Italian stone pine
Tall evergreen tree with upswept branches and 5-inch cones
Those Romans knew a good tree when they saw it: They planted stone pines along the Appian Way when Rome was still an empire, and although the empire is long gone, many of the trees are still there.
Fortunately for Southern California, our Mediterranean climate is just like the stone pine's native habitat: hot and dry in the summer, warm and almost dry in the winter.
Stone pines laugh at drought and sneer at rich soil. They will tolerate temperatures lower than their sunny heritage would suggest, but no lower than 10 degrees for more than a couple of nights. This gorgeous tree looks wonderful at the beach, along wide boulevards and on an estate large enough to accommodate it (it is especially comfortable next to Italian cypress).
But once it grows beyond its plump infancy, it can look dreadful in a small yard or anywhere its growth is constricted and its size out of proportion. It wants to loom.
The stone pine (also called umbrella pine) has three distinct shapes as it grows; when a youth, it's a dense, roundish, cute little thing with blue-green needles; as a 6- to 10-foot teen-ager, its trunk extends and thickens, the leaves turn green, the top rounds off and the branches curve upward--a sturdy lollipop on a stick. But when it hits its old age, 80-feet-tall prime, the top flattens and widens, and it really does resemble an umbrella--inside-out, but an umbrella nonetheless.
Italian stone pines are the source of pine nuts, those expensive nuggets so dear to Italian cuisine. It takes three years for nuts to mature to the edible stage; the scales open and fall to the ground before the cones, which remain on the branches.
The stone pine's needles are in twos; needle-counting is important with pines because it provides a clue to what pests and diseases may afflict the trees. The stone pine is relatively pest-free in Southern California but not always healthy. Smog can damage and even kill pines, but so far the stone pine seems to be breathing easily.
Some spectacular stone pines are lined up by the entrance to the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum in Arcadia and all over the UCLA campus in Westwood. A few stone pines have been planted as street trees in West Los Angeles, but not nearly enough.
In San Pedro's Point Fermin Park, many venerable stone pines, Moreton Bay figs and other trees were destroyed or mutilated when the park was "renovated" two years ago. They are mourned.
For the gardener who wants to grow some Italian tradition--something a little more substantial than oregano--stone pines are an excellent investment, but only for large gardens or generous parkways. It's just plain cruel to plant this lovely tree in what amounts to an outdoor closet.
Stone pines should be readily available in most Southern California nurseries; if they're not actually in stock, they are easily ordered.