Trees to 30-50(75) m tall and 90-180(330) cm in diameter, massive (the largest species in the genus), straight. Crown narrowly conic, becoming rounded or flat-topped. Bark cinnamon- to gray-brown, deeply furrowed, plates long, scaly. Branches long, nearly horizontal, bearing cones near the ends, distal branches ascending; twigs gray-green to red-tan, aging gray, mostly puberulent. Buds cylindro-ovoid, red-brown, to 8 mm, resinous. Leaves 5 per fascicle, spreading to ascending, persisting 2-4 years, 5-10 cm × 1-1.5(2) mm, sharp, straight, slightly twisted, pliant, blue-green, abaxial surface with only a few lines evident, adaxial surfaces with evident white stomatal lines, margins finely serrulate, apex acuminate; sheath (1)1.5-2 cm, shed early. Staminate cones ellipsoid-cylindric, to 15 mm, yellow. Ovulate cones maturing in 2 years, shedding seeds and falling soon thereafter, often clustered, pendent, symmetric, cylindric before opening, lance-cylindric to ellipsoid-cylindric when open, 25-50 cm (the longest of any conifer), shiny yellow-brown, stalks 6-15 cm; apophyses somewhat thickened; umbo terminal, depressed, resinous, slightly excurved. Seeds obovoid, oblique apically; body 1-2 cm, deep brown; wing broad, 2-3 cm. 2n=24 (Little 1980, Kral 1993).
It is easily distinguished from P. monticola by its larger cones and thicker cone scales with larger seeds; it is somewhat less reliably distinguished by its leaves, which are slightly wider and more tapering-tipped and have some stomatal lines evident on the abaxial surfaces (the lines not evident in P. monticola) (Kral 1993).
From about 45° latitude in US: Oregon S (including W Nevada) to S California and Mex: Baja California Norte, S in the Sierra San Pedro Mártir, at 300-3200 m depending on latitude etc. Occurs on various soils, usually in mountains, usually in mixed conifer forests (Little 1980). Hardy to Zone 7 (cold hardiness limit between -17.7°C and -12.2°C) (Bannister and Neuner 2001). See also Thompson et al. (1999).
Until 2013, the largest known tree was the Whelan Pine, height 66.1 m, dbh 352 cm, crown spread 9 m, visible from the general store in Dorrington, CA (Van Pelt 1998). This tree declined in the early 2010s and finally succumbed to a variety of diseases. At this time it is unclear what the largest surviving sugar pine is, but it may be what is also the tallest known tree in this species, a well-publicized specimen 77.2 m tall near Jackson Creek in the Umpqua National Forest, east of Tiller, Oregon (Fattig 2012). Vandals tried (and failed) to kill this tree by girdling it with a chainsaw in 2000, which is an example of why it is generally a bad idea to publicize the exact location of record-setting trees. Meanwhile, the title of "world's largest pine tree" is now held by P. ponderosa, with a number of living specimens that are both taller and larger than any surviving sugar pine. This is a sad state of affairs for a species that historically was by far the largest pine in the world.
The tallest known living tree is 80.4 m tall and 204 cm dbh, and is in the Crane Creek watershed of Yosemite National Park; it is not unique, growing in an area that has many other very tall trees, including Pinus ponderosa up to 77 m tall and Pseudotsuga menziesii to over 83 m tall (Mike Taylor email 2012.10.07). This area was affected by the Rim Fire in 2013, but 2014 surveys verified that most of the big trees had survived the blaze. The tallest sugar pine ever measured died in 2007, but up until that time was 81.7 m tall, dbh 281 cm, at Hogden Meadow in Yosemite National Park, CA (Van Pelt 1999).
Historically, some amazingly large trees were known. The largest tree ever recorded in Oregon, which contained some splendid trees until they were all logged out, was the Prospect Giant at 80.8 tall and 400 cm dbh (Frank Callahan email 2011.01.05). The largest ever recorded, though, was found by David Douglas on the very day that he discovered this species to science; October 26, 1826. Prefaratory to this account, I should say that Douglas' work has been extensively reviewed, and he has a reputation for accurately reporting his facts. In his journal for that day, he writes:
"New or strange things seldom fail to make great impressions, and often at first we are liable to over-rate them; and lest I should never see my friends to tell them verbally of this most beautiful and immensely large tree, I now state the dimensions of the largest one I could find that was blown down by the wind: Three feet [1 m] from the ground, 57 feet 9 inches in circumference [5.60 m diam.]; 134 feet [40.84 m] from the ground, 17 feet 5 inches [1.69 m diam.]; extreme length, 215 feet [65.53 m]."
Although it is not strictly relevant, I will finish the quote, which gives a good picture of Douglas' life as a plant-hunter:
"The trees are remarkably straight; bark uncommonly smooth for such large timber, of a whitish or light brown colour; and yields a great quantity of gum of a bright amber colour. The large trees are destitute of branches, generally for two-thirds the length of the tree; branches pendulous, and the cones hanging from their points like small sugar-loaves in a grocer’s shop, it being only on the very largest trees that cones are seen, and the putting myself in possession of three cones (all I could) nearly brought my life to an end. Being unable to climb or hew down any, I took my gun and was busy clipping them from the branches with ball when eight Indians came at the report of my gun. They were all painted with red earth, armed with bows, arrows, spears of bone, and flint knives, and seemed to me anything but friendly. I endeavoured to explain to them what I wanted and they seemed satisfied and sat down to smoke, but had no sooner done so than I perceived one string his bow and another sharpen his flint knife with a pair of wooden pincers and hang it on the wrist of the right hand, which gave me ample testimony of their inclination. To save myself I could not do by flight, and without any hesitation I went backwards six paces and cocked my gun, and then pulled from my belt one of my pistols, which I held in my left hand. I was determined to fight for life. As I as much as possible endeavoured to preserve my coolness and perhaps did so, I stood eight or ten minutes looking at them and they at me without a word passing, till one at last, who seemed to be the leader, made a sign for tobacco, which I said they should get on condition of going and fetching me some cones. They went, and as soon as out of sight I picked up my three cones and a few twigs, and made a quick retreat to my camp, which I gained at dusk."
Muir (1894) says 800 years but provides no more information. There is another record of 760 years, also without supporting details (Carder 1995). I have seen it growing on extremely poor and virtually fireproof sites (basically no soil, just fractured granite bedrock) in the Sierra San Pedro Martír of Baja California Norte, and this would be a fine place to seek exceptionally old individuals.
Holmes et al. (1986) collected a chronology in the California Coast Range. There are also two published fire history studies.
A "sugary" resin high in cyclitols exudes from the sweet-scented fresh-cut wood (Kral 1993). Muir (1894) reports: "The sugar, from which the common name is derived, is to my taste the best of sweets-better than maple sugar. It exudes from the heartwood, where wounds have been made, either by forest fires, or the ax, in the shape of irregular, crisp, candy-like kernels, which are crowded together in masses of considerable size, like clusters of resin-beads... Indians are fond of it, but on account of its laxative properties only small quantities may be eaten." David Douglas (1914) reports that indians gathered and ate the seeds.
Logging practices of the early 20th century, at which time most of the big stands of old-growth sugar pine were logged, are described by Muir (1894), who notes that it was a sought-after species for shingles as well as lumber. It is currently valued timber tree due to its high dimensional stability, workability, and potentially rapid growth rate (Burns & Honkala 1990). However, harvest of sugar pine far exceeds regrowth (Kral 1993).
Seen at many locations in CA and OR. Historically, the species reached its best development in the northern Sierra Nevada, in the area centered on Calaveras Big Trees State Park. This area was logged extensively in the late 1800s and early 1900s but still contains the largest individual trees. The forests of Yosemite, south of Yosemite Valley, are also a showcase for this species. Muir (1894) provides an outstanding description of these Sierran forests. The sugar pine grows as a krummholz tree a few feet below the 3100 m summit of Picacho del Diablo in the Sierra San Pedro Mártir, and as a grand forest tree lower in the range. See the Observations section of P. jeffreyi for more on these forests.
This species is the primary host for the dwarf mistletoe Arceuthobium californicum (Hawksworth and Wiens 1996).
Pinus lambertiana is singularly resistant to hybridization (no natural hybrids are known), but fertile crosses with the Chinese pine Pinus armandii have been found to have high resistance to blister rust (Burns & Honkala 1990).
Douglas, David. 1914. Journal kept by David Douglas during his travels in North America 1823—1827. London: William Wesley & Son. Right-click HERE to download a copy (PDF, 25 MB).
Fattig, Paul. 2012.06.04. Tree hunters find world's tallest (known) sugar pine. Oregon: Medford Mail Tribune.
Last Modified 2014-08-16