Hands in the Dirt: Jack Pine
Photos and article by Donna Iverson
My grandfather always called Jack Pines “weed trees.” This made me feel very sorry for them as a child. Looking back, he was probably referring to their ability to grow and spread like weeds in his apple orchard.
But Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) is more than just a weed tree. Or rather its qualities of being able to spread and grow rapidly in poor soil is, in my opinion, something of an advantage.
Jack Pine is fast growing even in poor soil. It is often the first tree to appear in land that has been cleared, whether by humans or nature, especially fires. In fact, its cones open and expel its seeds when exposed to the high heat of a fire.
It is our country’s most northern pine species, growing in the Michigan UP, northern lower peninsula, and along Lake Michigan. Jack Pine’s range extends west from the Rocky Mountains up into Canada, east to Nova Scotia. The greatest number of Jack Pines grow in Michigan.
Jack Pines have a craggy look to them with open irregular crowns. They are not your perfectly shaped Christmas tree. They have a twisted growth pattern and can even grow sideways. Other names include Grey Pine and Scrub Pine. Personally, this endears them to me.
In identifying them, look for two needles per cluster. The needles are stiff, coarse, and thick. The trees often grow cheek to jowl, next to each other in a row. Tall trees when fully grown, measuring 20 to 50 feet high. They can survive temperatures as low as -50 degrees.
Jack Pine’s knotty wood is used as pulpwood, fuel, decking and for utility poles. It was once used to make jacks, probably where it gets its name. In landscaping it can be used as a windbreak.
As for wildlife, the endangered Kirtland's Warbler depends on the Jack Line to make its nests. Medicinally, Jack Pine oil has been used to reduce inflammation, clear mucus, and treat skin conditions, like eczema and psoriasis.
If you want to try growing a Jack Pine, find a mature cone and soak in very hot water for 8 to 12 hours. Then dry the cone in the sun. The seeds will germinate fast and the tree will grow about 2 feet a year. And please don’t call it a weed tree, unless like me, you are fond of beneficial weeds.
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