Skip to main content

U.S. Forest Service

Foxtail Pine Subalpine Woodland

Northern foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana ssp. balfouriana) is found only in high elevation subalpine woodlands and open forests of the Klamath Mountains. Foxtail pines are erect, have flattened crowns, and thick branches growing at odd angles reflecting their lifelong exposure to high winds and heavy snows. The needles of foxtail pine are tightly bunched along the branches, in bottlebrush style; hence the common name.

These trees can reach amazing sizes, rarely very tall (30 to 40 feet), but very big in girth. When they die, they can stand for centuries, white and stark against the sky. The largest known foxtail pine, 76 feet tall and over 8 feet in diameter, grows on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

Stonewall Pass in the eastern Trinity Alps Wilderness. Foxtail pine subalpine community on Mt. Eddy. Photo by Hugh Safford.

Foxtail Pines on South China Mountain. Foxtail Pines on South China Mountain. These foxtail pines exhibit the typical growth form of high elevation pines. Note the trees are erect, crowns are flattened, and the branches are growing at odd angles in the direction of the prevailing winds. Photo by Carl Skinner.

A foxtail pine woodland exhibiting rock outcrops of peridotite rock and scantily vegetated serpentinized mineral soils. A great view of a foxtail pine woodland exhibiting rock outcrops of peridotite rock and scantily vegetated serpentinized mineral soils. Note the characteristic gray-green color of the serpentine rock outcrop on the nearby slope. Photo by Carl Skinner.

View of Mt. Shasta from near the summit of South China Mountain. A view of Mt. Shasta from near the summit of South China Mountain. Note the smaller young foxtail pines. Photo by Carl Skinner.

On the highest ridges and craggy peaks (7,800 to 8,000 feet), foxtail pines exist in scattered open, woodlands. The surface of the ground is composed peridotite rock and bare mineral soil in varying degrees of serpentinization. In these stands, foxtail pine is the dominant tree species. Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) can occur as scattered individuals. In many locations, foxtail pine occurs in pure stands. The average canopy cover of the overstory is 20 percent.

The understory is composed of a scattering of shrubs and herbs within a mosaic of extensive, rocky, bare ground. At the higher elevations, shrubs are typically absent but at the lower elevations of this plant community, they are more commonly encountered, with a canopy cover of 20 to 25 percent. The shrub layer is composed of, pinemat manzanita (Arctostaphylos nevadensis), the dominant shrub encountered in the foxtail pine subalpine woodland, with occasional huckleberry oak (Quercus vaccinifolia). Although the ground cover is quite barren and stark, one can find Drummond’s anemone (Anemone drummondii) and spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa) scattered among the foxtail pines. The bizarre-looking Siskiyou milkvetch (Astragalus whitneyi var. siskiyouensis) is regularly found among the rocks.

Perhaps surprisingly, two ferns are regularly seen in this harsh environment: Lemmon’s sword fern (Polystichum lemmonii) and lace lipfern (Cheilanthes gracillima). These two ferns can be found growing among peridotite rock outcrops in the foxtail pine subalpine woodlands.

Very rare plants (G1G2) found with foxtail pine include Trinity buckwheat (Eriogonum alpinum), a serpentine endemic and imperiled plant species (G2) known from Mt. Eddy and Cory Peak in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, and Mt. Eddy draba (Draba carnosula), a serpentine endemic and imperiled plant species (G2) known only from northwestern California. Other Klamath-Siskiyou regional endemic companions to foxtail pine are Siskiyou buckwheat (Eriogonum siskiyouense), and Siskiyou fireweed (Epilobium siskiyouense).

Climate Change

There are two subspecies of foxtail pine, the Klamath Mountains' Pinus balfouriana ssp. balfouriana and the Sierra Nevada's Pinus balfouriana ssp. austrina, both classified as "paleoendemics". Paleoendemic species are those that were once widespread, but due to climatic changes (e.g. glacial periods) became confined to discrete geographic areas.

The foxtail pine subspecies are remnants of an extensive subalpine forest that existed in the mountains of California ten to twelve million years ago. As climate changed, foxtail pine’s distribution contracted to its present day distribution, in the northern Klamath Mountains and many miles south in the Sierra Nevadas, with the two subspecies over 300 miles apart.

This species is an example of an indifferent or bodenvag taxa as it can occur on serpentines (as in the Klamath Mountains) or off serpentines (as in the Sierras).

Foxtail Pine Pinus balfouriana, foxtail pine, the paleoendemic of Mt. Eddy’s serpentine. Photo by Carl Skinner.

Photo Gallery

Our thanks to CalPhotos and its many contributors for many of the pictures in this photo gallery.

  • Anemone drummondii

    Anemone drummondii. Photo by Steve Matson.

  • Astragalus whitneyi var. siskiyouensis

    Astragalus whitneyi var. siskiyouensis. Photo by Julie Kierstead Nelson.

  • Cheilanthes gracillima

    Cheilanthes gracillima. Photo by Steve Matson.

  • Draba carnosula

    Draba carnosula. Photo by Dr. Dean William Taylor, Jepson Herbarium.

  • Epilobium siskiyouense

    Epilobium siskiyouense. Photo by Norman Jensen, Photo·grafica botanii.

  • Eriogonum alpinum

    Eriogonum alpinum. Photo courtesy of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

  • Eriogonum siskiyouense

    Eriogonum siskiyouense. Photo by Ken DeCamp.

  • Phlox diffusa

    Phlox diffusa. Photo by Julie Kierstead Nelson.

  • Polysticum lemmonii

    Polystichum lemmonii. Photo by Norman Jensen, Photo·grafica botanii.