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Style Magazine

Sugar Pine Foundation

Dec 06, 2012 09:11AM ● By Style

Photo by Dante Fontana, © Style Media Group.

Pinus lambertiana: An unrecognizable name for the tree that grows what is perhaps the world’s most recognizable and collected pinecone.

It’s commonly known as the sugar pine, a name it earned for its sweet-tasting sap, which legends say John Muir preferred to maple syrup. They are the largest of the pine species, easily identified by their enormous pinecones, which grow from 14-20 inches long. At this time of year, you can hardly walk a block without seeing one as part of a holiday decoration; in addition, Web sites are devoted to buying and selling their pinecones around the world.  

There’s just one problem: The sugar pine population is dying. “Historically, the sugar pine, which only grows in the mountains of the Pacific coast, accounted for 25 percent of Tahoe’s forests,” says Maria Mircheva, executive director of the Sugar Pine Foundation. “Today, they make up less than five percent.”

The villain in this story is a pathogenic fungus known as blister rust, which found its way to North America in the early 1900s. Ironically, it was brought here by Canadian foresters trying to restore clear cut areas with imported seedlings from Europe. Little did they know they were unleashing a scourge that would put the health of the entire forest at risk.    


Today, there’s little chance of stopping the fungus, which attacks all species of white pine. Fortunately, researchers have discovered that roughly four percent of sugar pines have a natural genetic resistance to blister rust. Therein lies the salvation of the sugar pine population, and the mission of the Sugar Pine Foundation.

“We’ve planted nearly 50,000 resistant trees around the Lake Tahoe Basin since 2008,” Mircheva says. “We have planting events every spring and fall, planting seedlings carefully cultivated by the CalForest Nursery in Etna, California.”

When the group isn’t planting sugar pines, it’s collaborating with UC Davis and the Tahoe-Baikal Institute to conduct research, and educating the public through school field trips, presentations, guided hikes and other outreach.

Ultimately, it’s not solely about the trees themselves, but about the vital role healthy forests play in keeping human beings alive. It’s widely known how important forests are for absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen, but they’re also a vital link to our water supply: They help regulate snowmelt and runoff, and provide filtration critical to the health of the watershed. “We like to say one of the best ways to keep Tahoe blue is to keep the forests green, but we’re really talking about the very air we breathe and the water we drink,” Mircheva says. “Nothing can be more important than that.”

As a nonprofit with an annual budget of about $60,000, the Foundation, like the pines themselves, has plenty of growth potential. Donations and sponsorships are gladly welcomed, and a membership in the foundation is only $20 per year. You can also buy sugar pine seedlings to plant in your yard (most suitable above 2,000 feet). Beyond financial support, volunteers are always in demand when planting season comes around.  

“We need help planting seedlings and harvesting cones from blister rust resistant trees,” Mircheva says. “We’re so thankful for all our volunteers – together we can ensure there’s a healthy forest for the future.”

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