Coulter pine is an evergreen conifer native to the coastal mountains from central California to the Baja peninsula and is well established within the Los Padres National Forest. Depending on the ecosystem, the trees can grow to a height of anywhere between 30 to 85 feet tall and the DBH (diameter at breast height) is normally between 12 to 31 inches. Needles occur in bundles of three and are 6 to 12 inches long. Given the proper conditions, the trees can live up to 100 years.
Coulter pine trees are most easily identifiable by their massive spiny cones, which can be as long as 20 inches and are the heaviest of any pine tree, weighing up to 8 pounds. In fact, when the Coulter pine first bears cones at an age of 10-15 years, the cones stem from the trunk of the tree because the branches are not yet strong enough to bear the weight of the cones until the tree is fully mature. Each cone carries around 150 seeds which are protected by thick, talon-like claws.
Stands of Coulter pines are most commonly found in chaparral communities on south-facing slopes and ridges anywhere from 2,000 to 7,200 feet in elevation. These pines can grow in a wide variety of soils ranging from poor to fertile and loamy to rocky, though the soils are typically dry due to the climate of chaparral ecosystems. Subsequently, mature Coulter pines are drought-tolerant, yet can survive in shade. Conversely, saplings can grow in partial shade yet require soil moisture.
Coulter pine is one of twelve management indicator species (“MIS”) the Forest Service uses to evaluate the effects of land use activities on the Los Padres National Forest. Coulter pines are fire-dependent – heat from stand-replacing fires open the cones and trigger a massive seed release, followed by seedling establishment the next spring. If fires occur too frequently in Coulter pine forests, there is not enough time for a sufficient seed bank to develop and the trees will eventually disappear from the landscape. On the other hand, if fire is excluded from the landscape for too long, then the seeds are no longer viable. Because of this delicate balance, land managers monitor Coulter pine forests to ensure that fire frequency is aligned with the accumulation of the seed bank.