On two trips in the southern Sierra, starting at Mineral King, I found large and healthy stands almost everywhere I hiked at around 10,400 feet and above. This photo was taken just east of Franklin Pass in Sequoia National Park.
I first discovered foxtail pines on a field trip to the Southern Sierra in 2003. It was an exciting and beautiful trip in which we explored diverse plant communities. But, for me, foxtails were the highlight, to which I would return many times, to learn about and photograph the disjunct populations of this high altitude California endemic pine. Foxtail pines are limited to two relatively small areas in California, separated by 300 miles: the Klamath region of northwest California, and the Southern Sierra, primarily Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Hence foxtail pines are divided into two subspecies: the northern population is Pinus balfouriana ssp. balfouriana and the southern population is P. balfouriana ssp. austrina.There is speculation that these two populations were continuous in an extensive subalpine forest 12,000 years ago when there was greater summer rainfall (Johnston, 1994).
Both populations survive in harsh conditions and are long-lived, to over 2000 years. Foxtail pines in the Klamath region exist in a few high-elevation areas—islands—usually on serpentine soils. Southern Sierra foxtail pine is neither super cold tolerant nor super heat/drought tolerant, occupying an ecological zone between whitebark pine at the highest elevations, and limber pine in warmer, drier locations.
The Klamath population (left) and the southern Sierra population (right) are separated by over 300 miles. The bark is different enough that someone looking at just the bark might not know they were the same species.
Near the top of Mount Eddy, Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Needles are short, in clusters of five, and may stay on the tree for more than 10 years, thus achieving the foxtail look.
Needles resemble those of the closely-related bristlecone pine, and cones likewise are similar, the foxtail cones just lacki a bristle. Bristlecones grow in the White Mountains, to the east of the Sierra where the southern stands of foxtails are found.
I am curious about the age of these snags, located near the John Muir Trail, just north of Shepherd Pass Trail at about 11,000 feet, in Sequoia National Park. If the trees can live for two thousand years, how long might they remain standing after they died, and how old might be the wood on the ground? Trees like these can provide valuable information about climate history.
John Muir Trail/Pacific Crest Trail, Bighorn Plateau, Sequoia National Park, 11,200 feet. Those are small foxtails in foreground. Foxtail pines
generally grow in open stands so fire is a less significant determinant of foxtail survival than climate, although research is needed on fire ecology.
This gnarly old veteran is at about 11,500 feet near Big Five Lakes in Sequoia National Park.