The Pine Needle
Pine needle baskets, bewitchingly beautiful and so woodsy. They are most unique, as the needles form the beauty of the basket. They are just what they were meant to be; they only claim to be pine needle baskets of modest brown and seem to say: "I am from the pine woods – simple and unpretentious. I was browned by glints of sunlight, blown about by midnight winds, moistened by summer dews and polished by wandering swains who gathered violets along the wooded trails scattered deep with the fallen straws."
Written by J.P.S. Neligh – early 1900's
Long-leaf pine flower,
from which pollen is produced in the spring.
What is a pine needle? It is simply, the leaf of the pine tree. It starts its growth in dense tufts at the end of pine boughs. It is attached to its bough by a sheath or cap. There are usually three, sometimes five sections in each needle. Pine needles mature at three to five years. Many fall at maturity, but others cling to the tree, sometimes for years. The mature needles are turned brown by the summer sun, and fall from the trees in early autumn. This is the best time to collect needles for basketry, as the surface of the needle is hard and glossy and the color is rich brown. If left on the ground for a season, the needles lose their luster, become dull and brittle, and may develop dark spots from insects, mold or mildew.
Not all pine needles are created equal, even on the same tree the needles will grow different lengths. On any given tree with an average needle length of say 10 inches, some needles will be 8 inches and others on the same tree, will be 12 inches. The average length of pine needles for making baskets, is 6 inches and up. This is just a general guide line, if you find pine needles that are 4-5 inches long, try them! Just remember that the longer the pine needles-the less time to produce a basket, as it takes fewer needles.
There are close to a hundred species of pine growing in the world today, most of which are in the Northern Hemisphere. Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa grow mostly Red or Slash pine that are not native but have been introduced to these areas.
- The Benguet Pine (Pinus insularis) has 9-inch needles, and grows in the Phillippine Islands to Burma and Southern China.
- The Chir Pine (pinus roxburghii) has needles 8-12 inches long from Himalaya.
- The Guatemala Pine (pinus pseudostrobus) has needles that are about 16 inches long, and grow in Mexico and Central America.
- The Telecote or Mexican Yellow Pine (pinus patula), has needles that are up to 12 inches, and grows in Mexico.
- Montezuma Pine (pinus montezumae) with needle up to 15 inches, grow in Mexico to Guatemala. Some are cultivated in Southern California.
- Canary Island Pine (pinus canariensis) with needles 9 - 12 inches, native to the Canary Islands, but some grow in Southern California.
- The Torrey Pine (pinus torreyana) also called the Del Mar Pine, or the Soledad Pine. The needles from these trees are up to 13 inches long. Its natural habitat is the Torrey Pine Reserve a small area north of San Diego, and on the Santa Rosa Island.
Western North America has four species of pine needles suitable for basketry:
The Digger pine (pinus sabiniana) of California has 8-12 inch needles.
- The Coulter pine (pinus coulteri) also in California has an average of 10-inch long needles.
- The Jeffrey pine (pinus jeffreyi) ranges from South Oregon through California and west to Nevada, with needles ranging from 5-10 inches.
- Perhaps the most predominate basket-making pine in western North America is the Ponderosa pine (pinus ponderosa) with needles from 5-10 inches long. It ranges from Southern British Columbia to Mexico and as far east as South Dakota and Nebraska, predominantly west of the Rocky Mountains.
Eastern North America is blessed with some of the longest pine needles in the world, as shown in the picture towards the top of the page.
The Long Leaf pine (pinus palustris), is also called Southern Pine, Yellow Pine, Georgia Pine, and Pitch pine. (see the picture at left.) The needles are from 8-18 inches long. This tree grows from southern Virginia to Florida and west to Mississippi.
Also growing in this area is the Loblolly pine (pinus taeda). The needles are slender and the average length is only 6-9 inches, but is suitable for basketry.
Young Long Leaf pine with several
short-leaf pines in the background.