Once upon a time, longleaf pine, Pinus palustris, was a big deal. So big, it was the dominant species in a forest that covered 90 million acres through nine southeastern states, including Florida. So important it became the official tree of the Tarheel State.
That vast forest has mostly disappeared but longleaf pine is still a big deal economically, culturally and environmentally. It even has its own fan club. Really. Down South Florida way, it is a rarity, found growing as a native plant in only a few places but still used in landscaping as an accent tree. It's a distant third among the three native pines that grow here. In fact, the trees on this page, photographed at Delray Oaks Natural Area, were planted on the site years ago.
Longleaf is a long-lived tree, as long as 300 years, with bark that is orange-brown or gray and scaly. The needles are six to 18 inches long — hence the name — and are usually in bundles of three. The cones are six to 10 inches long; the tree itself can top 100 feet, with a diameter of two-and-a-half feet. It has a tap root that can be 12 feet deep and extensive lateral roots.
It's been said the tree itself is unimpressive, but in its natural habitat where fires occur on a regular basis, a longleaf pine forest is "most attractive and majestic." Regular fire is critical to longleaf because it can't tolerate either shade or competition, and fire eliminates both. A longleaf forest naturally has the look of a well-manicured park.
The tree is incredibly useful. For one, its trunk is straight, perfect for making poles and cutting lumber. Its resins were used to make naval stores, such as turpentine, tar, pitch and rosin (hence the tar of the Tarheel State) and to build ships. It's also been used to make pulp. The "straw" is used as garden mulch.
Ecologically speaking, the tree provides food and shelter to a host of birds and mammals.That once-upon-a-time 90-million-acre longleaf forest shrank to about 2.8 million acres by the early 1990s. It has increased since to 3.2 million. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been encouraging private landowners to plant longleaf pine on their property. Some are reluctant because it doesn't grow as other pines, particularly when young. It goes through a "grass stage," where it literally looks like a clump of grass. It has no stem at that point, and won't until the taproot gets to be about an inch in diameter. Depending, the young tree might remain like this anywhere between one and seven years. But the benefits it affords far outweigh the negative.
Longleaf pine is a member of Pinaceae, the pine family. Other common names include Longstraw pine, southern yellow pine, Longleaf yellow pine and Georgia pine. The Longleaf Pine Alliance in fact catalogs something like 65 different common names.