Michigan Names an Eastern White Pine on the Upper Peninsula its Tallest Tree

The search for Michigan’s tallest tree has found its victor: a staggering Eastern White Pine located in a remote area on the state’s beautiful Upper Peninsula. Discovered by Nick Hansen during a backpacking trip through the McCormick Wilderness this spring, the tree was clearly special from the moment he spotted it, even by the dim light of a headlamp after dark.

I’d seen a lot of big white pines — I’ve been to Hartwick Pines — and this thing just dwarfed anything I’d seen in actual, designated old growth areas,” Hansen told Michigan Live. “I was pretty mystified by that.”

When his trip was over, Hansen reported the tree to Michigan Botanical Club’s Big Tree Register program, who sent out expert Byron Sailor to take its official measurements. As it turns out, the amazing 155-foot-tall tree is not just the state’s tallest white pine, it’s the tallest tree currently on record in Michigan. The previous champion was an Eastern White Pine topping out at 143 feet tall. It isn’t just its towering height that’s impressive, either. The tree has a 63-foot crown spread and a circumference of more than 15 feet.

State coordinator Ted Reuschel says the tree’s location makes it even more special. “The vast majority of the big trees on the register are not out in the woods; they’re in cemeteries and parks and golf courses and places like that,” places where they’ve been protected, he explains.

How the Eastern White Pine Became Michigan’s State Tree

Hartwick Pines State Park in Michigan, via Grayling Visitor’s Bureau

Across the United States, many people are bringing home Eastern White Pines to light up and decorate for Christmas. In the cases of both Maine and Michigan, they’re also paying homage to the history of their state, whether they realize it or not. We’ve talked a lot here about the Eastern White Pine’s storied New England history, including its role in the Revolutionary War, but it has an interesting history deeper inland as well. 

Michigan Radio explores that story in a recent NPR feature. The tree’s role in the state began during an era of logging during the late 19th century. As you might know, early colonists in New England didn’t exactly have sustainability in mind as they cleared land to make way for their farms, and they wiped out vast tracts of forest between the1600s and 1800s. It wasn’t long before logging companies had to start moving toward the Midwest to find mature stands of Eastern White Pine, which thrive in the sandy soils of both the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan.

The state became the national leader in lumber production from about 1870 to 1900, bringing $4 billion to their economy. Eastern White Pines became so economically significant that squabbles over the right to cut them down led to the 1837 treaty also called “the White Pine Treaty” in which Ojibwe leaders ceded a large area of land to the U.S. government while maintaining their rights to gather, hunt and fish there.

From the piece, which consults with (appropriately named) local historian Hillary Pine:

The logging era’s impact in Michigan is lasting. Pine says that’s partly why, in 1955, a group of schoolchildren in Saginaw wrote to their local state representative, Holly E. Hubbell, about the importance of the logging era to Michigan’s economy and population. Hubbell then introduced a bill naming the White Pine Michigan’s state tree, a title that became official on October 14 of that year, she says. The White Pine is also Maine’s state tree.

“You can also see mature White Pines at Hartwick Pines, which hosts a stand of old-growth White Pine trees, some of which are up to about 165 feet tall, she says.

“As you walk the trail, you’re literally encased in this canopy of old-growth trees towering above you. You can see quite a distance into the forest because there’s not much growing on the forest floor, and in the winter, especially, it makes for just a beautiful sight,” Pine said.

You can listen to this NPR segment in full at MichiganRadio.org.

Check out more about the history of the Eastern White Pine tree in the U.S.:

Proud State Tree: The Eastern White Pine’s Legacy in Michigan

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Maine isn’t the only state to make the proud Pinus strobus, a.k.a. the Eastern White Pine, its official state tree. Just like New England’s own rich history with the tree, which provided lumber for some of the United States’ earliest colonial structures, Michigan acknowledges the tree that helped build so may of its towns, including Cadillac. Multiple sources have waxed poetic about the beauty and significance of the tree, including a recent piece in the Cadillac News.

According to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, the detailed notes taken by the land surveyors included information on the location, species, and diameter of each tree used to mark section lines and section corners. The surveyors also commented on the general quality of timber along each section line. Biologists from the MNFI developed a method to translate those survey notes into a digital map. The maps they created show that there was a 10-mile wide swath of forest dominated by white pine that extended from Cadillac to Lake City. Between 1870 and 1890, most of these pines were harvested and turned into lumber. The harvesting and milling of the white pine timber helped to establish the towns of Cadillac and Jennings.

They also note that Eastern White Pines are still valued today, particularly for timber frame buildings and interior millwork. They’re also some of the country’s most beautiful Christmas trees, with superior needle retention. These trees help provide deer with thermal cover in the winter, as well as perches for birds of prey.

MyNorth contributor Russ Capaldi shared some of this thoughts about the Eastern White Pine’s importance in an essay called ‘In Praise of White Pines: An Essay on Michigan’s State Tree.’

Pinus Strobus. Eastern White Pine. When the English approached the eastern seaboard of North America for the very first time their eyes must have bugged right out of their heads. For from the virgin forests, staring out at them as they bobbed and heaved on the New World waters were—by the millions—what the world’s greatest navy was then in very short supply of: ship masts, and by extension, mast pines. By definition, white pine trees: at least 120 feet in length, four feet in diameter at the base, and two and a half feet in diameter at the tall mark. If a particular tree was qualified, three quick axe strokes at eye level left the king’s mark of immediate title: the King’s Broad Arrow. The British built two ships that could transport 50 stems at a time. How many white pines were taken from the colonies? Records are unclear. But the de facto seizures so rankled the colonists, it became their habit to chop down and make off with every King’s pine they came across; pines shoulder-to-shoulder with stamps and tea for revolution.

Walking farther into the woods, we’re surprised to see now and then a giant white pine left to itself and dwarfing every tree around. We see them on the edge of the sparkling stream or on a bare promontory, and we’re pleased to wonder: did old-time timber men and prospectors leave these trees standing as some mark of reverence, or simply as cynosures to the next stand.

It’s a beautiful essay, and a fitting tribute to the tree we all hold so dear – read the whole thing at MyNorth.com.

Photo by John Paul Endicott / Flickr Creative Commons 2.0