White pines in North Country bear important fruit
Saturday, December 14, 2013 - 4:47 pm


The old saw, “money doesn’t grow on trees,” will remain valid unless bartering ever becomes the norm, in which case fruit and nut growers will be awash in tree-grown currency.

Figuring exchange rates would be quite a headache, I imagine. Our eastern white pine isn’t considered a crop-bearing tree and it certainly doesn’t sprout cash, but it has borne priceless “fruit” all the same.

The tallest trees this side of the Rockies, white pines of up to 230 feet were recorded by early loggers. The current U.S. champion stands at 188 feet tall, and in New York State we have several over 150 feet. In terms of identification, white pine makes it easy. It’s the only native pine out east that bears needles in bundles of fives. It produces attractive, six-inch long cones with resin-tipped scales, perfect for fire starting and for wreaths and other holiday decorations (might want to keep those away from open flames).

White pine is renowned for its exceptionally wide and clear (knot-free), light-colored lumber used for flooring, paneling and sheathing as well as for structural members. New England was built on white pine, and in some old homes, original pine floorboards 20 or more inches wide can still be found. Impressive as its premium lumber is, white pine’s most precious gift is invisible. And hopefully indivisible.

About a thousand years ago here in the Northeast, five nation-states decided they spent too much energy disputing borders and resources, and devised a system of governance to resolve inter-state issues, leaving each nation-state otherwise autonomous. It’s said that white pine, with its five needles joined at the base, helped inspire the original five member nations (a sixth was added in 1722) to form the new federal structure, and white pine remains a symbol of this confederacy, the Iroquois. The tree was, and is, depicted with a bald eagle, five arrows clenched in its talons to symbolize strength in unity, perched at its top.

The Iroquois confederacy comprises 50 elected chiefs who sit in two legislative groups, with a single elected head of state. Historically, only women could vote. Women also had the sole power to impeach a leader not acting in the public’s best interest, and could quash any legislation they deemed rash or short-sighted. A chief was expected to be able to recite the Iroquois constitution from memory, a feat which is still practiced today on some reserves, and takes nine full days to complete.

Jefferson, Franklin, Monroe, Madison and Adams wrote of their admiration of the Iroquois confederacy. Franklin and Madison were particularly enthusiastic about it, and exhorted the thirteen colonies to adopt a similarly structured union. During the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, Iroquois leaders were invited to attend as advisers.

Among the earliest Revolutionary flags was a series of Pine Tree Flags, and the white pine remains on Vermont’s state flag. The eagle, though removed from its pine perch, has always sat on U.S. currency, holding in its talons a bundle of thirteen arrows symbolizing strength in unity, or E Pluribus Unum. I suppose in a metaphoric sense, our money did grow on a tree.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.