I had the good fortune to walk up Mt. Whitney earlier this month. On the way back down I passed through one of the few stands of Foxtail pines in the world. Foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana subsp. austrina) is a beautiful variety of white or five-needle pine that grows near treeline in the Sierra Nevada and further north in the Klamath Mountains. Just to the east, across the Owens Valley, live the Bristlecone pine, a close relative of the Foxtail. Although they don’t grow as old as the Bristlecone, Foxtail can reach more than two thousand years of age.
The specimen below was the largest, grandest and oldest-looking Foxtail I found. The photo, unfortunately, doesn’t do it justice. Although the tree isn’t very tall (maybe 15-25′) the base was over 8 feet in diameter creating “fast taper” more often seen in bonsai than in the typical forest specimen. Very thin lifelines keep this tree alive. It could be anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 years old or more.
Ancient Foxtail pine
Another isolated tree – the highest specimen I spotted along the trail – had a crook to it and deadwood along the uphill side of the trunk and branches, likely from the wind, snow and rock that comes barreling down the mountain in inclement weather.
Lonely Foxtail pine at timberline
The deadwood on Foxtail is very attractive, ranging in color from pale yellow or white to black, when the wood is damaged by fire, with plenty of natural oranges and browns in between.
Dead apex above scrappy foliage
Further down the mountain the Foxtail grew straighter and taller – and seemingly straight out of the granite. These were some of the most attractive pine groves I’ve seen.
Foxtail pine grove
The foliage on foxtail pines is very similar to Bristlecone pine foliage. Needles grow in tight bundles of five.
Foxtail pine foliage
It’s also easy to spot from a distance. Seen below next to a Limber pine, the Foxtail growth is very compact with short, straight needles growing all the way back to the trunk. And like the Bristlecone pine, the Foxtail produces pointy purple cones that point downward from the ends of branches.
Limber pine and Foxtail pine
If you’re interested in visiting these trees, walk five or six miles up the Mt. Whitney Trail from Whitney Portal. You’ll spot the Foxtail along with some Limber pines right at treeline. They’re not hard to miss – the photos above were shot from the trail.