Gray Pine (Pinus sabiniana) was once known as Digger Pine. Some of the first pioneers in the
Central Valley of California called the Native Americans "Diggers" because their diet consisted
largely of roots and bulbs. When they learned that they also ate the large, rich seeds of a
foothill pine during part of the year, they called the tree "Digger Pine." Now this name is seen as
disrespectful to Native Americans and most botanists have settled on calling this tree a Gray
Gray Pine are solitary and airy gray-green trees that are endemic to California. They are
drought tolerant and they grow in the foothills of California's coastal ranges and the Sierra
Nevada. In the Sierra they grow only on the western slope between 1,000 and 4,000 feet in
elevation. They are typically 40 to 70 feet tall and their trunks are often curved and forked.
Their trunks are from one to three feet in diameter and their needles are 8-12 inches long and
grow in clusters of threes. Their cones are huge; they can weigh up to 4 pounds when they're
green and they are 8 to 10 inches long! The cone bears huge seeds that are almost twice the
size of pinyon pine nuts. On the tip of each cone scale is a curved spine that makes the cones
quite prickly to pick up and you definitely don't want to drive over one with your vehicle, you
might puncture your tires!
|Gray Pine at Pinnacles National Monument, CA
Gray pines are often found growing alongside blue oak (Quercus douglasii) and historically this
community experienced periodic fires every 15-30 years. Gray pine is highly flammable but it
does have two adaptations that allow it to withstand fire. First, some of the largest trees will
withstand moderate-severity fire because of their thick bark and self-pruning trunks.
Secondly, regeneration is favored following fire because fire creates a favorable bare mineral
soil seedbed, and heat from the fire helps open the seeds and increases germination rates..
Gray Pine and blue oak woodland is a preferred habitat for mule deer, California quail, and
mourning dove. Many animals eat the seeds of the Gray Pine including scrub jays, acorn
woodpeckers, and California gray squirrels.
John Muir wrote of the gray pine, "No other tree of my acquaintance so substantial in body is in
foliage so thin and so pervious to the light. The sunbeams sift through even the leafiest trees
with scarcely any interruption..." I think a gray pine's delicate foliage is certainly beautiful
especially compared to its dry surroundings. It is also unique in that it can support such huge,