Home & Garden Columns

Canary Island Pine Trees Find a Home in East Bay By RON SULLIVAN Special to the Planet

Tuesday February 21, 2006

You’ve probably seen Canary Island pines around Berkeley, though I don’t know of any that are official street trees. They’re spotted in groups around the UC campus—there’s one near the Campanile—and they show up in various civic plantings, on big lawns and open spaces. They’re big trees—the largest pine native to the “Old World”—with a soft look when they’re mature. 

That soft look comes mostly from their big, rather droopy needles, held on flexible horizontal branches. They’re less stiff than the average pine’s, so much so they move independently in the wind and sound more like a sigh than like oncoming traffic. The reddish bark laced with golden irregular grooves adds a glow to the deep-green foliage. Altogether romantic in a gentle, almost tropical-island way.  

They’re not quite tropical; they do in fact hail from the Canary Islands, just off north Africa, which have a Mediterranean climate. Several plants from the Canary Island and nearby are common in our landscapes here. Just offhand, there are these Pinus canariensis pines; Phoenix canariensis, Canary Island date palms; those big bush blue- or pink-flowered echiums, E. fastuosum, “pride of Madera” and E. wildpretii, “tower of jewels,” also called “pride of Tenerife.” Well, someone ought to be proud, that’s quite a plant too. 

The pines originate in the altitude belt just above the fog influence and below the alpine mountainous parts of those volcanic islands, but they don’t seem to mind living in the fog here, and in the decidedly non-volcanic clay soils we have.  

The Canary Islands, by the way, aren’t named after the domestic songbird canaries; they’re named after dogs,—remember “Cave Canem”?— and canaries are named after the islands. So Tweety is a bird named after a dog’s namesake. Stuff like this makes etymology almost as much fun as entomology.  

They’re mostly ornamental plantings here, but are used for lumber in other parts of the world including their homeland. Predictably, it’s escaped cultivation to become an invasive species in Australia and South Africa. The tree’s not hardy below 10 or 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The red heartwood of Canary Island pines, at least in their original range, is so dense it sinks in water—unusual in any tree, more so in “softwoods” like pine. They stump-sprout easily, and so recover from wildfires.  

Knowing a tree as an individual is one thing; in a forest anchored by its species, whole new aspects of its character show themselves. The original pine forests on Tenerife and Gran Canario are the world’s only habitat for a handsome little bird, the blue chaffinch, Fringilla teydea, in the Canaries also called “Teide finch.” It’s so determinedly resident in these western-Canaries forests that the only extralimital records that my references have are in the eastern Canaries. By way of perspective: we get extralimital birds here all the time; there’s a tufted duck in Aquatic Park right now that came, at a conservative guess, from Siberia to Berkeley instead of to Japan or south China for the winter; and a northern waterthrush that ought to be in eastern Mexico. 

Learning that the “true” chaffinch, F. coelebs, has a couple of subspecies there, and of course the more widely distributed Tweety canary, Serinus canaria, exists there as a wild bird with an intricate song (if a more subtle yellow-brown plumage) suggests it might be fun to bird the place. It has interesting plants, too, related to some of our landscape favorites: a rockrose, a different echium, some pretty legumes.  

That will be easier to do now that restoration efforts are happening. Also predictably, much of the old forests got clear-cut, taking who-knows-what unique systems with them. But Canarians are catching on to nuances like the place of the pines in their water cycle, catching rain and holding it in effective soil reservoirs, nurturing an understory that does the same. On small, rocky volcanic islands in saltwater seas, this might get attention faster than on a big soil-rich continent. Let’s hope the powers that be in our own place—that’s us, theoretically—catch on and act to preserve and restore, before we lose more of what we thrive on.