Pines for the Prairies: Mugo pine

Photo by Sara Williams. Mugo pine on the University of Saskatchewan campus.

Mugo pine (Pinus mugo) is native to the mountains of southern and eastern Europe, from Spain to the Balkans. The species name, mugo, is the old Tyrolese name for this pine. Tyrol is a region in the Austrian Alps to which it is native.

Mugo pines have been gown on the prairies for over a century. You can still see venerable specimens in older neighbourhoods. Some are as high as a two-story building. These hark back to an era when they were grown from seed and the seedlings could be extremely variable in size and height. Today’s nursery offerings are almost always “vegetatively reproduced” from softwood cuttings and are genetically identical to their parents.

(If you’re looking for a smaller upright pine, consider either Swiss stone pine (Pinus cembra) or limber pine (Pinus flexilis). Both are dense and slow growing and ideal for a smaller landscape.)

The brownish-grey bark is covered with bumpy stumps – from which older needle bundles have fallen. The green needles, in bundles of two, are rigid, slightly curved, and retained for five years or more. Their tips sometimes become yellow-green in winter. The small round cones have prickles on their scales.

Mugo pines prefer a deep loam soil but are quite adaptable, growing well in heavy clay as well as sandy soils. They are at their best in full sun. Those growing in partial shade, are often less compact. Once established, they are quite drought-tolerant.

For a denser, more compact appearance, they should be pruned each spring once the “candles” have fully elongated but before the needles have begun to emerge laterally. At least 6 mm (1/4 in.) of the candle should be left.

Larger varieties are used in mixed or shrub borders, foundations, and for mass plantings, while dwarf ones are ideal for rock gardens or perennial borders.

The species and older subspecies such as mughus and pumilo, are generally seed grown and often from different strains of seed. What’s available is a dog’s breakfast, complicated by the fact that many of these may have been pruned to look cute and dense, but will eventually grow up to fulfill their genetic make-up. As well, differentiating between var. mughus and var. pumilo depends on their flower (cone) characteristics, not on size or form. In contrast, most cultivars are dwarf, vegetatively propagated and uniform.

•   Pinus mugo mughus is a low growing form from the eastern Alps and Balkans, usually about 1.5-4 m tall and 1.5 to 3 m wide (5-13 x 5-10 ft.), but variable depending on the seed source.
•   Pinus mugo pumilio, also from the mountains of eastern and central Europe, is generally 1.5 m high and 1-2 wide (5 x 3-6 ft.), but variable if raised by seed.

The following varieties are vegetatively propagated and uniform:
• ‘Mops’ is compact and symmetrical with a neat mounded round form. Very slow growing, it is generally 1-1.2 m high with a 0.75-1.2 m spread (3-4 x 2.5-4 ft.).
• ‘Slowmound’ is low and dense, very slow growing, with rich green foliage (1.2 x 2 m / 4 x 6 ft.)
• ‘Compacta’ is dense and globular (2 x 4.6 m / 10 x 15 ft)

Retired from the University of Saskatchewan, Sara’s most recent book is Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens with Bob Bors. She’s been hosting garden tours for over 20 years – to Great Britain, Ireland, Europe, Turkey and Iceland. Join her for a tour of French gardens this September [Contact Ruth at 1-888-778-2378,]

This column is provided courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society (SPS; ). Check our website ( or Facebook page ( for a list of upcoming gardening events