The gentle and majestic Jeffrey pine
R-C Alpine Bureau
The trees make sense. That is why it is so comforting to live in the deep woods. A single small seed mixed with a magical potion of pollen dropped in just the right spot gives rise to a majestic giant. Living among them, you become keenly aware of the complex arboreal story being enacted right outside your front door. You can become attached to each one like you would to someone you see everyday: someone who is always there.
As each year passes, every tree has its own tale to tell. Some grow so close that one of them gets crowded out, dying early and then leaning on the other until it falls back into the earth. Some get their start only to be thwarted by too little sunlight or the wrong soil strata. One thing is certain: whenever they grow in this natural ballet, they are there for their whole lives. It is not a nursery run by human hands, but a place overseen by the divine touch that orders our natural world.
To them, we are a mere blip on the screen. Our houses are built, crumble and decay, yet they still stand. In the case of the Jeffrey pine, the average life span is 400 to 500 years. In Alpine County it is the most common tree, and even has a fifth season named after it. Overlapping late winter and early spring, we call it “Pine Needle Season.” It is when residents here are required to clear 100 feet all the way around their houses. The 7- to 11-inch bundled needles of the Jeffrey have to be raked up and hauled away to reduce fire danger.
These needles create the Jeffrey’s dense crown in the forest canopy, but along with leaves, stems, branches, and bark these needles make up the forest floor (also known as the detritus or duff). It is here that the decomposition of these elements form the humus layer which is critical for sustaining the forest ecosystem.
Named after the Scottish botanist John Jeffrey who documented the tree in 1852, this yellow pine is a towering native tree that can reach 180-200 feet in height. The diameter is usually between 4- to 6-feet. They have an impressive silhouette, and like other trees, they respond and adapt to whatever environmental challenges come into their domain.
The Jeffrey resembles the Ponderosa pine but can be distinguished by it’s deeply furrowed reddish brown bark and larger cones. If you smell the bark of the Jeffrey it has a warm, welcoming aroma that some say is like vanilla or pineapple. Known as the “Gentle Jeffrey,” the barbs on it’s cones actually point downward, allowing you to run your hand in that motion without getting snagged. Beware of running your hand in an upward direction, or picking them up in a sideways fashion: both may cause injury.
The female cones can be 5- to 15- inches long, while the male pollen cones form in clusters and are much smaller: around an inch long. Once fertilized, the female cones take two years to mature.
The seeds, which grow tucked into the space between each pine cone scale, are surrounded by a brown membrane that looks like a small wing. These allow the seeds to float out once the cone is dry and open. Though they are much smaller than the wondrous pinion pine, they have a delicious flavor, making them a favorite among our local bears and squirrels.
In the mid 1800s turpentine distillers who unknowingly charged their stills with pitch from the Jeffrey (rather than the more commonly used Ponderosa) found that the Jeffrey was not only a poor choice to make turpentine, it also made their stills blow up! It was discovered that the n-heptane derived from the Pinus jeffreyi resin through this process was exceptionally pure. In fact, it was chosen to be the zero point on the octane rating scale. An octane number is used to measure the performance of an engine or aviation fuel. In an ironic twist, studies have shown that Jeffreys in areas with high levels of exhaust pollution from the excessive use of these fuels will become damaged or die.
Although Jeffrey predominates, the list of other trees in Alpine is long. Each have their own special characteristics and stories. The Pinon, Sugar Pine, White and Red firs, Western White Pine, Mountain Hemlock, Sierra Lodgepole Pine, Aspens, Incense Cedars, Cottonwoods, Alders, and Mountain Mahogany are the most familiar. They have been here long before us, and will be here long after. It is their land, and I am honored to live in their world. They are the unconquered spirit of these wild lands.