Pinus sabiniana / gray pine

subgenus Pinus, section Trifoliae (Duhamel), subsection Sabinianae (Loudon).

Jospeph Sabine
Jospeph Sabine

Pinus sabiniana, as described in 1832 by David Douglas (1798–1834), ex David Don (1799–1841), in A Description of the Genus Pinus, 3rd edition, written by Aylmer Bourke Lambert (1761–1842), is commonly known as gray, ghost, or foothills pine. Up until quite recently this conifer was most commonly called digger pine, named that due to common use in referring to Native American tribes that were collectively and colloquially referred to as "diggers." However, that term has fallen into disgrace.

As explained by Melvin Hunter, in his 1991 opinion piece, Racist Relics: An Ugly Blight On Our Botanical Nomenclature, written for, The, "many Native Americans find the term digger offensive." A spokesman for the California State Native American Heritage Commission, who requests anonymity, says, "The word `digger' is very derogatory and insulting to California Indian people." A historical interpreter for the California State Indian Museum in Sacramento, who also requests anonymity, agrees. "To call a California Indian a `digger' means you are either ignorant or you are purposely trying to insult him. It is a very derisive word." These observers concur in the opinion that "the term digger is as offensive to California's Native Americans as the term 'nigger' is to African Americans." The terms "gray pine," "foothills pine," or "ghost pine" are now officially preferred.

The scientific name with its standard spelling, sabiniana commemorates English lawyer, naturalist and horticultural writer, Joseph Sabine (1770 - 1837), honorary secretary of the Horticultural Society of London (1810 - 1812). In botanical nomenclature it is no longer customary to Latinize species names (such as Sabine to sabinius and sabiniana) before forming Neo-Latin terms, so an orthographical correction was proposed from sabiniana to sabineana by some botanists. However the new spelling proposal has not been accepted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Plant Data Center, or the University of California's "The Jepson Manual". Nor has it been adopted into general use, with the spelling sabiniana used in the pine's endemic range by the University of California and state agencies, and in its home country's U.S. federal agencies. The USDA's Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) database notes that the spelling sabiniana agrees with a provision in the Vienna Code of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature, the governing body of botanical nomenclature. In that Code, Recommendation 60.2C states that personal names that are already in Latin or Greek, or those that have a well-established Latinized form can remain Latinized in species epithets, otherwise species epithets must be orthographically corrected to the proper form. The GRIN database notes that Sabine's last name is not correctable and therefore Pinus sabiniana is the proper name for the species.

artwork by Matt Strieby
artwork by Matt Strieby

Description. Gray pine is an evergreen, coniferous species of tree that grows to mature heights of 40 to 70 feet (12 - 21 m) with a straight to crooked, often forked trunk up to 25 to 48 inches (60 - 120 cm) in diameter, measured at breast height; and a conic to raggedly lobed, sparse crown.

  • Bark is dark brown to nearly black in color, and is irregularly and deeply furrowed, with irregularly rectangular or blocky, scaly ridges, that often break away, leaves orangish bases of furrows and underbark.
  • Branches most often grow ascending. Cone-bearing branchlets are stout; while twigs comparatively slender, both are colored pale purple-brown and glaucous, aging gray and rough.
  • Foliar buds are ovoid shape, red-brown in color and resinous, measuring circa 0.4 inch (1cm), with ; scale white-fringed margins.
  • Leaves (needles) are borne mostly 3 per fascicle and drooping, persisting 3 to 4 years on the tree. Individual needles measure 6 to 12.8 inches (15 - 32 cm) long by 0.06 inch (1.5 mm), developing with a slight twist, colored dull Blue-green. All surfaces bear pale, narrow lines of stomata, serrulate margins, and short-acuminate apices.
  • Foliar sheaths measure up to 0.96 inch (2.4 cm) with a persistent base.
  • Pollen cones are ellipsoid shaped, measuring 0.4 to 0.6 inch (10 - 15 mm) long, and yellow in color.
  • Seed cones mature 2 years after pollination, shedding seeds soon thereafter, the persist on the tree for up to 7 years. Individual cones are pendent, massive, heavy, nearly symmetrically ovoid before opening, broadly to narrowly ovoid or ovoid-cylindric when open. They measure 6 to 10 inches (15 - 25 cm) long, colored dull brown, are resinous, including peduncles up to 2 inches (5 cm) long.
  • Cone scales are long and thick, sharply keeled and 4-sided. Apophyses are elongate, curved and continuous with umbos to form long, upcurved claws to 0.8 inch (2 cm) long.
  • Seeds are narrowly obovoid, thick-walled, and dark brown in color; with a body circa 0.8 inch (20 mm) long, the largest seeds in the genus; attached seed wings are broad and short, circa 0.4 inch (10 mm) long, and shed easily.
natural range of <em>Pinus sabiniana </em>
natural range of Pinus sabiniana

Distribution. This species is native to USA — California through the Coast Ranges and the Sierra Nevada, nearly ringing the Central Valley, growing in dry foothills. In Oregon, it is local in Douglas, Jackson and Josephine counties. It is typically found growing at elevations of 1,000 to 3,000 feet (300 - 900 m) above sea level. Associated trees include California Blue oak (Quercus douglasii) or canyon live oak (Quercus chrysolepis). The climate is Mediterranean, with annual mean precipitation of 20 inches (500 mm), ranging from 3 to 40 inches (75 to 1,000 mm). Eighty percent of precipitation occurs during winter and early spring. Snow falls occasionally. The annual mean temperature is 60°F (16°C), with maximum summer temperatures sometimes above 105°F (41°C). Relative humidity is often 5 percent or lower in summer.

Hardy to USDA Zone 8 — cold hardiness limit between 10° and 20°F (-12.1° and -6.7°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 sabiniana — a representative specimen at Pinnacles National Monument, California.
Photo by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner, Wellington, New Zealand; CC BY-SA 2.0; Wikipedia Commons
Pinus sabiniana — typical shot of trees growing along the leeward California coast range.
Photo by Chuck B, CC BY 2.0; Wikipedia Commons
Pinus sabiniana — a tree heavily loaded with seed cones.
Photo by Richard W. Spjut
Pinus sabiniana — seed cones in situ.
Photo by Richard W. Spjut
Pinus sabiniana —pollen cone detail.
Photo by Richard W. Spjut
Pinus sabiniana — bark detail.