PERSPECTIVE
aired on KQED public radio on December 1, 2000

By Michael Ellis

FIRE PINES

In the SF Bay area we have four native pine trees that are collectively called Fire pines – Gray, Coulter, Knob-cone and Bishop. These trees grow in the chaparral and are adapted to periodic fires. Most of them are also known as closed-cone pines because the cones require intense heat in order to open up and release their seeds.

The Gray pine is a much more appropriate word than the old name – Digger pine. “Digger” was a derogatory term used by white settlers to refer to all of the Native Americans, regardless of their respective tribe. Because their culture was destroyed, many of the natives were reduced to using sharpened sticks to dig out roots and seeds or poke through the refuse left by white settlements. Gray pines furnished them with tasty and nutritious pine nuts. On the slopes of Mt. Diablo is the best place to see this lovely tree, standing in isolation on the steep hillsides.

The Coulter pine looks a lot like a Gray pine with its long, lacy needles but the cones are even larger — up to 20″ long and weighing 8 lbs. Do not camp under this tree! Coulters are mostly found in southern California and reach their northern limit on Mt. Hamilton and Mt. Diablo.

The knob cone pine as the name indicates has its cones located right along the trunk in conspicuous knobs instead of out at the ends of the branches like most pines. The cones are so persistent and long lasting that often the tree actually grows around the cones. It is known as “the tree that swallows its cones.” On Mt. St. Helena are extensive forests of knob-cone pines.

Marin County only has one kind of pine – the Bishop pine – and it is found almost exclusively on the Inverness Ridge. The 1995 Mt. Vision fire burned large portions of Pt. Reyes National Seashore including the Bishop pine forests. The cones on the blackened charred dead trees popped open like beautiful gray flowers and cloaked the earth with seeds. Five years later there are literally tens of thousands of little Bishop pines that now stand 5′ or more. Like all of the fire pines it takes death to give birth to a forest. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

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August 6, 2009