10 Types of Pine Trees that Everyone Should Know

By Website Editor
Pinus densiflora 'Low Glow' has rich green needles and a spreading habit
Pinus densiflora 'Low Glow' has rich green needles and a spreading habit

What is a Pine Tree?

Many of us have a tendency to refer to all conifers as pine trees, which is not illogical considering that the pine family (Pinaceae) is the largest family of conifers and accounts for approximately ¼ of all cone-bearing trees (the definition of a conifer is a plant that bears cones). However, those roughly 200 species in Pinaceae include not just pines, but firs, spruces, cedars, hemlocks and larches. Most Christmas trees sold in this country are firs or spruces, despite the fact that they are often referred to as pine trees. To truly be a pine tree, a conifer must belong to the genus Pinus.

Pinus lambertiana (sugar pine) growing in the southern California mountains


Wild-growing pines quickly become too large for all but the grandest gardens, as the photo of the sugar pine demonstrates, although amongst the approximately 100 recognized species in the genus Pinus there are many trees with attractive features. The key for gardening successfully with pines is to choose among the thousands of dwarf pine cultivars. A cultivar, short for ‘cultivated variety’, represents a selection that was chosen due to its slower growth rate, dwarf form, unusual color, weeping habit, etc. It’s in the world of cultivars that you can find attractive, tough, interesting, structural choices to enhance your garden’s year-round beauty.

10 of the best pines for gardens and one to avoid

1. Pinus densiflora ‘Low Glow’

Close up showing branching and trunk

Low Glow Japanese red pine (USDA zone 5) has a spreading habit, lush green needles and when mature, reddish textured bark. It is slow-growing and well-behaved, requiring little pruning or special care. The specimen above is pruned regularly to open the crown and expose some of the trunk and branching, but it is not necessary, as the photo as the link demonstrates.

2. Pinus mugo (mountain pine or mugo pine) cultivars

Pinus mugo 'Jakobsen' is attractive in the landscape or in containers


The ACS recognizes almost 80 cultivars of this species, commonly called mugo (pronounced ‘moo-go’, not ‘mew-go’) pine or mountain pine (USDA zone 3). Mugo pines are probably the pines most often seen at mainstream nurseries and big box stores, and are often deemed unexciting by amateurs and aficionados alike. Mugos are some of the toughest conifers out there, native to the windy mountains of central Europe they are accustomed to eking out an existence in a tough environment. But there is also beauty and drama lurking in this widely variable and misunderstood species! Take the ‘Jakobsen’ mugo pine above: it naturally develops an open and interesting architecture, requiring no pruning to provide a structural garden focal point. Its deep green needles lend richness and depth to the landscape. It is a wonderful choice for a container, as well, and works beautifully in a rock garden.

Pinus mugo 'Schweitzer Tourist'


There are quite a few golden mugo pines, in addition to 'Schweitzer Tourist', ‘Carstens’ is an excellent low-growing selection, as is ‘Sunshine’. Others, such as ‘Ambergold’ or ‘Winter Sun’ grow to become quite vertical in habit.

Pinus mugo 'Winter Sun'. Photo by Janice LeCocq

3. Pinus parviflora (Japanese white pine) cultivars

Pinus parviflora 'Fukuzumi'

The Japanese white pines (USDA zone 5) are well-formed, elegant plants, with soft, delicate needles that are often streaked with white, blue or gold. These cultivars also have some of the most stunning pollen cones in the conifer world. They are not as tough as the mugos but with good drainage and a bit of afternoon shade in hot areas, they perform well in garden settings. 'Fukuzumi', pictured above, has a naturally windswept habit and rich blue-green needles. This specimen has never been pruned.

'Tenysu kazu', also known as 'Goldylocks', is a stunning selection, with creamy-golden new growth.

As if the soft, fluffy needles and elegant habit were not enough, Japanese white pines sport some of the most dramatic and eye-catching male (pollen) cones in coniferdom. Check out those on Pinus parviflora 'Cleary':

Pinus parviflora 'Cleary' pollen cones - a pine with attitude! Photo by Janice LeCocq

Or 'Bergman':

Pinus parviflora 'Bergman' pollen cones

4. Pinus banksiana 'Uncle Fogy'

If the Pinus parviflora cultivars are some of the most elegant pines, 'Uncle Fogy' clearly has to be one of the most ridiculous. This cultivar of Pinus banksiana (USDA zone 2) is twisted, alternately weeping and upright and no two look the same.

Pinus banksiana 'Uncle Fogy'. Photo by Janice LeCocq

Pinus banksiana, or jack pines, grow more irregularly in nature than many other pine species. 'Uncle Fogy' just happens to be one of the most wildly irregular of all, growing sometimes upright for a while and then flopping to the ground and then often continuing upwards again. One of the best cultivars for pruning and shaping, you can make your 'Uncle Fogy' unique to your family! Jack pines are tough plants and once established require low water and little care. There are other attractive cultivars in this species, such as 'Manomet' and 'Angell'.

5. Pinus jeffreyi 'Joppi' (Joppi Jeffrey pine)

California has more native conifers than any other state, but many of them have no, or few, cultivars. Luckily for coneheads, one of the best-loved natives, Pinus jeffreyi, (USDA zone 8)has a lovely, compact cultivar called 'Joppi'.

Pinus jeffreyi 'Joppi' after some interior pruning

While the wild species can reach 80-120' at maturity, 'Joppi' is very well-behaved in a garden setting. The specimen above has been in the ground for six years, after being planted from a 20-gallon container, and is approximately five feet tall. The long, stiff needles are a wonderful contrast to lighter foliage and its strong structure adds an architectural element.

6. Pinus strobus cultivars

Like Pinus parviflora, Pinus strobus, or eastern white pine (USDA zone 3), is a soft, five-needled pine, and also has elegant attributes. Like Pinus mugo, there are many choices of cultivars, with a wide range of habit, color and shape. The ACS recognizes well over 100 P. strobus cultivars, making this species one of the most garden-friendly of all conifers. We'll recognize two cultivars here, wildly different in size, habit and color.

Pinus strobus 'Blue Shag', a name that needs no explanation

'Blue Shag', pictured above, is true to its name with its glowing blue-green needles and shaggy demeanor. If left alone, like this one, it is attractive if somewhat unruly. Those wishing a more sedate look can prune at will as the plant, which does not develop a central leader, tolerates pruning well.

And for a completely different look, Pinus strobus 'Pendula'

However, my favorite Pinus strobus cultivar is 'Pendula', which is sort of like a big, bad cousin to 'Uncle Fogy', albeit more graceful. This cultivar is not for small gardens and not for those wishing an orderly, regimented look. LIke 'Blue Shag', it takes well to pruning and can be tamed (or made wilder!) if so desired.

7. Pinus sylvestris (Scots pine) cultivars

If I had to pick my favorite species of pine it would have to be Scots pine, or Pinus sylvestris (USDA zone 3). I just love the flat, blue-green needles on the majority of the cultivars and their neat, compact habit.

Pinus sylvestris 'Watereri' is a lovely, slow-growing selection with rich blue-green needles
Close up of 'Watereri' needles, buds and cones

However, if you prefer golden foliage, Pinus sylvestris does that, beautifully, too! 'Nisbet's Gold' is one of the best gold conifer cultivars of any species, and, like many of the other sylvestris cultivars, has a tidy habit and is relatively slow-growing. With sufficient irrigation, this golden conifer does not burn in full sun, even in my zone 9b location.

Pinus sylvestris 'Nisbet's Gold' lighting up the winter garden

There are dozens more Scots pine cultivars to choose from. Take a look and maybe like me, you'll fall in love!

8. Pinus nigra 'Oregon Green' (Oregon green Austrian pine)

Like mugos, Austrian pines (USDA zone 4) are one of the classsic old-world, 'hard' pines, so termed due to their relatively hard wood (although to keep things confusing, all conifers are known in the timber industry as 'softwoods'). They have very deep green, stiff needles and often a graceful natural form. When pruned they make marvelous focal points. My favorite is one of the larger cultivars, 'Oregon Green'.

Pinus nigra 'Oregon Green' branches on the left. Photo by Janice LeCocq

9. Pinus koraiensis (Korean pine) 'Dragon's Eye' or 'Oculus Draconis'

Korean pines are hardy (USDA zone 3), durable and very pretty. Most have curling needles, often with variegation. 'Dragon's Eye' is an upright cultivar, occupying a small footprint that makes it suitable for small gardens.

Close up of variegated foliage on 'Dragon's Eye'

10. PInus wallichiana 'Zebrina'

Although last on the list, Zebrina Himalayan pine is one of the very best! All Himalayan pines have long, graceful needles, but Zebrina does it one better by striping them with pale yellow. The landscape effect is breathtaking, especially in winter's soft light.

Pinus wallichiana 'Zebrina', strutting its stuff in the landscape. Photo by Janice LeCocq

Those are, in my opinion, 10 of the very best pines for a garden landscape. But I promised at the start that I would give you one to avoid: Pinus thunbergii 'Thunderhead' (USDA zone 5). Why do I feel so strongly about its negative characteristics that I feel the need to note it here? Because 'Thunderhead' has just about the deepest, richest green needles of any conifer, and in spring it produces copious, white candles (new shoots) that contrast dramatically with the foliage. It's almost impossible to resist. So desirable is this cultivar that it is now turning up everywhere, even at nurseries that have very few conifers to offer.

Springtime candles on Pinus thunbergii 'Thunderhead'. Photo by Janice LeCocq

So if it is so lovely and dramatic, what's the problem? It's a thug! Most cultivars grow more slowly than the species. This one actually outpaces it! If you do nothing, this lovely little plant very rapidly becomes an enormous woolly bear. Of the original three that I planted, I am down to one and it gets pruned vigorously twice a year by an expert. If you are aware of Thunderhead's shortcomings, plant with impunity, but I have seen more disappointment (and disgust) associated with this cultivar than any other, partly due to the display that it receives in the retail trade.

Those are my favorite pines. What are yours! We'd love to hear!

Comments

David Mcardle

Thank you so much, this has all the information I need for a new project in Norway!

Bernice

Those pine trees that we buy in the grocery stores at Christmas and they come pre-decorated. They are small about 12” + tall. Do you know what their name is? I’ve got to find out for planting purposes such as where to plan. I just need to know the particulars. Their leaves are soft and their needles are very short & obviously because they were just bought this past Christmas. Can you help me?

David Olszyk

hi Bernice, based only on your verbal description, I'd say that the plant in question is Swiss stone pine (Pinus pinea). It is a USDA Zone (8 / 9) plant that only performs well in Mediterranean climates.

Roddy von Seldeneck

Could also be an dwarf Alberta apruce. (Picea glauca 'Conica') maybe?

Lisa

Please may I ask you to identify this pine? I took its picture as we were driving down the Pacific Coast Highway en route to Pismo Beach. We’d stopped off at a restaurant. Thanks so much.
https://share.icloud.com/photos/0lGKAJEI96lTLNmsakD4An22g

David Olszyk

Hi Lisa, those are Agave americana, a herbaceous monocarpic perennial, related to asparagus. Definitely not a conifer.

Janelle

can you help me identify my tree? i am trying to figure out how to care for it.
https://www.dropbox.com/s/8irx1lmpaz2xfoj/IMG_3172.JPG?dl=0

David Olszyk

that's a very dead Japanese black pine. No amount of care will keep it from decaying from this point.

Travis Wade

Please could you help identify a tree that was chopped down without permission? We would like to get one the same.
unfortunately i don't have a photo of the whole tree (its in bits now) but it was about 4m tall, branches grew horizontally. below is a photo of the needles.
https://1drv.ms/u/s!AojondVhjyyQyklLwFHHe4KYXEVj

Thanks!

David Olszyk

that's a picture of the juvenile foliage of something in the Cupressaceae family. That's as close as I can get.

Rosemarie Stewart

Hi David, I was just wondering if you could assist me in finding out what tree this is, it has every tightly controlled cone that grows out of the top part of the branches of the leave or pine needles grown out of extended little branches of the main branch. Thank you if you can help.

David Olszyk

Hi Rosemarie, based on this written description, there is no way our panel of experts can make anything more than a poor guess.

John

Hello David,
I have started a garden using conifers and have been collecting them from private parties.
Can I send you photographs to help identify what I am finding?
John

David Olszyk

sure. We'll give it a try. Pick your favorite ACS point of contact from the list at the bottom of this link and attach pictures (just don't abuse us, LOL).
https://conifersociety.org/about-us/contact-us/

p.s. we really appreciate it if you became a member or could send a donation in return for this service. After all, we're a lowly non-profit, charitable organization.

Marc

Please help me identify this miniature tree. We’d like to plant it soon. Got it a couple years ago as a Xmas tree - have reported twice so far. .

Thank you!

https://ibb.co/Yfv8JFZ
https://ibb.co/mcGQtMN
https://ibb.co/mym61DQ
https://ibb.co/fSRkmPJ