The Scots Pine is a large cone-bearing tree which is the National Tree of Scotland. Its botanical name is Pinus sylvestris which translates as “pine of the woods”. It also has a synonym, P. rubra – which means red pine.
As a tree, it’s not one that’s suitable for most gardens – unless you have a large estate with a couple of acres of land to spare – as it can reach a height of 25m (82ft) and a spread of 10m (32ft). However, in the right position it can be planted to provide a shelter belt, or grown commercially for timber and other products.
Scots pine is easy to grow in cool temperate conditions. The optimum pH is 5.5, but it’s not fussy about this and will even tolerate very alkaline or very acid soil, nor does it mind nutritionally poor soil if it’s well drained, but it doesn’t like heavy clay soil. It will grow on soil over chalk or limestone, but this does shorten its life. Once established, drought isn’t a problem, and neither are atmospheric pollution or maritime exposure. Like most trees, it prefers full sun or semi-shade.
When young, Scots pine is sometimes confused – even by nurserymen – with Lodgepole Pine, which is native to North America. Superficially very similar, it’s easy to tell them apart by checking the needles. Lodgepole has twisted needles, which explains the botanical name, P. contorta.
Mature Scots pine forests are attractive to wildlife, in particular the red squirrel, and likely to have a natural under-storey of holly, oak and hazel. The tree grows well in mixed woodland alongside larch, oak, Norway spruce and birch.
Despite the common name, it’s not just indigenous to Scotland but is native to a whole swathe of places in Northern Europe, Eastern Asia and beyond (see table below). It’s also cultivated for its timber as well as various other products.
In common with many conifers, rain dripping from the needles, particularly in warm weather, contains a terpene which inhibits germination of many other plants. Apart from terpenes, other extracts are produced commercially. Resin, extracted by tapping, is distilled to provide turpentine, a solvent, and rosin, used by violinists and also to make varnish and related products.
Scots pine is grown commercially for timber, which can safely be stored outside for up to 20 years without risk of deterioration. Both needles and cones are used to make natural dyes: tan or green from the needles, and reddish yellow from the cones.
Essential oil is distilled from the needles or the seeds for medicinal use, mainly as an inhalant for respiratory conditions. Pollen is collected and sold as a remedy for men. Young needles and shoots are used by herbalists to treat chest conditions, rheumatism and arthritis.
Along with all its other uses, Scots pine has been used as a famine food; the inner bark can be ground and used for making bread or mixed with oatmeal. A vanilla substitute can also be produced from the resin.