Gardener's Corner: Pine Candling

Pine candles
Pine candles

Pine candles are selectively removed to create the pine's distinctive form.

You may notice at this time of year Pine trees are covered with prominent upright buds at the branch tips. These are called candles, and they are the spring growth of the tree. They are generally found growing in clusters with a dominant candle surrounded by secondary candles. Left in place, the dominant candle becomes a long straight branch and the secondary candles grow into the side branches.

April to May is when we begin the spring pruning process, or “candling,” here in the garden. This time of year we are able to take advantage of the tender new growth and snap off candles with our fingers. Simply put, candling is the act of selectively removing or reducing the size of the candle to reduce or restrict the growth of the tree itself.

It is by controlling this growth that we are able to maintain the distinctive shape of the pine trees. When the dominant candle is removed, the growth of the mature branch is shortened. Without having to use its energy to grow this main branch, the tree can now put more energy into the secondary candles. When shortened, these secondary candles produce shorter and denser growth further lending to the form.

All of this spring growing and finger pruning sets the stage for the Pine pruning done in the Fall. This is when we prune the woody growth and make larger decisions about form.

Our pine collection here in the Seattle Japanese Garden has around 50 specimen that we treat in this way. That’s a lot of candles!

Andrea Gillespie is a staff gardener at Seattle Japanese Garden.