Whitebark Pine is an evergreen, coniferous tree species of western North America, where it is found seven US states (CA, ID, MT, NV, OR, WA, WY) and two Canadian provinces (AB, BC). In British Columbia, it is frequent in southern BC east of Coast-Cascade Mountains and is rare northward to central and northeastern BC. It is found on mesic to dry slopes in the subalpine to alpine zones, and is considered a keystone species. Whitebark pine is in the white pine group, with 5 bluish, stiff needles per bundle that are clustered towards the ends of the branches. Bark is smooth and chalky-white on younger trees. This species has a variable shape and may be a small dwarfed tree or shrubby and sprawling (Douglas et al. 1998). Freshly cut wood is sweet scented.
Whitebark pine is an important food source for many birds and small mammals, and particularly for Clark's Nutcracker, which plays an important role in seed dispersal in this species. Clark's Nutcrackers cache seeds in the soil and use the caches when food is limited. Cache sites are usually good for seed germination, and can result in a clumped distribution of this species. Whitebark pine is threatened by White Pine Blister Rust, which was introduced from Europe, and which causes significant die-off. It is also threatened by Mountain Pine Beetle in western North America.
Flora North America provides a detailed description of this species.
More details on this species are given in the Gymnosperm Database.
Often contorted and dwarfed, 5-10 m tall, or a shrubby sprawling timberline tree, but also straight and up to 20 m; bark thin with light-whitish scales; young twigs hairy.
Needles in bunches of five, clustered towards ends of branches, (3) 4-7 cm long; yellow green.
Seed cones egg-shaped, deep red to purple, (3.5) 5-8 cm long; scales remain closed and shed the seeds slowly, rarely falling from tree intact; pollen cones red.
If more than one illustration is available for a species (e.g., separate illustrations were provided for two subspecies) then links to the separate images will be provided below. Note that individual subspecies or varietal illustrations are not always available.
Illustration Source: The Illustrated Flora of British Columbia
Present from Summer to Fall
Source: The USDA
||Value / Class
Moisture Regime (SMR)
[0 - very xeric; 4 - mesic;
8 - hydric]
of field plots
species was recorded in:
BEC Zone Class
All BEC Zones (# of stations/zone) species was recorded in
|AT(133), BAFA(20), CWH(1), ESSF(1209), ICH(15), IDF(10), IMA(18), MH(6), MS(99), PP(1), SBS(4)|
Source: Klinkenberg 2013
Whitebark pine has 5 needles per bundle, which separates it from lodgepole pine and ponderosa pine. However it is similar to limber pine and white pine, which also have 5 needles per bundle. Limber pine and whitebark pine are separated based on seeds and pollen cones. "In whitebark pine, the cones are 4-7 cm long, dark purple when immature, and do not open on drying, but the scales easily break when they are removed by Clark's Nutcracker to harvest the seeds. In limber pine, the cones are 6-12 cm long, green when immature, and open to release the seeds; the scales are not fragile. Whitebark pines almost rarely has intact old cones lying under them, whereas limber pines usually do. The pollen cones of whitebark pine are scarlet, and yellow in limber pine." (Wikipedia 2011). Needles can separate whitebark pine and white pine: "whitebark pine needles are entire (smooth when rubbed gently in either direction), whereas western white pine needles are finely serrated (feeling rough when rubbed gently from tip to base). Whitebark pine needles are also usually shorter, 4-7 cm long, to Western White Pine's 5-10 cm (though note the overlap)." (Wikipedia 2011)
1. Needles 2 or 3 in a bundle.
2. Needles in bundles of 3, 12-20 cm long..........................Pinus ponderosa
3. Cones spreading at right angles or reflexed, the scales armed with prickles...............................Pinus controta (2 varieties)
1. Needles usually 5 in a bundle.
4. Cones long-stalked, 15-25 cm long, 6-9 cm thick at maturity; cone scales thin and flexible; seeds prominently winged..........................Pinus monticola
5. Cones 8-25 cm long, opening at maturity; scales light brown, thinned somewhat toward the tip...............................Pinus flexilis
Source: The Illustrated Flora of British Columbia
Whitebark pine belongs to the pine family, subsection Cembra (the stone pines), which are typified by their large, wingless seeds. These large seeds provide a food source for bears prior to hibernation through excavation of red squirrel caches. Whitebark pine is also tied to the ecology of Clark's Nutcracker in BC: "Whitebark pine, like other stone pines, has co-evolved with nutcrackers. The nutcrackers rely on stone pine seeds as their principal food source "for at least 9 months of the year and for raising the young. In addition to special adaptations on gathering, transporting, caching, and finding again the hoarded seeds, the whole annual cycle of the nutcracker's life (time of breeding and moulting), its mating system, and its habitat use are adjusted to the use of pine seeds" (Tomback et al. 1990)." (The Gymnosperm Database 2011).