|MadSci Network: General Biology|
Firs and pines are both members of the plant family called the Pinaceae (pin-A-sea-E). The Pinaceae are part of a larger group of vascular plants commonly called conifers. The various genera (the level of classification just above species) in the Family Pinaceae are: Genus Abies -- fir (12) Genus Cedrus -- cedar (1) Genus Larix -- larch (5) Genus Picea -- spruce (9) Genus Pinus -- pine (50) Genus Pseudotsuga -- Douglas-fir (2) Genus Tsuga -- hemlock (5) The numbers in parentheses are the approximate numbers of species in each genus that grow without cultivation in North America. High altitude habitats are generally dominated by firs, spruces, and pines. There is an altitude, called the tree line, above which no trees will grow, although some, typically tree-like groups -- genera -- such as willow trees (Genus Salix, Family Salicaceae), have representatives -- species -- that grow as dwarfs or shrubs at this altitude. The exact elevation of the tree line varies geographically and locally, according to environmental factors, such as temperature and moisture. In some parts of the world, trees do not grow above 6000 ft. In others, trees will grow even above 10,000 ft. The elevation at which trees will grow also depends on the species, and these vary geographically as well. At or near the tree line, trees become stunted by the harsh environment and misshapen by the wind. This type of vegetation is called krummholz (from German for ‘bent wood’). The tree most often listed as characteristic in krummholz formations is Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii). Apparently, no one has made a big deal of high-altitude tree records by species. I conducted an extensive search for such records on-line and found nothing. I even searched the Guinness World Record site http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/ to no avail. In descriptions of high altitude communities that I have found, pines and “firs” (loosely construed to include other, non-pine conifers, including junipers (Juniperus) in the cypress family Family Cupressaceae) seem to get roughly equal time. For example, in a description of a transect of the Sierra Nevada Mountains at the Sierra College Natural History Museum in California, http://www.sierra.cc.ca.us/museum/forest2a.htm 3 pines (Western white pine, Pinus monticola; lodgepole pine, Pinus contorta; and whitebark pine, Pinus albicaulis) are mentioned as growing at the 9000 ft. level (which seems to be the highest point in the transect). The only non-pine conifer mentioned is mountain hemlock, Tsuga mertensiana. Pines win that round. The Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Service, in a fact sheet for “Trees for Mountain Communities,” http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/garden/07408.html lists 3 pines (bristlecone pine, Pinus aristata; lodgepole pine, Pinus contorta variety latifolia; and limber pine, Pinus flexilis), 2 spruces (Engelmann spruce, Picea engelmanni; and Colorado spruce, Picea pungens), a fir (subalpine fir, Abies lasiocarpa), and a juniper (Rocky Mountain juniper, Juniperus scopulorum) as hardy at least up to 10,500 ft. Given that they equivocate about the viability of several of the non-pines, pines win that round also. My personal (non-scientific) experience East of the Mississippi tells me that, most often, the non-pines predominate at the highest altitudes But that does not preclude the possibility that a few pine individuals are mixed in, perhaps at the highest reaches. In short, I don’t think you will find an answer to your question because you may well be alone in your interest. Also, because both pines and non-pine conifers grow pretty much equally well at very high altitudes, the task of determining the absolute highest in the world would be truly daunting. I hope that this answer has given you some food for thought and that its lack of finality is not too frustrating.
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