Unknow story of Pinus cembra

Pinus cembra is a favourite tree of many people living particularly around Alps and Carpathians. There are many stories about this magnificent tree well known among the people. However, the following story about prehistory, evolution, close relatives and distribution of this tree is not so well known. The new window of knowledge can be open – now. 

Pinus cembra is currently part of the European mountain forests all over the Alps and rarely also in Carpathian. It is common in the mountain forest in the Alp, in the Carpathian is growing only in small fragments in the highest parts of mountain. It is very dominant trees and has significant importance in nature conservation efforts. 

Its presence contributes to biodiversity by providing habitats for various species in mountain ecosystems. Additionally, this tree aids in soil protection and erosion prevention in steep mountainous regions. Besides that, has a significant cultural value. For many people it is symbol of nature conservation in the high mountains. 

Research proofed that in Alps the Pinus cembra was present already 85,000 years before our era.

Pinus cembra in Europe and Siberia

Today Pinus cembra grows only on selected areas in Europe. In Siberia it is much more common tree. But in the very past history was one of dominated tree in the areas between Alps and central Siberia.

Europe: Research proofed that in and around the mountains of central Europe (as Alps and Carpathian) Pinus cembra was present already 85,000 years before our era. In that period, it was part of the central European taiga forests together with larch, spruce and likely also dwarf pine. 

Siberia: Pinus cembra subspecies (sp.) sibirica was likely present in Siberia also already in that period. It is assumed that in that period Pinus cembra sp. sibirica was dominant tree one huge area, from the European mountains to distant Siberia.

Dramatic prehistory

In the distant past, during the time when in Europe changed glacial and interglacial periods, Pinus cembra grew on vast territories stretching from Europe to Siberia. This area was gradually divided into two separate units. One for Pinus cembra in Europe, the other for Pinus cembra ssp. sibirica in Siberia. That is why these species and subspecies of trees growing today in two distant areas are so similar. The reason is their common evolutionary origin.

Climatic changes in prehistoric times resulted in gradual adaptation to specific conditions in Europe and Siberia. This process gave rise to two different regional forms, which are now generally described as two closely related subspecies: Pinus cembra in Europe and Pinus cembra sibirica in Siberia.

Even today, when they areals are significantly separated (the distance between Pinus cembra in Europe and Siberia is more than 2000 km), the study of their common origin reveals the complex evolutionary processes shaping these species and subspecies.

Today Pinus cembra grows only on selected areas in Europe such as in Gorgany Wilderness in Ukraine

Pinus cembra life in the past

The distribution of Pinus cembra today significantly copies areas strongly influenced by the presence of glaciers in the past. The historical glaciation thus prety much identifies the territory where the area of Pinus cembra extends today.

For example, in the Carpathian region, glaciers were formed mainly in the Tatras (Slovakia, Poland), East Carpathia (Ukraine) and in the Transylvanian part of South Carpathian (Romania). These areas used to be original and also current home territory of Pinus cembra.

Similar situation can be observed in Alps. In the past, mountain glaciers were much more common and much larger as we know them today.  They covered extensive territories spreading in French, Italian, Swiss, German, Slovenian and Austrian Alps.  Majority of these areas used to be original and also current home territory of Pinus cembra.

Large, lower parts of the Carpathians and plains around Alps were ice-free but influenced by the surrounding glaciated mountains. Remarkable impact of the glaciers in the past is documented on the great Hungarian plain, where the remnants of Pinus cembra forests were found. 

These findings illustrate that during glaciation periods when extensive areas in central Europe were either covered or influenced by glaciers, the subalpine and alpine subarctic climate likely dominated whole central Europe.

Distribution in Europe and in Siberia

There are several distinct Pinus cembra distribution differences between the European and the Siberia subspecies. One of them is their current geographical distributions. In Europe today, it grow in mountainous regions of the Alps and Carpathians, usually at higher altitudes and near the climatic tree line. 

In Siberia, it grows in cold and boreal environments and is spreading through the Siberian taiga from the Urals Mountain through central Siberia to the Altai Mountain and the northern part of Mongolia. This expansion reflects the adaptation of both subspecies to specific ecological niches within their respective regions.

Pinus cembra family

Scientists have identified Pinus cembra as a species of pine in Europe and Pinus cembra sibirica as a subspecies with distribution mainly in the central and southern part of Siberia. This situation is likely caused by gradual adaptation to the specific climatic conditions and their changes during the period of glaciation and subsequent isolation.

In addition, another relative of Pinus cembra grows in the far east of Siberia, with name Pinus pumila. It can be found at the upper limit of forests in eastern Siberia, grows in a tundra climate and extends to Kamchatka, Sakhalin Island, North Korea, and also to the northern part of Japan.

In these far-eastern localities, it grows at the upper limit of the forest up to an altitude of 1,000 m. It has a bushy shape and creeping trunks are long several meters. The creeping branches rise at the end, similar to the Central European Pinus mugo.

The commonalities of these 3 pines 

The common feature of all three pines are the thick, long needles growing in 5 needles in one bunch.

Another common feature are cones. Cones do not have seeds with wings like most pines and conifers, but robust cylindrical cones in which nuts are hidden. Siberian pine cones are up to 50% larger than Pinus cembra pine cones in Europe. In Russia, these nuts are often collected, shelled and sold as food under the name ‘kedr” nuts. They are eaten raw or used in confectionery or as a flavouring for the alcoholic drink kedrovka. Sometimes oil is also pressed from them.

The size and trees shape are different. Pinus cembra sibirica, with a height of 25-30 meters, is the largest. Pinus cembra in European condition grows to a height of around 15-18 meters and long snake-like trunks of Pinus pumila with shrubby habitus reach up to 23 m. All 3 pines grow on low-fertile soils.


The stories of these pine trees bear witness to the dynamics of natural events. By their presence in mountain conditions, they contribute to biodiversity by providing habitats for various species in mountain ecosystems. In addition, they help protect the soil and prevent erosion in steep mountainous areas. They have also significant cultural value. For many, they are a symbol of wilderness in high mountains and remote corners of our planet.

Pinus cembra forests existed on the territory of Europe already in the pre-glacial period. Evidence of his presence in this period is very rare and very complicated to obtain. Old fossilized finds of limba were found in Lower Austria, in the mountains of Silesia or in caves near Krakow. The finds from the period after the end of the Ice Age come from bogs that preserved the remains of Pinus cembra. These finds are often located above the current mountain tree line. The most beautiful finds were found in the area of the Tyrolean mountains.

Vlado Vančura, European Wilderness Society

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