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Tree of the Week: The picturesque Aleppo pine

November 14, 2009 |  5:06 am

Aleppo pine
Aleppo pine
-- Pinus halepensis

Tough and rugged as a movie outlaw, the Aleppo pine's asymmetrical shape, leaning habit, sparse foliage, haphazard branching pattern, and grayish branches and needles contribute to a picturesque image. But it isn't a pretty pine tree.

Native to coastal areas around the Mediterranean basin, the tree historically was more abundant on the west side (Spain, Morocco, Algeria) than around the Middle East, even though its name derives from the Syrian city of Aleppo. It thrives on thin soil and steep slopes, and prefers deserts and seacoasts, where it develops into twisted and bent shapes.

The tree produces copious, pungent sap, called resin, that has been used for millennia to embalm Egyptian pharaohs and transform Greek wines into retsina. Resin of all pine trees also has a long history of use for medicinal purposes, skin treatments and herbal steam baths. The sacred tree of the solar god Attis, temple-close Aleppo pines were decorated for the winter solstice festival as a kind of pre-Christian Christmas trees.

In the late 1800s, the tree was widely planted by early settlers of the Western U.S. It makes a good shade tree in the desert, but in the Southland we use it as an ornamental, often plant it in lawns and so overwater and overfeed it that it sometimes drops a water-soaked branch.

Moderate to fast-growing even in poor environments, the Aleppo pine grows 30 to 60 feet tall and 20 to 40 feet wide. It is an irregularly shaped, open-crown evergreen tree with ascending branches that will live for 150 years. The trunk is lined with silvery gray, orange-dotted, vertical flakes, but the bark is more deeply furrowed near the ground.

The needles are 2.5 to 4 inches long, grayish-green tinted and come in bunches of two, rarely three; they face upward in the varieties sold here. When they fall to the ground, the needles make a highly combustible litter. Flowers are inconspicuous; female flowers develop into narrow 2- to 3-inch-long green cones, which ripen to a red-brown color over a 24-month period. The tree is drought tolerant, takes any soil and wants full sun. Roots can be invasive.

The tree has few pests; the main one is a tiny spiderlike mite of the genus Oligonychus, which causes Aleppo pine blight, a nonlethal affliction in which needles turn brown and die in fall or winter, to be replaced by new ones in spring. Since the Aleppo pine grows where few other trees would, it is an important timber tree in Northern Africa and the Middle East, even if the wood isn’t particularly valuable.

-- Pieter Severynen

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Photo: Pieter Severynen