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Pinus halepensis

Taxonomy: Kingdom Plantae : Subkingdom Tracheobionta : Superdivision Spermatophyta : Division Coniferophyta : Class Pinopsida : Order Pinales : Family Pinaceae

The Aleppo pine, also known as Jerusalem pine, and its close relative, the Brutian pine, are a fixture in the Mediterranean. The Aleppo pine, oddly enough, does not occur in any particular abundance around Aleppo since the Brutian pine is more common in Syria, but is very widespread on the opposite side of the Mediterranean. It's found in coastal areas and low elevations across the north Mediterranean and in higher elevations throughout north Africa, especially in the Atlas range. It's most abundant in eastern Spain and the south of France, though its range does stretch from Jordan all the way to central Morocco and north as far as the Rhône valley. It's also grown as a drought-tolerant exotic in Australia and the south-west United States.

Since I mentioned "grown," that's been the key to its spread. Human activities like plantations, the destruction of old forests and artificial reforestation have made the Aleppo pine as common as it is today. It will grow practially anywhere and takes over from other plants. Aleppo pines use fire to regenerate and compete with other species. The highly combustible discarded needles that carpet the ground beneath them not only stifle undergrowth but also increase the possibility of wildfires that will kill adult trees--both pines and other species they may be growing alongside like oak or cypress. Pine seeds, however, will survive a blaze and take hold faster than other trees following a fire.

The Aleppo pine has twin, green leaves about 10-15cm long with a grey tint. It grows straight and has a silvery-grey bark. Its crown is rather sparse but dense enough to provide light shade. Its cones are about the same length as the leaves and a polished brown. It can take a bit of frost and snow, falling in USDA hardiness zone 7. It's quite easy to grow from seed, just drop a few in a pot and transplant what sprouts into the open. It's also tolerant of poor soils and high salinity and digs deep in search of water. A mature pine has an irregular crown that starts halfway or two-thirds up but it's not unusual for its larger branches to hang almost to the ground. It has few pests, the most devastating of which is the processionary moth whose caterpillars build huge nests and denude whole branches. The same caterpillars can also cause allergies in humans. An infested pine forest is an alarming sight, never mind the dead bugs all over the place.

This pine grows rather quickly, reaching a respectable height within five years and eventually growing to a height of about 20m (60'), especially if spaced in parks or reforestation projects. It will live to be about 150 years old. In the wild it's often shorter and stunted specimens can be seen living a precarious existence on steep, rocky inclines. Its timber has been used in construction and shipbuilding since ancient times. It also yields a pungent resin. If you're familiar with Greek retsina wine, you now know why it has a pine aroma (yes, that acquired taste is Aleppo pine resin). The same resin, incidentally, is thought to have been used in embalming by the Egyptians. Pine-derived turpentine, collected since antiquity, may have been an ingredient in greek fire.

There is one theory that says that the Aleppo pine is the original Christmas tree. That actually makes sense. Although we associate the Christmas tree with the spruce or larch of northern climates and surround it with very un-Mediterranean quantities of snow, the pine was the sacred tree of Attis. Now Attis was a thoroughly solar god, and this widespread evergreen figures prominently in his myth and rites, one of which is the winter solstice feast which Christians adopted early on in their history and long before Christianity spread to northern Europe. In the spring equinox rite a pine was cut down and on it was placed an effigy of the god that was then taken to his mother Cybele. Attis would rise on the third day. So there you have it. Next time you see a Christmas tree, think of easter bunnies.

The pine, either Aleppo or Brutian since the ancients didn't really make the distinction between different conifers, is generally thought to be the "fir" of the Hebrew scriptures and, according to one myth, it was blessed by the infant Jesus when it hid the Holy Family during their flight from Herod. The tree also figured in the rites of Bacchus and other fertility gods; other pine species are revered in druidic tradition and in Japan for similar reasons.


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