This article first appeared on the Usenet newsgroup soc.culture.lebanon on Fri, 13 Sep 1996
TREES OF LEBANON: UMBRELLA (STONE) PINE
by Fareed Abou-Haidar
(This the first of an occasional series highlighting the flora of Lebanon.)
The Cedar of Lebanon may be the country's symbol, but it is rare and grows in remote areas. I will not be talking about the Cedar of Lebanon, as Rania Masri has already written an excellent article about the tree and the threats it faces, available at the Al Mashriq web site at http://www.hiof.no/almashriq/ as well as at http://www.cybercom.net/%7Etonyk/Cedars/. Much more visible to most Lebanese in their daily lives is a member of the Pine family (Pinaceae, to which the Cedar also belongs), the Umbrella (or Stone) Pine, Pinus pinea. Common in the mountains, it is one of the major assets that attract people to spend the summers there. Its deep-green color, wide canopy and ample shade, distinctive aroma, and the loud cicadas ("zeez") it harbors have become the trademarks of a Lebanese summer in the mountains.
This tree grows in most part of the country below about 1200 meters elevation, but forms the densest forests in the lower mountains around Beirut and the Jezzine area, and seems to grow best in soils derived of sandstone. This explains its profusion in areas like Beit Meri, Broummana, Ras el-Matn, Dhour el-Shweir, Ain Zhalta, and Jisr el-Qadi. It can reach a height of 20 meters. It "flowers" in the late spring, and in the summer produces hard cones. In late summer, it is possible to hear the cones cracking open in the midday sun. The edible seeds (nuts) can be picked off the ground, or the cones can be harvested before they drop their seeds and left in the sun until they split open.
One of the tree's common names, Umbrella, aptly describe its shape. This is the form it takes as it grows taller and its lower branches die. In Lebanon, these dead branches are cut for firewood, with little exception. This is fine, as the danger of destructive fires is reduced. Unfortunately, the system that allows woodcutters to keep all that they take from a landowner's trees sometimes encourages the pruning of green branches too, resulting in a tall column with a bit of green on top (although I have never seen a tree die because of that; it eventually produce new branches).
The tree is so desirable that Fakhr ed-Din, in the early 1600s, replanted a whole forest of them in the sand dunes south of Beirut; the Crusaders had used it to supply wood for their war instruments in 1110. Moussa de Freij, a rich feudal lord, planted a forest of them on a barren mountaintop overlooking his house in Shemlan near which two giant trees, among the largest in Lebanon, also stood.
Unfortunately, succeeding generations have not treated the Umbrella Pine as well. The trees, which attracted people to the mountains for their summers, have been chopped down and replaced by huge apartment buildings for people to spend those summers in. Summer resorts like Beit Meri and Broummana now have fewer of the trees that attracted people there in the first place. The forest of Rabyeh has been shredded by roads and apartment buildings. Monte Verdi (Green Mountain) is in danger of losing the forest that inspired its name. The forest of Beirut for years was damaged by various human uses (camps, cemeteries, boulevards, apartment buildings), and what remained was incinerated by Israeli shelling in 1982. The mountaintop above Shemlan was damaged by construction and by people cutting trees just for the fun of it (first-hand eyewitness experience), and many more were lost due to shelling during the mountain war of the 1980s. Forest fires have always been another predator of pine trees. The steep mountain between Aley and Souk el-Gharb was a solid forest until it was destroyed by a forest fire in the early 1970s. Rock and sand quarries around the country inevitably take out pine trees. (See LebEnv #8 for details on a land slide that took place above a sand quarry and destroyed a forest in Jouret el-Ballout.) Even hunting, as practiced in Lebanon, damages pine trees when gunshot is fired into branches, breaking off twigs. In a few rare areas, I have seen trees turn yellow and die, either from a natural change in the properties of the soil and a lack of nutrients, or possibly, from some kind of pollution. Burning roadside garbage dumps have also taken a toll by suffocating nearby trees or by starting forest fires.
Still, there is some hope left. Part of the forest of Beirut has been been replanted by the government and will become a first-class park, with the help of French officials from the Bois de Boulogne. (It is presently fenced off to give the young trees a chance to grow.) Parts of the forest above Shemlan and the two huge trees at the ruins of Moussa de Freij's house survived the war even as other species of trees were cut for firewood. In the southern Bequa'a valley north of Lake Qaroun, hundreds of pine trees (mixed with Cedars and Cypress) planted as part of the Green Project before the war are now growing into mature forests.
Still, the Lebanese need to do more to protect the tiny percentage of the country that remains forested. There should be no more land-subdivision projects in forests; land owners should exchange their forests for barren government land or building rights elsewhere. At the very least, they should build houses, spaced far apart, that blend with the forest like their predecessors of the 1800s did. Tree cutting for firewood and lumber is out; our forests are too limited to support such industries. In the past, Umbrella pine trees were cut and converted into disposable fruit crates; one of the most wasteful uses of any product, similar to making throwaway cola cans out of gold. Fortunately, cutting for non-construction purposes has now been banned. Old sand quarries need to be re-contoured and planted with trees to replace the ones they removed. Better still, areas that now lack trees need to be forested.
A more radical thing to consider is the role of fire. In the U.S., many kinds of pine trees have adapted to fire by developing thick bark that acts like insulation; they even need fire for their seeds to germinate. Because fires were fought for so many decades, a lot of dead needles and branches have accumulated on the forest floor. Instead of frequent low-lying fires (ignited by lightning) that cleaned out the debris, there are now huge fires fed by the excessive debris that burns and destroys the entire forest. I am not familiar with the role of fire concerning Umbrella pine trees, but this is something that needs to be explored. If this species has adapted to fire, then we need to consider controlled fires during cool parts of the year to burn off debris and return nutrients to the soil, before the debris reaches dangerous amounts, as is being done in the U.S. to reverse decades of mismanagement.
The Umbrella Pine, when properly cared for in its first few years, can grow surprisingly fast in the right habitat, and new trees will reach a decent size within the lifetime of today's middle-aged people. There can never be too many pine trees in the mountains of Lebanon.