of many animals, including grizzly bears. The broad canopy of white pines shades the snow throughout the year, helping to ensure a steady release of water in spring.
The seeds were used by several native groups, including the Okanagan, Secwepemc, Nlaka’pmx, St’at’imc and Ktunaxa. The Secwepemc also used the roots and bark to build canoes and water containers. The bark was often used as food in times of food shortages and famine. Useful against colds and flu, pine bark tea was used to treat sore throats, congestion and lung infections. The tree was considered a symbol of peace and harmony.
Over time, the bark of the tree was used to make infusions and baked goods such as bread and biscuits. The process involves peeling the bark and drying it. Once the bark is dried, it becomes brittle and easy to sift. Bark flour contains carbohydrates, minerals and vitamin C.
Between 1860 and 1940, white pines were cut to support Montana’s mining industry; used as firewood in smelters and to heat homes.
Today, whitebark pines are rapidly disappearing due to white pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola). Climate change, drought and fires are also weakening the
population. For this reason, the whitebark pine tree is protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and must be preserved.