Pinus flexilis / limber pine

subgenus Strobus (Lemmon), section Quinquefoliae (Duhamel), subsection Strobus (Loudon).

Pinus flexilis, as described in 1823 by Edwin P. James (1797–1861), is commonly known as limber pine, limbertwig, and Rocky Mountain pine; as well as pino in the Spanish language and pin blanc de l'ouest in French. The species and common names described this pine's extremely flexible twigs.

Ethnobotany. Ronald Lanner, in his 1996 book, Made for each other: a symbiosis of birds and pines, states, "there is some evidence that the seeds were used as a food source by certain Great Basin indigenous nations, such as the Northern Shoshone. Numerous grinding stones at Alta Toquima Village, a high-elevation prehistoric site in central Nevada, also suggest use of pine nuts as food, with limber pine the likely source.

Legendary explorer and naturalist John Muir noted, "I have observed that miners, sheepherders, and other rural residents in its range (circa 1850 to 1950) used it for cabins, fencing, mine timbers, and doubtless, firewood. Throughout Utah and Nevada it is one of the principal timber-trees, great quantities being cut every year for the mines. The famous White Pine Mining District, White Pine City, and the White Pine Mountains have derived their names from it. However, the wood is too contorted and resinous, and the trees generally too small (though one wonders what stands were exterminated in the historical period) to warrant commercial exploitation in the modern age."

artwork by Mary Vaux Walcott
artwork by Mary Vaux Walcott

Description. Limber pine is an evergreen, coniferous species of tree that grows to mature heights of 40 to 50 feet (12 – 15 m) tall, with a straight to contorted trunk 24 to 36 inches (60 – 90 cm) in diameter, measured at breast height, and a conic crown that becomes rounded with age. Growth form may be substantially altered near timberline (krummholz form occurs) or on very dry sites.

  • Bark light grey in color, nearly smooth, becoming dark brown and cross-checked in age into scaly plates and ridges.
  • Branches grow spreading to ascending, often persisting to the base of the trunk.
  • Twigs are colored pale red-brown with a puberulous (rarely glabrous) texture, and slightly resinous, aging gray. They are tough, smooth and flexible.
  • Foliar buds are ovoid shaped, resinous, colored light red-brown, and measure 0.36 to 0.4 inch (0.9 – 1 cm) long. Lower scales are ciliolate along margins.
  • Leaves (needles) are borne in bundles of 5 per fascicle, spreading to upcurved and ascending from their point of origin, persisting 5 to 6 years on the tree. Needles measure 1.2 to 2.8 inches (3 – 7 cm) long and 0.04 to 0.06 inch (1 – 1.5 mm) wide and are pliant, and dark green in color. Abaxial surfaces bear relatively inconspicuous stomatal bands than do adaxial surfaces. Adaxial surfaces have strong, pale stomatal bands, finely serrulate margins and a conic-acute to acuminate apex.
  • Foliar sheath measurers 0.4 to 0.6 inch (1 – 1.5 cm) and is shed soon after needles push.
  • Pollen cones are broadly ellipsoid-cylindric shaped, circa 0.6 inch (15 mm) long, colored pale red or yellow.
  • Seed cones mature 2 years after pollination, shed seeds and fall soon thereafter. They are spreading, symmetric, lance-ovoid shaped before opening, cylindro-ovoid when open and measure 2.8 to 6 inches (7 – 15 cm) long, Cones are extremely resinous, yellow-brown yellow brown in color and either sessile or attached by a short peduncle. Apophyses are much thickened and strongly cross-keeled. Umbos are terminal and depressed.
  • Seeds irregularly obovoid with a 0.4 to 0.6 inch (10–15 mm) long body. They are brown in color, sometimes mottled darker, and wingless or nearly so.

In the absence of cones, Limber pine strongly resembles whitebark pine (P. albicaulis). However, its branches become roughened at a smaller size, at usually less than 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter, greater in P. albicaulis. On older trees with greater than 12 inch (30 cm) trunk diameter, limber pine bark is usually composed of longitudinal reddish-brown plates with intervening fissures, while whitebark pine bark becomes light brown and thinly platy without conspicuous fissures. When in flower, whitebark pollen cones are a striking red color, while limber pine pollen cones are reddish or yellow. Saplings are very difficult to distinguish.

natural range of <em>Pinus flexilis </em>
natural range of Pinus flexilis

Distribution. This species is native to USA and Canada — the Rocky Mountains and inter-mountain ranges from Canada — southeastern British Columbia and southwestern Alberta, south through USA — Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Nevada to northern New Mexico and west through northern Arizona to southern California growing at elevations of 4,500 to 12,000 feet (1,500 - 3,700 m) above sea level, preferring dry, rocky slopes and ridges of high mountains up to timberline, often occurring in pure stands.

Hardy to USDA Zone 3 — cold hardiness limit between -40° and -30°F (-39.9° and -34.4°C).

Attribution from: R. Kral; Pinus. Flora of North America Editorial Committee (editors); Flora of North America North of Mexico, Vol. 2; ©1993 Oxford University Press.

Pinus flexilis — this ancient specimen stands in a grove of similar specimens in Colorado, USA. Many of them as old as 1,000 years.
Photo by Bill Barger
Ancient limber pines (Pinus flexilis) found on Mount Baden-Powell in the Angeles National Forest above Pomona, California.
Photo by David Rasch
Pinus flexilis in the Pawnee Buttes, Colorado.
Photo by Dennis Hermsen
Pinus flexilis — bark detail.
Photo by C.J. Earle
Pinus flexilis — foliage and pollen cone detail.
Photo by USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Herman, D.E. et al.
Pinus flexilis — foliage and seed cone detail.
Photo by USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Herman, D.E. et al.
Pinus flexilis — immature cones, Telescope Peak in the Panamint Range, Death Valley National Park, Inyo County, California
Photo by Joe de Cruyenaere, via Wikipedia, Public Domain photo
Ancient limber pine (Pinus flexilis) — the 1,500 year-old Wally Waldron tree along the Pacific Crest Trail.
Photo by Brian Powell
Limber Pines (Pinus flexilis) cling to precipitous cliffs at Mt. Baden-Powell, California.
Photo by Brian Powell
Gorgeous Limber Pine (Pinus flexilis) - Mt. Baden-Powell, California.
Photo by Brian Powell


Christena Gates

What kind of fertilizer should be used on the Limber Pine???

Maxwell Cohn

never fertilize a conifer in the landscape unless a soil test reveals a deficiency. Be aware that, in nature, these plants will grow out of what appears to be solid rock. They're not roses.

Syrene Forsman

We bought several Pinus flexilis in March. Planted them. Occasional water (zone 7a). Now the outer lengths of each branch remain deep green but all the inner lengths have yellow needles. Is this normal?

We live in Sequim WA.

Maxwell Cohn

yes! Nearly all conifers will shed up to 30% of their internal foliage every fall. If you think that it's extreme in your case, it's probably because you planted them in spring, the absolutely worst time to plant trees. Please wait until fall next time. It'll save a lot of transplant stress.

James Eisenberg

Can I make a tea from the limber pine needles? Just boil them for a few minutes? Thanks!

Andrea Allred

Hello I am seeking advice/info about my 'Vanderwolf's Pyarmid' pinus flexillis - in No. CA zone 9B - I planted it last December and it was doing great. It's been super hot here and I think I over watered it.?? It is turning brown/yellow-ish and I am heart-broken. What should I do?? It is now end of July and it was beautiful until I think I over-watered it trying to care for it.

Chris Edmondson

Good evening,

We live in Maryland which I believe is zone 7.

I just purchased two limber pines from Home Depot in hopes of saving them, as they were very dry and it is getting colder and many of the other "Christmas trees and shrubs" in red pots have browned on top, (not all) but some have. I want to give these last two limber pines a chance.

It looks like right now that we are only going to have a few days getting down to 32 or 31 degrees over the next 10 days or so and there will be rain before or after this and only for a short time. So far we have had a mild winter. My question is there any precautions in planting these trees now as I don't want to have to keep them in my garage until spring. But I also don't want them to die.

Craig Griffin

I just bought a 5 foot tall "Eastern White Pine" at Lowe's. It was the only one there in the spring shipment. It is either a Japanese White Pine or Limber Pine, with clumps or balls of needles that appear to be naturally candled or trimmed. White Pine is native to my state of MI, but this pine looks foreign. Is it better to keep it in the pot until fall outdoors, or just plant it now? How well will this tree do in a Zone 6 mild to cold and humid environment? Thank you, Craig.