What is happening to our pines? [update]

The deep and diverse green-colored spring  in central New England is being interrupted in a jarring way.

Early yesterday afternoon (June 6, 2016) I heard a small crash against my office door. I turned and saw John O’Keefe. He asked if I had a minute (For John? Always). He asked if I had noticed the pines. I said I couldn’t recall anything particular. He then said they were shedding their needles, but that something unusual was happening.

In the late winter and early spring, eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) along roads and highways in snowy regions have foliar injury that is induced by the salt used to treat slippery roads. At some point during the summer most roadside white pines recover to a normal condition. What John observed is different.

He said he first noticed white pines on the road dropping needles and thought it was this annual injury that these trees incur from road salt. Then he said he didn’t think it was because the white pine in his backyard was dropping its needles. That pine is about as far from road salt as a yard tree could be.

As I drove home last night with these observations on my mind, a ca 47 mile drive on a country highway, Massachusetts’ Route 2 connecting Boston to western Mass, and then suburban streets, it became startlingly obvious: something is making pine trees drop most of their needles. Even tall trees where salt spray is unlikely to be important, pines are dropping their needles.

After driving the same route back this morning, I’d estimate this is happening to about 10% of the pines I can see along the road (perhaps only 8%, but perhaps a good bit higher). And, it isn’t just eastern white pine. Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), red pine (Pinus resinosa), and what I guess is Austrian pine (Pinus nigra) are looking unhealthy. I also think I saw a couple of cedars in poor shape and a bare spruce not too far from my house.

As I drove in this morning, I wanted to capture some pictures. I didn’t have to go far when I saw the one of the worst cases. In an apartment complex in Acton, MA most of the pines in a roadside planting have shed all of their needles or are close to shedding all of their needles.

In an era of high volume trade, the number of diseases and insects impacting our forests is only increasing. Is this something new?

However, in the tree-ring samples we collected in eastern NY State, we see a tremendous drop in eastern white pine growth, beginning in 1948 and lasting for 6 years. Some trees in that population didn’t form a ring each year. In a sample size of 115 series, we “found” 87 missing rings. Most of those years of little to no radial growth occurred between 1948 and 1953.


Spaghetti plot of 115 ring-width series of Pinus strobus growth on Goose Egg Ridge, NY. The synchronous dip at the end of the 1940s is a time of significant number of missing rings.


Ed Cook said he saw something similar in white pine around that same period from samples he collected in the mid Hudson Valley of NY State. It doesn’t seem to be climatic or otherwise. Perhaps what we are seeing today is a repeat of that event? I hope it is a repeat and not something new.

I checked in with two colleagues in different parts of Ohio. Things look ok there.

Are you seeing this phenomenon? What species? Where?

UPDATE – June 7, 2016, 8 pm

The internet community is pretty awesome [Facebook, Twitter, here]. I’ve learned that it is in eastern PA, Vermont [thanks Shelly!], and perhaps in the Finger Lakes region of NY State. It doesn’t yet – yet – have the correct visa to get into Canada, eh?

Some great internet sources. First, a UMASS extension alert. Second, a study of the complex that is potentially behind this and the factors that might be driving it.

UPDATE – June 8, 2016, 9:32 pm

We went further west today – out to Florida, MA! Things looked relatively normal, but the yellowing pines were evident, especially around Charlemont and Buckland. In those areas we saw higher frequency of trees in needle decline, perhaps more than 10%. And, we saw saw the decline in stands pretty far from the road. The ‘other conifers’ of the title of this post might be wrong, so I’m removing it. Was mostly eastern white pine with the decline today. Pictures from June 8, 2016 immediately below. Pictures from Acton, a suburb of Boston, below those pictures.



Below are pictures of eastern white pine in Acton, MA from June 7, 2016.


15 thoughts on “What is happening to our pines? [update]

  1. It is hard to tell from the photos, but maybe a foliage disease? Other mechanisms could be drought – We see and map needle dieback in a variety of pines in British Coulmbia.


  2. I was at the state park lake dennison a few years back and you could here some kind of worms eating the trees at night when it is real quite


  3. Neil,

    I saw the same thing too on my drive down from Vermont to Wellesley, MA over the Memorial Day weekend and wondered what was going on. It is definitely happening up here in VT and NH.



  4. Pitch Pines in Northern WV are suffering the same mysterious fate. No signs on local White, Virginia Pines or Spruces.


    • Thanks John – that is interesting – pitch pine, but not the others. Wonder if it is the same thing, but just operating differently.


  5. I am In Sudbury, MA and we are losing the beautiful, mature white pines in our yard too- far from the road and with plenty of room for root spread. They are overall, browning and then dropping all of their needles. I notice a great deal of sap leaking and running down the trunk from high in the trees. I am wondering if it may be the pine bark beetle. I am seeing this in many places in MA also, and, when we were In Alberta Canada last summer, entire mountainsides of dead pines. I hope remedies may be found for these magnificent trees, the earth’s lungs!


  6. Driving around Eastern MA from suburban Boston to Cape Cod and west toward Amherst, but especially in the ‘burbs virtually 100% of white pines have reduced foliage and most have less than 1/3 of what a healthy tree would have. The end of the 2 year drought has not restored them. I also see spruces beginning to die, some cedars – and of course the hemlocks are nearly gone from adelgid. Ornamental cedars, spruces and pines are also being affected, some more slowly. Junipers seem okay so far and yews. I wonder whether this is the combination of drought period on already stressed trees, chemicals affecting the ground fungi which white pines require to live, and the crazy seesawing of winter temperatures. In the burbs many deciduous native trees are also stressed, more brittle than usual, carrying thinner canopies. I think the beetles are the symptom more than the cause.


    • Have you got some photos…..hmm, maybe you cannot post them here? I’m sorry to hear this, but I suspect it will spread around the region.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s