Exploring The Last Green Valley: White pine is only Christmas tree variety native to region

Exploring The Last Green Valley: White pine is only Christmas tree variety native to region

“I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”

– Linus Van Pelt, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

 As you gather with family and friends on Christmas, there is a good chance the distinct aroma of a conifer tree will fill the room.

The holiday tradition of putting up and decorating a Christmas tree is alive and well here in The Last Green Valley, thanks in part to the Christmas tree farms located throughout the region.

For the majority of New Englanders during the 19th century, the Christmas tree was an oddity.

The first recorded Christmas tree on display in America was in the 1830s by German settlers in Pennsylvania who brought their traditions with them from their home country.

Here in New England, Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols as late as the 1840s.

To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred and they considered Christmas carols, decorated trees and joyful expressions a desecration of the sacred event.

In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of Dec. 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense, and people were even fined for hanging decorations.

That attitude was maintained until the mid-19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy.

In 1846, Great Britain’s popular Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert were shown in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree.

Victoria was much loved and what was done at her court immediately became fashionable. That fashion soon traveled across the Atlantic to East Coast American society. The Christmas tree had arrived to stay.

What type of Christmas tree do you have at your house? Several varieties are available from our local Christmas tree growers, including favorites Fraser, Douglas and balsam firs, blue spruce and white pine.

On this list, only the white pine is native to our region of New England.

The Last Green Valley is 77 percent forests and farm land. In our southern New England region the deciduous trees such as oaks, maples, hickory and birch are the dominant tree type, comprising almost 50 percent of species, with conifers representing only 12 percent.

A look out your window or walk in the woods will confirm this. However, if you were to travel to the northern regions of Maine, you would find more conifers than deciduous trees. There is a reason the eastern white pine is on the Maine state flag.

During the fall foliage season our deciduous trees are ablaze with colors, ushering in the celebration of a glorious autumn. Our darker-hued green conifers stand out during the summer against the lighter greens of the deciduous trees, but it is this time of year, especially when there is snow, that our beautiful conifers take center stage.
Our white pines provide important cover from bitter winter winds for birds. Deer will bed down and establish “deer yards” within the protective bows of hemlock trees.

Pine cones are an important food for many animals, especially red squirrels that rely on them for winter sustenance.

The Connecticut Forest and Park Association puts out a handy guide to forest trees that lists nine conifers, each of which I have seen on my rambles throughout The Last Green Valley.

Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is a conifer native to our region and is typically found in cool ravines and northern slopes. I notice them growing along streams and in wetter soils, though they are found in all soil types. Due to their high tannin content, the bark was used for tanning hides. Eastern hemlock also suffers from an invasive insect, the wooly adelgid, which has decimated large stands of hemlocks from the southern states into New England.

Norway spruce (Picea abies) is not native to the United States but has been planted as an ornamental to such an extent that it is now one of the more common spruces. Norway spruce is the most valuable of trees in central Europe, especially in the Black Forest of Germany.

Tamarack (Larix laricina), also knowns as the American larch, is the only conifer that sheds its leaves in fall. The soft light-green foliage is beautiful during summer months and then turns a distinctive golden color in the fall.

Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) is one of our most important trees due to its quality for building. It was prized by early settlers for ship masts and building material. White pine is our most common conifer in southern New England.

Red pine (Pinus resinosa) is usually found in large plantations and is more commonly seen in planted stands of 50 to 100 years old in our state parks. I rarely find red pines during my woods rambles in our region. As the trees mature the bark turns to a reddish brown, hence the common name.

Pitch pine (Pinus rigida) prefers dry ridges and sandy soils and is found typically in small numbers in our region. Pitch pine was an important source of tar and pitch for ship building as well as making turpentine. I have encountered a few in my rambles including one at the top of Ross Cliffs at Old Furnace State Park in Killingly. Larger specimens can also be found at Hopeville Pond State Park in Griswold where the sandy soil suits the tree. Connecticut state foresters have worked successfully to improve conditions for pitch pine at Hopeville by cutting and controlling prescribed burns of competing trees and shrubs. Larger “mother” pitch pine seed trees are protected to ensure future generations of this unique tree.

Northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) is more common in northern regions and considered rare here in southern New England due to its preference for higher elevations. Today they are planted mostly as ornamentals and newer varieties of northern white cedar or arbor-vitae are available.

Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) is found in cedar swamps and in coastal areas. Due to its water and rot-resistant wood, Atlantic white cedar was highly valued for boat building as well as for fence posts and roof shingles.

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) can be found in several types of soils from swamps to dry rocky ridges and barren soils. The heartwood is distinctively red and aromatic. The smell of red cedar helps to repel moths and is used for making cedar chests and closets. The wood is durable when in contact with wet soils, and like the white cedar, was also used for fence posts.

I remember my first Christmas in Connecticut in 1981. Funds were a bit tight so I hiked into my woods and cut down a white pine about 8 feet tall. It stood proud in our living room, all decorated for the holiday, filling the house with a wonderful aroma – just as beautiful as the professionally grown trees.

I extend to each of you a very Merry Christmas and a peaceful, joyous holiday season.

In the coming year I hope you’ll join me to find new ways to care for, enjoy and pass on this beautiful place we call home – The Last Green Valley.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

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