Go to Keys to Identifying Selected Plant Groups in the SGM
Pine Primer for the San Gabriel Mountains
Pines are recognized by their evergreen, long, round, and thin needle-like leaves found in bundles wrapped in a papery sheath or sleeve.
These are the pine tree species native to the San Gabriel Mountains. If you find a pine that does not fit anything in the key or descriptions, chances are you found it along a paved road, or at a camp or picnic ground and the tree has been planted by the US Forest Service.
Bark texture and color change with age; texture is smooth and color is light when young, aging to rough, scaly and furrowed in texture and darker in color when old.
The number of records is an rough indicator of frequency. You are almost sure to see those with the largest number of observation records. Those with few records, in this case, are difficult to get to!
In the key below, remember that the leaves are needle-like.
1. Is there only one leaf in the bundle?
2. Are there two leaves in the bundle?
5. Are the leaves less than 2" in length and in dense tufts near the ends of the branches? (See picture of the two species side by side (sugar on left; limber on right) to see what we mean by "dense tufts".)
- Yes. Are the leaves somewhat longer than the span of an adult hand (more than 10 inches) and the cones very large with big hooks?
- Yes. Is the trunk forked and the foliage wispy?
- No. Go to 4.
4. There are two species in this branch of the key, Ponderosa Pine and Jeffrey Pine, P. ponderosa and P. jeffreyi, that cannot easily be separated by a simple one line couplet. Brief descriptions are given below for each, but it is far better to consult our detailed page on these two species. See also our latest map of the distribution of Ponderosa pine in the San Gabriel Mountains, along with a slightly older map that has some additional comments on it.
- No. Go to 5.
However, it is often not easy to use this couplet in the field especially if you do not have the two species side by side. It is far better to use the bark and/or the pine cone to separate them:
- The bark of limber pines has small pieces on the surface, whereas the bark of sugar pines has larger pieces on the surface.
- Limber pine cones are shorter and stick straight out of the top parts of the tree, parallel to the ground, and have almost no stalk at all, whereas sugar pine cones are the longest pine cones in the world and hang down from the ends of the branches, with a long stalk.
We originally had links to give pictures of the species and their characteristics, but none of the links worked after a few years. So we removed the links, and instead recommend you go to Calphotos and look at their pictures for each species.
The number of records came from a search of Calflora back in ~2007, when there were very few vouchers online. The number of records for each species should be much higher now, but the relative number of records (comparing each species) should be roughly the same.
Pinus contorta subspecies murrayana
- Common name: Lodgepole pine, tamarack pine
- Leaf: number of needles=2; color=yellow-green; length= < 2"
- Cone: size=1-2"; shape=globular like a big walnut; scale=not prickly
- Bark: color=gray; texture=cornflakes
- Profile: tall, slender, straight
- Elevation range: 7,500' - 10,000'
- Locations: Dawson Saddle turnout on Angeles Crest Highway, Mt. Baden-Powell, Mt. Baldy
- Comments: found only above 7,500' in San Gabriels
- Number of records: 7
- Common name: Coulter pine, "widow maker"
- Leaf: number of needles=3; color=gray-green; length=12-14" erect
- Cone: size=12-14"; shape=broadly conical; scale=very prickly, large hooks
- Bark: color=dark brown; texture=furrowed with wide scaly ridges
- Profile: broad pyramid
- Elevation range: 2,500' - 7,500'
- Locations: Angeles Crest Highway mile marker 46, Devil Peak, Charlton Flat, unspecified Angeles National Forest
- Comments: grows at lowest elevation of all pines in the SGM; grows only in the eastern section; heaviest pine cone in world
- Number of records: 18
- Common name: Limber pine
- Leaf: number of needles=5; color=dark yellow-green; length=1-2½"
- Cone: size=3-10; shape=oblong; scale=not prickly; short stalked
- Bark: color=grayish white to dark brown; texture=plates with thin scales
- Profile: broad crown, short trunk; forked branches whorled and upswept
- Elevation range: 8,000' - 9,400'
- Locations: occurs only from Throop Peak / Mt. Hawkins to Mt. Baden-Powell, with just a few plants on the PCT below the Blue Ridge Electronic site
- Comments: flexible gray branches can be tied in knots (but so can young branches of sugar pine); mostly occurs on ridgetops blown free of snow in the wintertime, from seeds planted there by the Clark's Nutcracker. This species is oddly missing from Mt. Baldy (vouchers of it from there are misdetermined sugar pines).
- Number of records: 3
- Common name: Jeffrey pine
- Leaf: number of needles=3; color=grayish blue-green; length=5-10"
- Cone: size=4-8"; shape=long oval
- Bark: color=reddish brown; texture=narrow plates, deep furrows, jigsaw puzzle flakes
- Profile: very tall, columnar
- Elevation range: 5,400' - 9,500'
- Locations: Angeles Crest Highway mile marker 54, Charlton Flat, Chilao, Grassy Hollow, Lightning Ridge, Mt. Williamson, unspecified Angeles National Forest
- Comments: bark very fragrant like vanilla or pineapple; most common pine in San Gabriels
- Number of records: 30
- Common name: Sugar pine
- Leaf: number of needles=5; color=deep green; length=2½-4"
- Cone: size=12-18"; shape=cylindrical; scale=not prickly; long stalked
- Bark: color=grayish to purplish-brown; texture=ridges with thin scales
- Profile: ragged and uneven; horizontal branches with cones at tips
- Elevation range: 6,000' - 9,800'
- Locations: Buckhorn Springs, Cloudburst Summit, Mt. Wilson, Sawmill Pk, unspecified Angeles National Forest
- Comments: tallest pine tree and longest pine cones in world; often glistening with sugary sap
- Number of records: 23
- Common name: Pinyon pine, single-leaf pinyon pine
- Leaf: number of needles=1; color=gray; length=2"
- Cone: size=3-5"; shape=more or less spherical; scale=not prickly
- Bark: color=dull gray to dark brown; texture=narrow flat ridges to rough and furrowed
- Profile: divided trunk; low and rounded
- Elevation range: 3,700' - 6,100'
- Locations: Mt. Lowe, Big Pines Highway, Big Rock Creek, Angeles Forest Highway through Kentucky Springs Canyon, Una Lake, unspecified Angeles National Forest
- Comments: pine nuts edible; found mainly on the desert side of the San Gabriels; only single-leaf pine in world
- Number of records: 30
- Common name: Ponderosa pine, western yellow pine
- Leaf: number of needles=3; color=dark yellow-green; length=5-10"
- Cone: size=2-5"; shape=oval
- Bark: color=yellowish brown; texture=broad plates with shallow furrows and jigsaw puzzle scales
- Profile: tall, columnar
- Elevation range: 5,200' - 5,500'
- Locations: See map
- Number of records: 4
- Common name: Gray, foothill, or digger pine
- Leaf: number of needles=3; color=gray; length=12" drooping
- Cone: size=6-10"; shape=conical; scale=very prickly, large hooks
- Bark: color=gray to dark brown; texture=vertically furrowed with scaly ridges
- Profile: spindly, forked trunk, thin, wispy foliage
- Elevation range: 3000' - 4400'
- Locations: Elizabeth Lake vicinity, Liebre Mtn., Pine Canyon Road, unspecified Angeles National Forest
- Comments: found only in the extreme northwest section of the San Gabriels
- Number of records: 9
Sources and Other Information
CalFlora Occurrence Database. A search for Pinus in Los Angeles County in ~2007 yielded 120 observation records for the San Gabriel Mountains.
Conifers of California by Ronald M. Lanner. Cachuma Press, 1999.
Native Conifers of North America - California Conifers by Nearctica
A California Flora by Philip A. Munz. University of California Press, 1968.
Roadside Plants of Southern California by Thomas J. Belzer. Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1984.
Sierra Nevada Natural History by Tracy I. Storer and Robert L. Usinger. University of California Press, 1963.
Trees and Shrubs of California (California Natural History Guides) by John D. Stuart (Author), John O. Sawyer (Author), Andrea J. Pickart (Illustrator)
Pacific Coast Tree Finder: A Pocket Manual for Identifying Pacific Coast Trees (Nature Study Guides) 2nd Edition by Tom Watts.
Copyright © 2000-2017 by Jane Strong and Tom Chester.
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Comments and feedback: Tom Chester
Updated 23 October 2017