The Pitch Pine

by John N. Cullity, President, of Sandwich Conservation Trust


Originally published february 7, 2003.

I think the pitch pine is given the least respect of our native trees. It is the signature tree of Cape Cod, growing in dry, barren areas, even in the white sands of a beach. Any tree that can fill this role in nature has my admiration.

The range of Pinus rigida extends approximately from Maine to the Carolinas, but is most associated with Cape Cod, the eastern end of Long Island, and the NJ Pine Barrens. A mature specimen can reach 100 feet high, though 40 to 50 feet is more common. I have counted 126 growth rings in a stump.

This scraggly tree is full of sticky pitch when cut in warm weather, rots quickly when in contact with the soil, and is shunned as firewood when anything better is available. They also have a shallow root system and tend to blow over in storms.

But crows love to roost and nest in these trees and I have seen hawks and owls perched on a dead limb, looking for prey.

The pitch pine has a rich history of usefulness. Colonists called it torch pine, for the hard, resinous knots which were collected from fallen trunks, burned as torches. Similarly, “candle-wood” were small split pieces burned to supplement light from the hearth. These lighting methods were very smoky, but poor families were satisfied.

Enormous amounts of tar and “spirits of turpentine” were made from pitch pines through a crude version of distillation, with rosin powder as a by-product. Turpentine Road in Sandwich alludes to this use.

Charcoal was also made from pitch pines. My grandfather recalled “Funntown” in East Dennis/West Brewster around 1900. At first he thought it might be a place to go for a good time, but then he learned that it was the site of lamp black manufacture. Pine was burned in brick domes; later, men scraped the lampblack off the interior surface. The domes were called “funns.” Lamp black was used in black paint and ink. (Funn Pond is in the Dennis Pines GC.)

When properly split and dried, the wood burns well; it was used for firing steam engines and for brickyards, such as the one in West Barnstable (1878-1929). Arched kilns made of the “green” bricks were fired with 4-foot long pitch pine. Perhaps the greatest pitch pine user of all was the Sandwich glass factory (1827-1888), which had cut 1300 acres of woodland for its furnace.

“In Plymouth County, vessels have been made, for a considerable time, almost entirely of pitch pine,” declared a 1846 state report. But spikes did not hold well. My great-grandfather operated a Crosby catboat framed with pitch pine. It wasn’t as good as oak, but it served.

Emerson proposed using pitch pine reforest lands that had become barren, specifically on the Cape and Islands. In later years this was done extensively. Just remember all these valuable qualities when the pine pollen covers your car next May.

The sound of wind blowing through a pitch pine grove is particularly beautiful. When conditions are right, it may be the closest thing to singing that trees can achieve.