In the morning mists of winter, the ephemeral gray pine (Pinus sabiniana) seems to float on our hillsides, unbouyed from the earth, like a manifestation of the mist itself.

The trees distinctive, open form, with long, lacy gray needles give it its name the gray pine, ghost pine or sometimes foothill pine.

A conifer, it grows to between 20 to 80 feet tall and can live as long as 200 years. The tree is upright, but has very long branches that almost appear to weep as the needles are so long. It casts a very light shade. Needles are in clusters of three. The cones are large, and can be as long as 1-foot and weigh as much as 2 pounds. The cones have heavy spurs and sticky pitch. Heavy crops of cones are produced every 2 to 5 years. After flowering in April and May, the cones are ready in October.

The seeds have a high nutritional value and were an important supplement to the native peoples. Scrub jays, acorn woodpeckers and squirrels also feed heavily on the seeds and act to disseminate them to other locations.

The gray pine is endemic to California and is found on the coast ranges, and western slopes of the Sierra Nevada from 500 feet to 3,000 feet. There are some isolated populations in the Sacramento valley and at 7,000 feet in Inyo County. It grows in a wide range of precipitation areas — from just 10 inches annually in the Mojave to 70 inches in the Sierra Nevada. The Gray pine grows on a variety of xeric sites and is often associated with chaparral and also oaks. Its ability to grow on dry sites comes from the trees’ ability to photosynthesize when soil moisture is high in winter and early spring, and to minimize transpiration losses from leaves due to holding onto a minimum of needles in the dry season.

The gray pine is often seen on serpentine soils where it can survive because it has low soil nutrient requirements, and can absorb calcium it needs, while excluding magnesium that is strongly present in these soils.

Kate Frey can be reached at: katebfrey,, or @katebfrey