Horticulture Magazine

8 Types Of Pine Trees That Can Be Grown In Britain

close up needles of a fir tree

A pine tree is a coniferous tree with long needle-shaped leaves. They don’t stop growing until they’re 150 years old, and usually live up to 1,000 years.

The biggest pine tree recorded is the Ponderosa Pine, at a jaw-dropping height of 268.35 feet! For those who prefer something a little smaller, the Siberian dwarf pine is native to northeast Asia and grows up to 3 metres in height with compact branches. 

On the whole, plants in the Coniferous family tend to have leaves that don’t fall off. However, as with all rules, there are a few exceptions to this, which we’ll highlight throughout this post. The majority of pine trees are native to the Northern Hemisphere, and most countries have their own native species of pine tree. 

In this article, we take a look at 8 of the types of pine trees that can be found in the UK. Not only will we cover their characteristics, but we’ll also tell you where each species can be found. Although not all are native to the UK, there are plenty of beautiful examples of pine tree that can be found throughout Britain – from the Scottish Highlands all the way down to the New Forest. So, let’s start our pine tree exploration!

scots pine trees
The Scots pine is native to the Scottish Highlands

Here we go with our eight types…

1. Scots pine

To begin, it seems appropriate to start the list with one of the ‘backbones’ of the pine ecosystem: the Scots pine. After the Ice Age, this species of pine tree spread into northern Scotland. While native to Europe and Asia, today it can be found confined to the Scottish Highlands, and the Pinus sylvestris is now known as Scotland’s national tree. 

The Scots pine lives up to 300 years, and can grow as tall as 36 metres in height. It supports over 170 species of insect, and it produces egg-shaped cones with small prickles. 

For some notable Scots pines worth visiting, start by taking a trip to Muirward Wood in Perthshire to visit the ‘King of the Forest’. This tree has the largest trunk in the UK, with a six-metre wide trunk and 31-metre height. There’s also the ‘Twin trees of Finzean’ to visit, where two trees formed a natural arch to create an ‘H’.

2. Douglas fir

Named after Scottish botanist David Douglas, the first seed of the Douglas fir was sent from North America to the UK in 1791. However, its botanical name –  Pseudotsuga menziesii – stems from its original discovery by Archibald Menzies in 1791.

With a lifespan of up to 500 years, the Douglas fir has been grown in the UK for over two hundred years. Today, the tallest of the species can be found in Reelig Glen in Inverness – with a whopping 64 metres in height, that’s more than 220 feet!

The leaves of the species are flat and soft, and are relatively small with a maximum length of 4cm. And, when crushed, the needles give off a strong citrus-like smell. In fact, it’s regarded as the best of edible conifers because of this – perfect for adding to cups of tea! 

As a conifer, the Douglas fir is no exception when it comes to growing pines. The male flowers are pollen cones up to 3 centimetres in size, and the female flowers grow up to 10cm long in size.

3. Noble fir

With its native roots in Washington and Oregon, the Noble Fir – Abies procera – was introduced to the UK by the previously mentioned David Douglas. The noble fir is striking. It’s regularly used for Christmas Trees in places like Denmark, and across Europe to create wreaths. 

Interestingly, its scientific name – Abies procera – literally means ‘tall’, and this is particularly apt as the noble fir can grow up to 45 metres in height. Its needles grow upwards at right angles to the branch. It also grows in the traditional ‘Christmas tree’ shape with a narrow crown, and tends to grow in places with high altitudes. 

To find your nearest noble fir, there are a few notable examples of this species throughout the country. From the 40 metre fir at Heaven’s Gate in Longleat Forest to the 55 metre fir in Big Trees Walk, there are some spectacularly tall and striking examples of Noble firs throughout Britain. 

4. Norway spruce

For us Brits, the Norway spruce is the epitome of the ‘Christmas tree’ fir. This is the species of pine that makes its way to living rooms across the country throughout December!

The Norway spruce is native to Europe – and, as the name suggests, Norway – and was widely planted in Britain at the end of the 19th century. With a lifespan of 200 years, those planted during this period are still alive today and can reach heights of up to 40 metres. The reddish-brown cones of the Norway spruce are unique, with long cones that tend to hang down rather than up. 

Its timber is tough, making it the perfect material for indoor building work. It has also earned the name ‘violin wood’, due to its sound transmitting properties.

As it was planted so vastly, the Norway spruce has roots throughout the UK as it was originally planted for forestry. If you’re looking for your nearest spruce, look out for square-shaped needle-like leaves with fine white speckles. You’ll also be able to identify them through their unique shape, and their downward-growing red-brown crones.

norway spruce trees with hills tin the background
The Norway spruce has beautiful downward spines and large cones

5. Western Hemlock

The Western Hemlock is another example of a Northern American pine which has made its way to Britain! In 1852, botanist John Jeffrey introduced the Western Hemlock to British shores, and today it’s one of the most common conifers in the UK.

One of the most interesting facts about this species of pine is that its needles, when crushed, smell like grapefruit! It shares the ‘Hemlock’ part of its name with the herb hemlock due to the shared scent, but luckily the Western species is far less toxic. The needle-like leaves are soft to the touch, flat and have characteristic white bands underneath them. 

The species also comes with some mild controversy over its scientific name – Tsuga heterophylla. During Queen Victoria’s reign, she asked for the name to be changed to Tsuga albertiana for her husband, Albert. However, while it stuck for a while at the time, its original name is now more commonly used. 

The Western Hemlock is often used for building due to its ability to firmly hold nails, and it can grow up to heights of 50 metres during its 500+ year lifespan. 

To identify your nearest Western Hemlock, look out for the ‘randomly arranged’ needles and widespread leaves and branches. If you’re on the hunt for a Western Hemlock near you, it’s generally grown in local parks and sometimes in private gardens.

6. Corsican pine

Native to Corsica – as the name suggests – the Corsican pine is a species of black pine. Its characterised by its straight trunk and light branches, and can live for up to 500 years. Originally, it came to the UK in 1759 and was used for railway sleepers. Today, it’s often used for telegraph poles, although it’s not known for its durability.

Known as part of the Pinu nigra subspecies laricio, it grows best as timber in the south and the east of the UK, where there are marginally lower levels of rainfall and higher volumes of sunshine. 

Due to its characteristics, however, there has been a huge shift in the importance of the Corsican pine which shouldn’t be underestimated. Research by the Forest Commission has found that due to global climate change forecasts, the Corsican pine may thrive in warmer climates and that an expansion of its growth is particularly important over the next 30 years.

If you’re looking for your nearest Corsican pine, look out for one in your nearest park, churchyard or local large gardens! You’ll also be likely to find birds nearby, as a wide range of bird species feed on their seeds.

7. Sitka spruce 

As the fifth-largest conifer in the world, the Sitka Spruce is the most common pine species that you’ll find in a forest near you. Its name stems from Sitka in Alaska and it originates from North America. Its scientific name is Picea sitchensis, and while it’s not native to Britain, it now accounts for over 50% of our plantations.

The main reasons for the popularity of the Sitka is its fast-growing speed (up to 1.5 metres each year) but because of the versatility of its timber. Incredibly, the commercial wood industry rests on the success of Sitka trees, as Sitka timber can be used for paper, boat-building, construction, pallets, packaging, and more. It’s also not too picky on where it grows – and can even grow successfully in poor soil.

With a whopping 600 year lifespan, the Sitka grows up to 100 metres in height, and is often found in UK forests. 

8. Lodgepole pine

The Lodgepole pine stands tall at up to 50 metres in height. With its distinctive slim shape and high branches, the Lodgepole pine – Pinus contorta – often loses its lower branches as it matures. 

While native to North America, the lodgepole has a rich history. Its name stems from the use of the straight poles of the tree to support the lodges of Native Americans. During this time, it was also frequently used medicinally to treat ailments including sore throats, gonorrhea and tuberculosis (TB). Today, the species covers over 50 million acres in North America.

Back in the UK, the Lodgepole pine graced our shores in 1855, and because of its tolerance to poor soil, it quickly became a useful timber crop in Britain – especially in Scotland. One of the most interesting facts about this species is that its cones need high temperatures to open and release seeds, which is why many believe that the Pinus contorta won’t be here forever.

To find your own Lodgepole pine, there are plenty to be seen in Scotland and the north of England. For a particularly notable example, take a look at the 26.5 metre tall Lodgepole pine in Errol Park, Errol. If you want to sneak a peek at the 50 metre species, you’ll need to nip across the pond to North America.

lodgepole pine trees next to a mountain lake
The Lodgepole pine is a beautiful conifer and stands strikingly tall

How to identify a pine tree

Spotting conifers is straightforward, but how can you tell the difference between a Pine, Fir or a Spruce tree? Well, pine trees have a few distinctive features to look out for. These include the following:

  • The needles of pine trees grow in clusters from a single point – most often in clusters of 2, 3 or 5
  • The needles are usually longer than those on other conifers
  • The branches on pines are generally upturned and there are fewer branches on a pine tree
  • The cones hang towards the ground, rather than in an upward direction as firs do.

Conclusion 

In conclusion, while the word ‘pine tree’ may spring to mind messy Christmas trees, walks in the park or pine cones, there are a wide range of pine trees and various species to be found throughout the UK. While none of these pine trees are native to the UK, plenty of them hold the key to the future of our wildlife, environment and timber production. Some of these also will become even more essential in the future, as other species die out. One particular example of this is the Corsican pine which is set to expand dramatically in the next few decades, and will become more essential as climate change is only set to worsen during that time. 

For those readers who live in Scotland, many of the most spectacular versions of each of these examples can be found on your doorstep! For everyone else, take a stroll to your local public park to see what you can find – one such example is the traditional Christmas tree, the Norway Spruce! 

Happy pine tree hunting!

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