No other tree reflects the fluctuations in light and weather like the scots pine. In the same way that a mountain landscape appears to physically alter throughout the day as the sun rises and sets and clouds come and go, so too does this native pine of northern Europe. The pink-orange gradient barked trunk glows like the embers of a campfire in the sunrise and sunset and the crown of blue-green needles provides colour and life even during the dullest of winters, making it one of our favourite species here at Miscellaneous Adventures. Read on to find out more about the scots pine, its uses and associated ecology.
The scots pine (pinus sylvestris) is the only species of pine native to the UK and one of only three species of native conifer. Being relatively easy to identify it’s a good species to look out for if you have only recently embarked on your journey into the sometimes confusing world of the amateur naturalist. Its distinctive bark colouration is the first thing to notice; brown-grey at the base of the trunk grading to a pink-orange towards the top of the tree where it begins to flake and peel readily. On windy days the bark can shed naturally in the breeze and flutter down like flakes of snow. As previously mentioned in the introduction, these colours are intensified by sunlight and glow strikingly in the mornings and evenings. The needles are blue-green, arranged in pairs and are slightly twisted.
The general shape and form of the crown and branches varies greatly depending on the conditions of growth; proximity to competing trees, exposure to wind and other outside factors. Tall and straight where planted and gnarled and windswept when isolated and exposed, to me they bring to mind the bushy pines that prevail in Hokusai’s prints and sketches. The female flowers form smallish green cones (up to 5cm) which ripen to brown in spring and open whilst still on the tree, dispersing the tiny winged seeds inside on the wind. Scots pines generally live to around 100 - 200 years although much older specimens have been recorded; one tree in Scotland is said to be around 550 years old and another in Finland over 700.
The wood of scots pine is pinkish in colour and relatively hard for a ’softwood’ species. It is naturally high in oils and resin making it a durable, long lasting timber much used in the modern building industry. In Scandinavia the tree enjoys a wider range of utility being used to make cross country skis, cabins and pine tar although not commercially in recent times. It makes good firewood for campfires when dry, the dead twigs making excellent kindling. The heartwood in stumps of fallen scots pines is particularly rich in resin, this can be harvested and used for tinder sometimes referred to as ‘fat wood’ and burns long, hot and bright even when damp. Boiling water can be infused with chopped up needles from the scots pine, and other pines, to make a tea which is high in vitamin c.
Scots pines have a fascinating natural history being one of the first species in this country to regenerate after the ice age. Much of Scotland would of been covered in this magnificent tree but now only small fragments remain (an estimated 1%) of the great Caledonian forest due to deforestation caused by industry and intense agricultural use but efforts are well underway to help the forest spread once more. Within these small remnants exists a unique ecology with many of the species being dependant on this specific habitat to survive. A visit to one of these special places can reveal marvellous creatures such as the red squirrel, crested tit, golden eagle, capercaillie, pine martin, the elusive wildcat and the endemic Scottish crossbill as well as huge numbers of lichens, mosses and fungi that coexist within a rich and diverse ecosystem. Although a true native of the north, scots pine can be found far and wide in the UK and beyond so keep an eye out for them on your travels.
This is not intended to be a complete study of the scots pine; more an introduction to one of the most common trees you’re likely to encounter in the hope that it will ignite a spark of curiosity and make your next forest adventure a more interesting one. Next time you go for a wander in the woods or a hike in the highlands see if you can spot a scots pine and take a minute to marvel at this handsome tree and let us know what you think!