Umbrella pines are a familiar site around Le Fort Pouzols-Minervois. The majestic trees with their characteristic canopy are native to the south of France.
Think of the south of France and you might think of rows of exotic palm trees along the coastline. In fact, until relatively recently, umbrella pines used to grow along the Mediterranean shores. Local councils had them replaced with non-native palm trees in an attempt to boost tourism.
Umbrella pines can reach up to 30 metres and have a characteristally spherical crown that is flattened at the top. Their orange-brown trunk is upright. The overall impression is indeed very much that of an umbrella.
The evergreen trees produce pine nuts, a delicacy since pre-Roman times. Evidence shows that umbrella pines have been cultivated for their pine nuts for at least 6,000 years. The cones are green on young trees, turning brown on trees aged 2 years and older.
Talking of age, you can tell an umbrella pine’s age by looking at its crown. On young trees, the crown is a bushy globe. In mid-age, the pines have their typical umbrella-shaped crown. Once mature, the crown is more straggly and flat.
The umbrella pine’s botanical name is Pinus pinea, but it is also known as the Italian stone pine, stone pine and parasol pine. The trees originally came from North Africa, but have been here for so long that they are now considered native.
Umbrella pines have become a popular ornamental feature in other parts of the world. You can see them along the coast of California and Australia, whereas in South Africa they are now considered so ubiquitous that they are officially an invasive species.
Like plane trees along the Canal du Midi and palm trees on the Mediterranean shores, the umbrella pine faces threats. The western conifer seed bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis) was accidentally imported with timber to northern Italy in the late 1990s from western USA, and has spread across Europe as an invasive pest species since then.