Scientific Name: Pinus palustris
Description: Longleaf pine is an evergreen conifer that got its common name for having the longest leaves of the eastern pine species. The needlelike leaves, which come in bundles of three, can grow up to 18 inches long! Mature trees stand 80 to 100 feet tall. The single trunk, which is covered in thick, scaly bark, reaches up to 3 feet in diameter. The trees naturally prune their lower branches and grow nearly perfectly straight.
Typical Lifespan: The lifespan of a longleaf pine spans several centuries. These slow-growing trees live for over 300 years, and they may take up to half that time to reach their full size.
Habitat: Longleaf pines can survive in a range of habitat types, but they prefer sandy, dry, acidic soils ranging in elevation from sea level to 2300 feet. They are shade intolerant and require sunlight to grow. When frequent fires sweep the forest, longleaf pines dominate and sometimes form pure stands.
Range: The historic range of the longleaf pine once extended from southeastern Virginia to Florida, west through Louisiana to east Texas. Today, the trees are only found within small patches of this range.
Life History and Reproduction: Seeds develop in cones and are dispersed by wind. When they fall to ground, they must come in contact with soil to germinate. In historic times, leaf litter and debris were cleared away by forest fires that were sparked during lightning storms. When fire is suppressed, ground cover buildup prevents seeds from reaching the soil, and they can’t germinate. Those seeds that are able to take root undergo an interesting life cycle that differs from most other conifers. Rather than spending its first few years growing in height, the longleaf pine goes through a grass stage. From the surface, the grass stage plant appears to be a large clump of needles that grows very little. The real work, however, is going on underground. During the grass stage, the longleaf pine starts to develop its central root, called a taproot, which will be up to 12 feet long at maturity. After going through the grass stage, longleaf pines begin to grow in height. Both mature trees and grass stage specimens are fire resistant.
Fun Fact: The Southern longleaf pine (Pinus palustris Miller) is the state tree of Alabama.
Conservation Status: Longleaf pines, which once covered an estimated 90 million acres, now cover less than 3 percent of their original range. This tree was once so abundant that it seemed like an inexhaustible resource to early settlers. Forests of longleaf pine were cleared to make space for development and agriculture. The lumber, which is of exceptional quality, was used for building ships and railroads. Most of the longleaf pines were gone by the 1920s, and they had a hard time coming back on their own because of fire suppression. Rather than replanting the longleaf pines, foresters replaced them with faster-growing pines that would produce more short-term economic benefits. Restoration of longleaf pine forests has become a major conservation priority in recent years, though. Over 30 endangered and threatened species, including red-cockaded woodpeckers and indigo snakes, rely on longleaf pine for habitat. Additionally, longleaf pines are more resilient than other southeastern pines to the negative impacts of climate change. They can withstand severe windstorms, resist pests, tolerate wildfires and drought and capture carbon pollution from the atmosphere. A number of nonprofits, government agencies, and private landowners are collaborating to restore longleaf pine forests.
Kershner, B., Tufts, C., & National Wildlife Federation. (2008). National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Trees of North America. New York: Sterling Pub. Co.
National Wildife Federation. (2009). Standing Tall: How Restoring Longleaf Pine Can Help Prepare the Southeast for Global Warming.
USDA NRCS Plant Fact Sheet
U.S. Forest Service Silvics Manual
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge
University of Florida