The widow-maker

With cones the size of chihuahuas and a lineage that stretches back to the time of the dinosaurs, Coulter's pine makes a big impression on our botanist at large, James Armitage

Close up of Pinus coulteri cone

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RHS Gardening Podcast
Episode 121 (item starts at 00:47)
Pinus coulteri at WisleyPinus coulteri cone

The champion tree of Pinus coulteri growing at RHS Garden Wisley with, in the foreground, young plants raised from seed collected from its massive cones.

North American trees often enjoy a more continental climate than can be found in the UK but the Wisley bigcone pine has responded vigorously to the warmth provided by the south-facing slope on which it grows. It is hoped its progeny will grow equally well in the decades to come.

Pinus longaeva - Bristlecone pine
The tortured trunks of western bristlecone pines, Pinus longaeva, growing high up in the White Mountains of California. Some trees have been shown to live in excess of 5,000 years, making them the oldest plants on Earth. They are one of a number of record-breaking conifers to be found in California.

David DouglasA portrait of David Douglas (1799-1834) that was printed alongside the notification of his death. Douglas was born in Perthshire and trained as a gardener but early in life demonstrated a keen aptitude for botany. His natural talent brought him to the attention of the renowned Professor of Botany William Jackson Hooker who recommended his services to the Horticultural Society of London (now the RHS).

Douglas was sent on several plant collecting trips to North America and introduced a large number of plants to cultivation, most notably conifers, once writing “you will think I manufacture pines at my pleasure”. Besides Pinus coulteri, Douglas was responsible for introducing the Sitka spruce, Picea sitchensis, and the Monterey pine, Pinus radiata, two of the most important timber trees in the world, as well as the Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, a specimen of which is the tallest tree in the UK. David Douglas died aged 35 in Hawaii under mysterious circumstances after apparently falling into a pit trap.

Coulter pine cone compared to Scots pine coneOne of the cones of Wisley’s champion Pinus coulteri shown for scale next to the cone of a Scot’s pine, Pinus sylvestris.The cones of this species can weigh up to 5lbs and each scale is barbed with a sharp tip, earning the tree the nickname “widowmaker”. The large tree at Wisley is roped off from the public to prevent accidents.


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