Salt from roads and storms stress pines
Along Connecticut's shoreline, white pine trees, among the most common evergreen species in the state, have turned coppery brown, and experts say many of these trees could be dead before year's end.
From Greenwich to Stonington, salt spray from hurricanes in 2011 and 2012 has conspired to damage thousands of white pines, even miles inland. In some cases, entire stands are on a rapid downward spiral.
"Oh, yes, we've been getting a lot of calls," said Sharon M. Douglas, of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and head of its plant disease office. "We began getting calls in December, and now they're really looking off-color."
She said the white pines were already under stress, with recent years of rain or dry weather causing root damage.
"We're dealing with a couple of things," she said. "The fact that we had Irene and Sandy and the blizzard with the salt on the streets. In a lot of cases, these aren't natural stands, and they might not have been planted in the best locations for them."
There was also abrasion.
More InformationAbout the Eastern white pine
Botanical name: Pinus strobus.
Mature size: 50-100 feet tall with a spread of 20-40 feet.
Advantages: Grows quickly and has soft needles. Tolerates a wide range of growing conditions. Easily transplanted.
Natural range: Newfoundland south to Alabama and west to Iowa.
How to identify: Fasicles have five needles.
In history: New Hampshire colonists were forbidden by King George I in 1722 to cut down white pine more than 12 inches in diameter, as they were needed for shipbuilding. This resulted in the Pine Tree Riot of April 14, 1772, in Weare, N.H.
"The sand and fine particulates physically damage the needles," she said.
"Recovery will be on a case-by-case basis," she said. "And when you have salt water invade the roots, it's not good. And now we have road salt."
Experts say the white pine isn't a very salt-tolerant species, and as such isn't a good candidate to plant along the shore, or even along major roads that are treated with brine spray or salt.
"The most damaging effect is when you have a situation where these trees were flooded by seawater for a period of time, pooling around their root systems," said William Ostrofsky, the state forest pathologist with the Maine Forest Service. "And in fact, white pine can very easily be killed by this scenario."
He said most of those trees that endured an episode of salt spray should recover with their new flush of needles this spring.
"But if the tree has already been weakened by a fungus in previous consecutive years, it will be low on energy and it might not make it," he said.
Experts say most other pine species have a much greater tolerance to salt spray.
The pitch pine, for example, can be found growing naturally close to the ocean on Cape Cod.
Many stands of white pines in New England are also beset by a fungus known as white pine needle cast, and there are other pathogens as well, such as the pinewood nematode, which causes a disease called pine wilt.
The white pine is native to the northeastern United States and Canada and has been for decades the darling of landscapers because it grows fast, is usually healthy and has "soft" needles that are less injurious in the event of an accidental encounter with human flesh. It can also be used as a Christmas tree, holiday garland and lumber.
People like them, too, because their long needles moan almost musically when the wind blows.
"The white pine wasn't the only plant that was harmed by all of the weather we've been having," Douglas said. "Close to the water, we saw damage with mountain laurel and rhododendron, too."
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