19 Jul 2020
When hiking into the highest reaches of Desolation Wilderness or the Carson Range the last tree species you are likely to see before reaching the tree line is the whitebark pine. While often growing in clusters about 30 feet high, in the most windswept snow laden places the trees krummholz, growing low and sturdily close to the ground, just a few feet high.
Recently I camped at over 9000 feet in the Carson Range above Tahoe’s east shore. There I found a few stately western hemlocks, and scattered clumps of whitebark pine trees. I’m not really sure whether the clumps are a number of trees connecting and growing together, or if they are one tree with a number of stalks pointing straight up, but they primarily only grow in clumps.
They appear to come out of the ground separately, but have a common root ball. The trunks are a light gray to almost white color, thus the name. They have small, several inch long cones that are a deep purple when mature.
Whitebark pines are members of the white pine family which includes sugar pines and western white pines. All of these trees have medium length needles in groups of five. The sugar pine is a much larger tree, and has long narrow cones. It also rarely grows over 6500 feet, while you are unlikely to see the whitebark pine below 8500 feet. Western white pines grow in the 7000-9000 elevation range so they may overlap with the whitebark pine’s range, but these trees have about six inch long cones, and more mature trees have a reddish bark.
Whitebark pines have a fascinating relationship with the Clark Nutcracker.This gray-black jay sized bird is usually seen flapping back and forth between whitebark pines, since the trees seeds are it’s primary source of food. The bird and tree habitats are closely overlapped and they are essential to each other. Nutcrackers eat seeds from the tress, and bury caches of those seeds in a variety of locations for later retrieval. The caches they fail to retrieve may become a cluster of whitebark pine trees.
Krummholz whitebark pines are a harbinger that you are just about to reach the peak of the mountain. Near the summit of Freel Peak, Tahoe’s highest peak, for example, you will find them in abundance. Thick batches of dense trees that look like shrubs but are actually ancient trees.
They are there because unlike any other tree, they have the stamina and gumption to take on
the worst wind and snow that Sierra winters can dish out.