Longleaf pines once dominated the southeastern United States, covering 30 to 60 million acres. A wide variety of native wildlife depends on the unique longleaf pine ecosystem, including Florida mice, gopher frogs, eastern diamond-back rattlesnakes, and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
Today this stately pine has been reduced to about 10 percent of its original geographic coverage. Thankfully, recognition of the value of longleaf pine ecosystems is growing and longleaf pine is increasingly the focus of protection and restoration efforts.
Longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) can reach 125 feet in height in good soil. The bark is thick, reddish-brown, and scaly. The tree has bright green, long, flexible needles, giving it an almost weeping appearance. Equally dramatic are the large, spiny cones. At 6 to 10 inches long, longleaf pine cones are prized by florists and crafters. They also make excellent kindling, but don’t wait around for them to drop; cones can remain on the tree for more than a year.
Pinus palustris is one of the two southeastern pines with long needles, the other being the slash pine (P. elliottii). Longleaf pines take 100 to 150 years to reach mature size and can live to be hundreds of years old under ideal conditions. Their natural range spans the coastal plain, from eastern Texas to southeast Virginia, and extends into northern and central Florida. While its natural range doesn’t include South Florida, longleaf pine will grow further south, even to USDA Hardiness Zone 10A.
Longleaf pine is unique in being both a pioneer species (the first to colonize a disturbed area) and a key member of the climax community (the final, stable ecosystem). In the wild, longleaf pine forests develop a stable grassland ecosystem, home to a rich variety of plants and animals. Fire is an important part of both the ecosystem and the pine population’s health. Regular burns remove competing vegetation and expose the bare soil needed for seeds to germinate.
Planting and Care
For its first 5-7 years of life, longleaf pine grows slowly, remaining in its grass-like juvenile form. This period gives it time to develop a strong root system. Afterwards it shoots up quickly into the recognizable adult form, reaching a final spread of 30-40 feet.
Longleaf pine is not usually planted in landscapes, but often they are preserved on construction sites as specimen plantings. If you do choose to plant longleaf pines, choose container-grown seedlings over bareroot seedlings. Direct seeding is another propagation option but, with a juvenile period of 5-7 years, it may be a decade before the trees provide shade.
When planting and establish seedlings, use extreme care to avoid damaging the taproot during planting. Water frequently and control vegetation around the seedling; competition for water and space often results in tree loss. Controlled burns are unnecessary in the home landscape; controlling the vegetation can be as simple as planting the seedlings in a mulched area below mature pines.
Longleaf pines can tolerate partial shade but will grow best in a site with full sun and the well-drained, sandy soil of their native sandhill ecosystems. They are extremely drought tolerant once established and tolerate salt spray, too. Needle drop occurs seasonally, so some landscapers avoid planting longleaf near paved surfaces.
Among all the pine species of the south, longleaf pine stands out as the most disease-, pest-, and fire-resistant. This tree has no major diseases of concern and only a few pests: borers, sawflies, pine-shoot moth, pine bark beetles, and pine weevils.
For more about longleaf pines please contact your county Extension office.