Florida's Native Pines
The pine family (Pinaceae) is a group of cone-bearing plants (conifers) known for its diversity and hardiness. They are perennial, evergreen, and woody trees and shrubs. Although most conifers are better adapted to cool climates, Florida does have seven species of native pines.
Below are some interesting facts about each of our native pine species. A handy rule of thumb for telling Florida's pines apart is that pines with names that start with "S" generally have needles grouped in twos. Pines starting with "L" generally have needles grouped in threes. Slash pines, beginning with "SL" have an even distribution of needles in twos and threes. We'll share some more identifying features below. For a more in-depth look at Florida's native pines and some introduced species, too, we recommend the UF/IFAS publication "Common Pines of Florida."
Slash pine (Pinus elliottii)
Found in every zone, 7A through 11, the slash pine is a staple of Southern landscapes. Pinus elliottii var. densa, also called "Dade County pine," dominates South Florida and the Keys. The "typical" slash pine (P. elliottii var. elliottii) is common in the cooler half of Florida, and all the way up to the Smokey Mountains.
As noted above, slash pines of the elliottii variety produce needles in bundles of two and three. Its single cones remain on the tree for one season only, which is helpful in telling them apart from another common Pinus, loblolly pine. The densa variety of slash pine produces needles mostly in bundles of two but identification is still possible. The only other pines common in its range have either much shorter needles (sand pines) or three needles per bundle (longleaf pine).
Fast-growing, self-pruning, and regularly reaching 75 - 100 feet tall, slash pines were the first choice for Florida's tree farmers. They were prized by shipbuilders, too, and the name "slash" pine comes to us from the resin and turpentine industry. Harvesters would cut an angled "slash" in the wood and collect the resin that oozed out. Resin is no longer a major industry in Florida, but scarred slash pines survive in old pine stands.
Sand pine (Pinus clausa)
True to its name, the sand pine is found in sandy areas throughout Florida. Look for this species in zones 7A through 10B. Unlike longleaf and loblolly pines, sand pines are small to medium-sized trees. While they can reach heights of 100 feet they are more often seen in the range of 15-40 feet. They do not self-prune their lower branches, keeping a conical form. Sand pine needles are only 2-3 inches long, short for a Florida pine. Many specimens have twisted trunks and branches.
The Choctawhatchee variety of sand pine is considered the best native pine Christmas tree. When they are grown for this purpose the trees are sheared and pruned into conical shape. Choctawhatchee sand pines are also the pine of choice for restoration projects because they survive transplanting so well.
Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris)
Longleaf pines are found in USDA Hardiness Zones 7A through 10A. At one point, forests of longleaf pine covered upwards of 60 million acres in the Southeast. Today, urban development and fire suppression limit these forests considerably.
As their name suggests, longleaf pines have the longest needles of the Florida pine species — up to 14 inches long. These trees can reach 125 feet high, though there are more often seen around 60. Longleaf pines make impressive specimen plantings in the landscape. They are also appreciated for their large pine comes and pine nuts.
After longleaf pine seedlings sprout, they spend up to twenty years in a juvenile phase, growing low to the ground. In this stage they look for all the world like a clump of grass. Although most tree species spring up quickly, this waiting period provides the longleaf pine with an advantage. You can learn more about longleaf and these adaptations to fire-prone landscapes in our feature article on longleaf pines.
Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda)
Found in zones 6B through 9B, loblolly pine is today's most common choice for pine plantations. In the landscape this giant often reaches between 50 and 80 feet tall, but can grow up to 100 feet, with a graceful, spreading crown. It prefers loamy soil and is almost never found in wet ground or sand pine scrub areas. Because loblolly quickly colonizes abandoned fields it is also called "old field pine."
For landscapers interested in a smaller loblolly specimen planting the cultivar 'Nana' reaches only 8 to 16 feet in height. The form is dense and rounded, and as a native cultivar it is an excellent resource for wildlife. These smaller loblollies do not self-prune their lower branches so a grouping of them can be used as a screen planting.
Pond Pine (Pinus serotina)
Found in North and Central Florida, the pond pine prefers poorly drained flatwoods and pond edges. Pond pines are sometimes mistaken for loblolly pines because of the similarities in their needles. Both species produce needles about 5-6 inches long and in bundles of three, or occasionally two or four. But pond pine cones are smaller, only 2-3 inches, and more egg-shaped.
The cones of pond pines are well worth some extra attention. They are called "serotinous," meaning they open in response to fire. In fact, the cones may remain closed on the tree for years, suddenly opening when fires clear the brush beneath them. You can witness this phenomenon at home if you heat the cones. Either bake them in the oven at 333-336ᵒ F or dip them in boiling water for about 20 seconds.
Spruce pine (Pinus glabra)
Named for the silver-gray bark that reminded naturalists of spruce, spruce pines are one of Florida's least common pines. They are found in zones 8A through 9B, generally among loblollies and hardwood trees. They are the most shade-tolerant of Florida's pines, though they can reach an impressive 115 feet high at maturity. To distinguish spruce pine from similar species, look for open cones that persist in the canopy. Twisted needles grow in bundles of two, and are four inches long or shorter.
Shortleaf/yellow Pine (Pinus echinata)
Found only in North Florida west of the Suwannee River, shortleaf pine grows naturally in only a very small area of Florida. They occupy the same range and habitat as spruce pine, however, making identification tricky. Tell these two part by looking at the bark of mature trees. Spruce pines have silvery gray bark but shortleaf pines remain reddish brown. The clustered cones of shortleaf are also short, only 1.5 to 2.5 inches long, the smallest of any Florida pine.
When in doubt, you'll find that your county Extension office is always happy to help with plant identification.