Krummholz is the German name that naturalists use for the form of trees that is so contorted by wind, snow, and ice that they no longer form an upright tree but rather a matte or bush of foliage. They normally occur at very high elevation or other inhospitable locations where the wind is constant and the snow is common.
Whitebark Pine (P. albicaulis) in California is confined to the high Sierra Nevada with scattered populations in parts of the Cascade range. They occur mainly above 8,000 feet elevation. On an eventful backpacking trip to the central Sierra [I was there looking for Sierra Juniper] I was surprised to find some high ridges covered in Mountain Hemlock and Whitebark Pine. While the Hemlocks have nice foliage, they do not contort, at least in this area, the way that Juniper and Pine do; instead they form lush-looking bushes or flag and matt forms. While it was fun to see the Hemlock, I was more interested in the many examples of windswept Whitebark Pine. I was even lucky enough to see a Clark’s nutcracker flitting about.
Whitebark typically grow in clumps of three to five trees because the seeds are spread by Clark’s nutcracker caching them for storage. In this clump the tree on the right looks like it might have died, but a closer look reveals…
A couple of the lower sheltered branches are still alive! The tree shows similar lifeline and deadwood characteristics to juniper in similar environments.
Hugging the side of a cliff, this tree is filling in the cracks with both roots and branches. The foliage hasn’t made it far away from the rock in this compromised site.
A twisting matte of foliage and branching, this tree started at right and has been growing to the left for many decades.
The deadwood under many of the branches is quite well textured. But, since pine wood is much less rot-resistant than juniper it’s often hollow or crumbling.
Two masses of foliage hug the rocks closely, each filling in a space that is slightly more sheltered than the surroundings.
The most impressive tree that I saw on the trip was a contorted mass of twists and turns:
Roots twisting out of the cracks in the rocks…
rotted trunk sections and more twisting wood…
...an amazing piece of twisting wood. Perhaps the twists are caused by a genetic variation, but in the end it’s just amazing.