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Pine trees for the desert

Pine trees for the desert

This Italian Stone pine makes a great plantable Christmas tree. It's fragrant, drought-tolerant, and will produce edible, delicious pine nuts.

If you’ve bought a live pine tree for Christmas, you may be thinking about planting it in your yard. Here in Tucson we are in Sunset Zone 12. Most pine trees that do well in our desert are imports from other countries, particularly Mediterranean climates. Our native pines are not well-suited to the low desert, and will do much better at higher elevations. However, if your house is up in the foothills or higher, native trees may work for you.

Pine trees are conifers and are monoecious, which means that they produce both male and female reproductive structures. The male structures are pollen, and the trees are wind-pollinated. The female parts are the cones. Pines are appealing for many due to their hardiness and being evergreen. They also make great wildlife trees, providing high perching and nesting areas for owls and other raptors.

With higher temperatures and more variability in rain patterns, be prepared to water your pine trees throughout their life. This can end up being a big job once they grow to full size. Pines that originate from Mediterranean climates need supplemental watering during dry winters as well as during our hot summers to protect them from drought stress. Most pines listed here require well-drained soils.

Live pines that can be used as Christmas trees tend to be stocked during the Christmas season by the larger nurseries, such as Civano Nursery, Mesquite Valley Growers, and Rillito Nursery.

Keep in mind that most of these trees grow to be quite large (between 50-100 feet tall), so you need a big yard to accommodate them. I do list one, the Japanese black pine, that can be grown happily in a container. Read on for more information on this and other candidates for your yard. For information on planting, check out my article “The best way to plant a tree in Tucson”.

Non-native pines

Canary Island pine (Pinus canariensis): This pine grows 3-4 feet per year when irrigated regularly, but it requires a fair amount of water — weekly to monthly, depending on the season. It’s hardy to about 20 F. It grows up to 70 feet tall, and if watered regularly and growing quickly may require staking when it’s young.

Afghan pine (Pinus eldarica): You’ve probably seen these pines in parks and neighborhoods around town, as they tend to do well in our climate. The Afghan pine grows up to 50 feet and is hardy to about 10 F. It’s a fast-grower and can take anything from part shade to reflected sun. It’s also pretty tolerant of a variety of soils, although it prefers well-drained soils. It may require weekly watering in the heat of summer depending on the soil it’s planted in and the microclimate. This will be the easiest pine to find in nurseries.

Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis): These hail from the Mediterranean region, and are fairly drought-tolerant, needing deep watering only every 2-3 weeks in summer once established. They will need supplemental water every 4 weeks during dry winters. The Aleppo pine grows 40-60 feet in height and grows rapidly when young. Like the Afghan pine, Aleppos can handle reflected heat and a variety of soils, although they prefer well-drained locations. These trees can live more than 100 years when cared for — in theory! Many of these trees have been dying in Tucson parks due to drought effects and bark beetles, so keep this in mind.

Italian stone pine (Pinus pinea): Another big tree, this grows 40-80 feet tall. It also tolerates different soils and reflected sun. The cones produce pignolia nuts which are edible (and delicious). It has similar hardiness to the Afghan pine. These can be hard to find but Mesquite Valley Growers sometimes stocks them. I also found small ones for sale as live Christmas trees in Whole Foods, of all places.

Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii): Very cold-hardy, drought-tolerant tree that is smaller (about 30 feet in our desert) and can also be planted in containers. It tolerates full sun and reflected sun and a variety of soils. Like most pines, it will likely need weekly deep watering during the summer, something that is easier to accomplish in a container plant without blowing your water budget. It can also be pruned and sheared. As the name suggests, it is native to Japan.

Native pines and conifers

Pinyon (Pinus edulis): This slow-growing tree prefers cooler climates such as the ones on the Colorado plateau, but may do well in higher elevations around Tucson with supplemental watering. It does produce a lot of resin, so keep it away from structures, walkways, and cars. It grows up to 35 feet and tends to have a more rounded shape with a pointed top. If it’s exposed to drought, it is likely to suffer pine bark beetle infestation. It gets bonus points, however, for producing delicious pine nuts. The smaller one-needled pinyon pine (Pinus monophylla) grows to only 10-25 feet and can be content in containers, which will limit its water needs. It also does well in rocky areas.

Ponderosa (Pinus ponderosa): This tree is a giant—it can grow to 120 feet tall and needs 30 feet of ground space—and is found extensively in mountainous areas in Arizona. It tends to be sensitive to our valley heat, however, and does best above 5,000 feet. The bark is a beautiful rusty brown and has a vanilla scent.

Arizona cypress (Hesperocyparis arizonica): This is not a pine, but I’ve listed this here as a potential alternative to the native pines. Arizona cypresses used to be widespread in higher elevations and canyons but recent severe droughts have resulted in many being killed off by bark beetles. If you plant one, you will need to give it supplemental water. It’s a fast grower and a lovely tree, however, and a good candidate for smaller yards as it “only” grows to about 40 feet tall. It does best between 3,000-6,000 feet.

For lots more information on the various pine trees which can be grown in Arizona, check out the University of Arizona Extension’s handout “Pines of Arizona.”

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