The etiology of the decline of eastern white pine (Pinus strobus L.) on Virginia landscapes: a survey of stress factors

TR Number



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


A decline of eastern white pine, Pinus strobus L., has been observed for over 80 years in the eastern United States. The syndrome has not always been discussed as a decline but reported under a variety of names.

Symptoms vary with time required for trees to die, but generally include chlorotic foliage, in many cases needle loss producing a tufted appearance, premature annual loss of needles, drooping of needles in some cases, shriveling of bark after a period of time, and eventual death after a period of months to years.

An investigation into the causes of decline on landscape sites in Virginia included an indexing technique to compile and analyze, systematically, pertinent data from good and poor quality sites. Over 300 variables were studied from over 100 observations to narrow down the apparent causal factors for future investigation in a controlled environment. Observations were organized into two groups for analysis, one called the “decline habitat” and the other the “natural habitat”. Natural habitat observations consisted of trees from a site in the Jefferson National Forest (VA) and decline habitat observations consisted of trees from mostly western Virginia landscapes.

After thorough study for a period of two years, a group of growth indicators were weighed against a group of site quality indicators. Growth quality indicators included: a height vs. age index, a 10-year compilation of tree ring increments and inter-branch whorl measurements converted to percent growth per year, and seasonal foliar color changes using a Munsell rating index.

Site quality indicators centered around the soils with soil pH, clay content, amounts of compaction and soil disturbance as the most prominent factors derived from the study. Soil pH averaged 6.95 with a range of 5.9-8.1 for decline habitats; while the pH averaged 5.50 with a range of 5.0-6.0 for the natural habitat. Clay content averaged 37.05% for decline sites vs. 17.76% for the natural site for soils above and in the root zones of white pines. Clay content averaged 43.99% for decline sites vs. 17.95% for the natural site for soils beneath the root zones of white pines. Soils under decline habitat trees were highly compacted with measurements as high as 1806.1 psi to penetrate some decline habitat soils, while the natural habitat soils had little if any compaction, with readings of between 138 and 273 psi. Soil disturbance was not present in the natural site while present in most decline sites. The major cause of disturbance was construction and earth-moving activities around landscape sites.

Important abiotic factors which worked in concert with soil factors included poor planting practices, competition with tree feeder roots from turfgrass, chemical pollutants, and mechanical damage by weather and man. Biotic factors were viewed as secondary agents attracted to already weakened trees after initiation of decline by the previously discussed factors.

Separate studies of seasonal foliar color changes and the initial finding of the pinewood nematode in Virginia aided in identifying additional indicators of and contributors to decline.