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Why Hate The Beautiful Bull Pine?

Myths and facts about the Sierra Foothills Bull pine

From the time we moved into the mountains, I heard from neighbors and local friends about the Bull pines. Bull pines, Pinus sabiniana, are seemingly hated, seen as ugly, messy trees and reputed to somehow (?) suck water from people’s wells and aquifers. You must cut down the huge trees if you wanted to save your well water supply, they said.

A representative from The California Chaparral Institute stated that this tree does not ‘suck’ water any more than any other tree would. It’s probably not advisable to site a well close to any tree, but this tree’s reputation in our local area is undeserved! Don’t hate this tree… but recognize its quiet beauty and distinctive qualities.

A majestic Grey pine on our property line

A majestic Bull pine on our property line

The presence of several bull pines in the oak-pine community provides favorable perching and nesting sites for various hawks. Great blue herons, osprey, and bald eagles where bull pines grow near lakes, like our local Bass Lake and other wetlands.

Bull pines tend to survive better than many pines because they continue to photosynthesize during the winter months and early spring when there is lots of moisture and it loses little moisture in summer due to relatively few needles. They have an open, lacy look and don’t thrive where there is any shade or root competition so they are normally widely-spaced on a hillside.

Two young bull pines

Two young bull pines

These two young Bull pines stand in our lower 40. They haven’t formed the distinctive forked truck they will have as mature trees.

Close-up of the distinctive Pinus sabiniana bark

Close-up of the distinctive Pinus sabiniana bark

Alternate names for the Bull pine, Pinus sabiniana are ghost pine, foothill pine, grey pine, Digger pine and gray leaf pine. In our Mountain Community around Oakhurst, CA, they are known as Bull pines.

From the ‘The Original Californians’

“The term “Digger” as applied to the California Indians is a pejorative misnomer, based on the mistaken idea that they lived largely by grubbing up roots. American pioneer immigrants, seeing Indian women busy with digging sticks, were unaware that they wanted root fibers for basketmaking more often than for food. The diet of the California tribes did include certain roots and bulbs, but perhaps the real reason the Digger legend persisted was that it was easier to deprive the Indians of their lands and their lives if it could be believed that they were only miserable and subhuman creatures anyway. Racism has many insidious uses.”

New cones

The male pollen cones emerging… The large pine cones we see most often are the female seed cones

Rosin covered Bull pine cones can be 2-3 pounds

Rosin covered Bull pine cones can be 2-3 pounds

Bull pine cones are as large as a football and incredibly heavy and sharp. They can pop a car tire.

Bull pines in a swath at 3000'

Bull pines are backlit in a ribbon-like swath at 3000′. Mountains north of Mariposa, CA

Bull pines are native to dry, western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California’s Central Valley, Bull Pines can be reliably found between 1,000 to 3,000 feet. So reliable is this fact, that as you drive the back roads of the foothills, you can tell at what elevation you are. The sparse, wispy needles make Bull pines look a bit grey from a distance and their distinctive forked trunks makes them easy to spot.

Bull pines try to grow straight on steep hillsides

Bull pines try to grow straight on steep hillsides

To the logging industry, Bull pine wood is expensive to log due to the sparse stand density and therefore not highly valued, but one advantage is that their low altitude location makes them easier to harvest in winter when other pines are inaccessible.

Typical coverage on the foothills

Typical coverage of Bull pines on the hillside, mixed with Sticky-leafed Manzanita and scrub oak.

In the Sierra Nevada, Bull pines grow along with these trees:

  • California buckeye Aesculus californica

  • California scrub oak Quercus dumosa

  • California black oak Q. kelloggii

  • Interior live oak Q. wislizeni

And these shrubs:

  • Manzanita A. manzanita

  • Manzanita A. viscida,

  • Buckbrush Ceanothus cuneatus

  • Redbud Cercis occidentalis

  • Birchleaf mountain mahogany Cercocarpus betuloides

  • Silktassel Garrya fremontii

  • Toyon Heteromeles arbutifolia

  • Hollyleaf buckthorn Rhamnus crocea

  • Western poison-oak Toxicodendron diversilobum

A myriad of cones hang on the upper branches

A myriad of cones hang on the upper branches

Dramatic snowy bull pine in March

Dramatic snowy bull pine in March

John Muir in My First Summer in the Sierra: “This day has been as hot and dusty as the first, leading over gently sloping brown hills, with mostly the same vegetation, excepting the strange-looking Sabine pine (Pinus Sabiniana), which here forms small groves or is scattered among the blue oaks. The trunk divides at a height of fifteen or twenty feet into two or more stems, outleaning or nearly upright, with many straggling branches and long gray needles, casting but little shade. In general appearance this tree looks more like a palm than a pine. The cones are about six or seven inches long, about five in diameter, very heavy, and last long after they fall, so that the ground beneath the trees is covered with them. They make fine resiny, light-giving camp-fires, next to ears of Indian corn the most beautiful fuel I’ve ever seen.”


In some areas, loblolly pines and even Ponderosa pines are sometimes called ‘Bull pines.’


  1. Patricia Vallentyne

    The pine nuts from the Bull Pine are tasty and can be used in pesto

  2. Ok, ok…you have persuaded me. I no longer “hate” the Bull Pine. But it makes crappy fire wood! Your article was informative and well researched. I especially appreciated the photo of the “Snow Bull Pine”. Good work!

  3. If anyone got hit on the head by one of their big, heavy pine cones, they’d probably be killed. We have several on our property but I do not spend any time standing underneath any, haha!

  4. I disagree that the indigenous people’s were mostly digging for fiber to weave….. roots were a massive staple in many tribes diets.

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