Longleaf pine

Pinus palustris
Family: Pinaceae

Natural Historylongleaf pine branch
Needles of longleaf pine
Photo credit: Larry Korhnak, University of Florida

Longleaf pine is the legendary southern yellow pine of forest history. While the tall, stately longleaf pine once covered 30 to 60 million acres of the southeastern United States Coastal Plain, 200 years of logging and land clearing have greatly reduced its range. Longleaf pine takes 100 to 150 years to become full size and can live to 300 years old. Modern methods of reforestation are helping to restore longleaf pine to previously cleared land. In the future, we may expect to see more of these majestic trees in the Florida landscape.

Unlike most conifers, the first 3 to 7 years of longleaf pine growth do not involve stem elongation. Rather, it remains a fire resistant, stemless, dense cluster of needles resembling tufts of grass. The best way to differentiate longleaf pine in the grass stage from true grass species such as wiregrass (Aristida stricta) is to identify the longleaf’s thick, silver-white growth candle. The similar-colored buds 1 ½ to 2 inches long remain a good identifying characteristic in larger specimens. During the grass stage, seedlings are developing a deep taproot system below the ground and are capable of sprouting from the root collar if its top is damaged. The thick, silver-white hairs found on the buds during this stage in the longleaf’s life cycle provide resistance to fires.

Once the root system is thoroughly established, the tree begins normal stem elongation and its sprouting ability sharply increases. The taproot is usually 8 to 12 feet long upon maturity. In early growth up to 8 feet high, the seedlings become susceptible to fire damage. Once longleaf pines reach 8 feet in height, it is again fire resistant. The thick, reddish-brown, scaly bark of mature trees provides resistance by insulating the tree from the heat of fires. Longleaf pine is one of many species that thrive when periodic low-intensity fires burn through stands. The fires keep invading hardwood species from taking over the stand and simultaneously clear the ground of debris to allow for proper seed dispersal and germination.

Habitat & Range

Longleaf pine is common in flatwoods, sandhill, and upland hardwood ecosystems. It occurs naturally on nutrient-poor soils of flat and sandy sites ranging from wet, poorly drained flatwoods to dry rocky mountain ridges below 660 feet in elevation. While stands of the longleaf pine-turkey oak ecological communities are found throughout Florida, they are most common in the central portion of the state north of Lake Placid and in the interior area of the panhandle. Longleaf stands are home to a great diversity of grasses and shrubs in the understory.

Wildlife Use

A wide variety of wildlife depends on the longleaf pine-turkey oak ecosystem. Fire plays a major role in the development of this community, and is essential to the survival of certain wildlife species, too. Gopher tortoises, Florida mice, gopher frogs, and eastern diamond-back rattlesnakes are among the native animals in the ecosystem. Endangered species such as red-cockaded woodpeckers and indigo snakes are threatened by the loss of the longleaf pine habitat. The seeds are an excellent food source for squirrels, turkey, quail, and brown-headed nuthatches.

Human Use

The longleaf pine is one of the largest and well-known southern yellow pines.  History records indicate that some of the choicest stands of longleaf were set aside by the English Crown for the exclusive use of the British Navy.  These trees were ideal for the masts and spars of sailing vessels.  The resinous materials were suited for caulking the planking of hulls and decks.  When the supply of high-grade white pine began to dwindle, lumbermen looked to southern pinelands.  By 1909, the south was the principal lumbering center of the nation. About half of the annual cut was longleaf pine.  Today, this tree is used in the manufacture of various products.  It is also a very important component of the habitat of the red cockaded woodpecker.


 

Identifying Characteristics

Size/Form: Longleaf pine is a medium to large tree that reaches a height of around 40 meters, with a trunk just under a meter in diameter. The crown is characterized by the pompom- or basketball-shaped tufts of needles at the ends of stout twigs. The bole is long and clear, and the numerous, wide-spreading lateral roots support a deep taproot. Within the first 3 to 7 years of development, the aerial portion of the stem consists of a cluster of needles which resemble a large tuft of grass. This stage of this tree's development is commonly known as the grass stage. Once the root system has become thoroughly established, normal stem elongation begins.
Leaves:
Pines have long needle-like leaves that are held in bundles called "fascicles" with a sheath holding the needles together at the base. The first steps toward identifying each species are 1) measuring the length of the needles, 2) counting the number in a fascicle, and 3) measuring the length of the sheath. Be sure to check a few branches to get an average for the whole tree.

Longleaf pine gets its common name from its needles which can be up to 45 cm long and are among the longest of any pine. Generally the needles are 20 to 30 cm long and and borne in fascicles of 3 (or rarely 2). They are shiny yellowish green, flexible, and slightly twisted. The fresh sheath is 2-3 cm long. The needles last about two years on the tree.

Twigs: The twigs are thick (1.5-2.5 cm) and orange-brown. They end in large, silvery winter buds.
Bark: The bark is thick, orange-brown, and scaly. The scales are thin and papery. The bark is plated on the largest trees.
Cones:
All pines are monoecious, meaning that they bear both seed and pollen cones in separate structures on the same plant. The seeds cones can be "serotinous" (meaning that they remain closed at maturity and only open in response to a fire) or they can be "nonserotinous" (meaning that they open to release the seeds as soon as they are mature).

On longleaf pine, the pollen cones are 2-6 cm long, purple, and many-clustered.

The young seed cones are dark purple and generally appear in pairs or in clusters of 3 or 4. Mature seed cones are 15-25 cm long, egg-shaped, and ripening from green to a dull gray brown. The exposed part of each scale is diamond-shaped and flat, with a sharp spine in the middle. The cones are nonserotinous and usually fall soon after maturity.

Seeds: The seeds of longleaf pine are 9-12 mm, with an attached wing adding 25-30 mm.
Similar Trees on the Florida 4-H Forest Ecology Contest List:
There are four pine species on our list.
  • Loblolly Pine has needles in fascicles of 3. The needles are 4 to 9 inches long.
  • Longleaf Pine has needles in fascicles of 3 or occasionally 4. The needles are 8 to 18 inches long.
  • Pond Pine has needles in fascicles of 3 or occasionally 4. The needles are 4 to 8 inches long.
  • Slash Pine has needles in fascicles of 2 or occasionally 3. The needles are 5 to 12 inches long.

 

Images

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long leaf pine bark longleaf pine sappling
Larry Korhnak
University of Florida
Larry Korhnak
University of Florida
Erich G. Vallery
USDA Forest Service - SRS-4552
Bugwood.org
Ricky Layson
Ricky Layson Photography
Bugwood.org

 

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