I admit I’m not like everyone else. Most people go to Florida to see Disney World or just sit on a sunny beach. Roberta and I drove down there for a wedding and stopped on the side of the road several times to take dozens of pictures of longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) at various stages of growth. I shot off several rolls of film.
At that time we hadn’t spent much time in coastal Carolina where there are also significant populations of the species. The longleaf pine range extends from coastal Virginia through Florida except for the extreme south. They also spread westward to easternmost Texas and substantially inland into Georgia and Alabama.
Longleaf pines are quite unique. They undergo a grass stage. I know of no other tree that does this. For one to seven years trees resemble a clump of grass. Long needles protect a white fuzzy growth tip.
Eventually, when roots have grown sufficiently, this bud shoots vertically and the tree develops. Long flexible needles in groups of three congregate at the tips of the branches. Young seedlings and limbs almost resemble bottle brushes.
Longleaf pine seedlings tolerate fire extremely well during the grass stage. Sometimes at this time, seedlings may become infected with a fungus called brown spot needle blight. Needles shrivel and fall off. When infestations are severe young seedlings die.
This pine species generally develops straight trunks with few branches. It is the leading tree for utility pole production in the southeast. Wood density is high, making it stronger than most pines. Quality is far better than other common species like loblolly pine. Loblollies are the most common pine tree in North Carolina.
Longleaf pine also yields the highest quality pine straw for mulch. As the name indicates, this species has longer needles than any other pine species. Longer needles are easy to bale. They also keep their shiny reddish color longer. These needles last longer too, so re-mulching is less frequent.
Probably the biggest reason longleaf pine isn’t used more in pine plantations is that it can be difficult to establish. Proper planting depth is critical as are moisture levels and planting time. Once established, trees grow exceptionally on otherwise poor soils.
Like nearly all pines, longleafs are what we call shade intolerant. This means seedlings require sunlight to grow. One rarely finds young trees amongst older ones. That’s a major reason why pines are adapted to a clear-cut type harvest system. Eventually, if we selectively cut them we would have none left, since we wouldn’t reduce shade sufficiently.
Longleaf pines have other uses as well. Large cones are often used in crafts. They can be the size of footballs. Longleaf pine resin is antimicrobial and in a pinch can be used to dress cuts and scrapes.
Those desiring to increase their intake of vitamin C might wish to try pine needle tea. Steep a handful of green needles in hot water for a few minutes and enjoy the unique flavor. Too much might give your kidneys a workout. It’s also a fairly strong diuretic.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).