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Environment & Climate Change

Pining for a history lesson? How and why the White Pine became Michigan’s official state tree

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Michigan Department of Natural Resources
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The Christmas tree business is booming this year. And while Fraser firs are currently the most popular variety for holiday cheer in the state, some Michiganders are bringing home another kind of tree: the White Pine, which just so happens to be the Michigan state tree. But how exactly did this species become Michigan’s arboreal emblem?

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The White Pine is also called the Eastern White Pine, biisaandago-zhingwaak or zhingwaak in Ojibwe, and Pinus strobus in Latin. Its role as the state tree has roots in Michigan’s logging era during the late 1800s, says Hillary Pine (no relation). She’s the Northern Lower Peninsula historian for the Michigan History Center, and she works out of Hartwick Pines State Park.

“Lumberjacks, they kind of came from the eastern United States—logging was big there when the country was first colonized,” Pine said. “Really quickly, the trees get cut down, they make their way to Michigan, and we have these wonderful stands of old-growth White Pine.”

Pine says that White Pine wood is lightweight but strong, so it makes good building material—plus, it floats, so it was easy for lumberjacks to transport to mills via rivers and other waterways. White Pines grow best in sandy, acidic soil, which can be found in the middle and northern parts of the Lower Peninsula, as well as in the Upper Peninsula, she adds.

Michigan was the national leader in lumber production from about 1870 to 1900, Pine says.

“That brought $4 billion into Michigan's economy. And that was money then—not adjusted for inflation,” she explained. “People were immigrating from all over the world to Michigan because there were so many jobs both in logging camps and in mills.”

The historical significance of White Pines and the United States timber industry isn’t limited to Michigan—the U.S. government sought access to land and trees in Wisconsin and Minnesota, as well. This led to the 1837 Treaty, often called “the White Pine Treaty,” in which Ojibwe leaders ceded a large area of land to the U.S. government but kept the right to gather, hunt, and fish there—although U.S. states and politicians frequently disregarded those rights.

The logging era’s impact in Michigan is lasting. Pine says that’s partly why, in 1955, a group of schoolchildren in Saginaw wrote to their local state representative, Holly E. Hubbell, about the importance of the logging era to Michigan’s economy and population. Hubbell then introduced a bill naming the White Pine Michigan’s state tree, a title that became official on October 14 of that year, she says. The White Pine is also Maine’s state tree.

If you’re pining for a White Pine sighting yourself, Hillary Pine says she finds it easiest to identify the species when it’s young, and there’s a simple test you can use to help confirm you’ve found it.

“A good way to tell the difference between a Red Pine or a White Pine is grab one of the bundles of needles. And in the word ‘white,’ there are five letters, and in a bundle of White Pine needles, there are typically five needles,” she said. “Versus a Red Pine—three letters in the word ‘red,’ and there are usually three needles in a Red Pine bundle.”

You can also see mature White Pines at Hartwick Pines, which hosts a stand of old-growth White Pine trees, some of which are up to about 165 feet tall, she says.

“As you walk the trail, you’re literally encased in this canopy of old-growth trees towering above you. You can see quite a distance into the forest because there’s not much growing on the forest floor, and in the winter, especially, it makes for just a beautiful sight,” Pine said.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

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