Longleaf pines, Pinus palustris, are large evergreen conifers.
They have thick scaly bark that can reach up to three feet wide and needle shaped leaves, which are the longest of all the pines, reaching up to 18 inches long. Mature trees generally reach between 80 to 100 feet tall. Longleaf pines grow almost perfectly straight and naturally trim their own lower branches. They are most recognizable for their extremely large pine cones. The oldest longleaf pine recorded was 450 years old.
They once occupied 90 million acres of the United States.
Today, four million acres can be found in small patches through their historical range. Longleaf pines are highly adaptable to severe windstorms, able to resist pests and drought, as well as able to tolerate fire. They can be found in many different types of locations—from sea level to 2,300 feet elevation. They grow in poorly drained flatwoods all the way to rocky mountain ridges, although they prefer warm and wet climates and sandy, dry, acidic soils. In areas where wildfires or regular burns are common, the longleaf pine will dominate the forest.
There are many life stages for the longleaf pine.
The first stage is the seed stage, which starts when a pine cone drops to the forest floor in the late fall. After about a year they enter into the grass stage, when the central roots (known as taproot) can grow up to 12 feet long. This phase will last one to seven years before the bottle brush stage begins, in which they will grow a few feet in a quick amount of time and resemble a four-foot-tall bottle brush. In sapling stage, when the longleaf pines are about six to 10 feet tall, they begin to form lateral branches, and will continue to grow about three feet per year. The mature stage takes place when the tree is 30 years old, cones, and fertile seeds begin to form.
Longleaf pines generally stop growing once they have reached 100 years old.
When they are between 80 and 90 years old, they develop a fungus called heart wood. This fungus causes the dense interior of the tree to become soft, sappy, and full of channels. It is very rare that longleaf pines end up dying of old age. They live in areas where natural disasters tend to be the main cause of their death. The dead trunks are equally important to the eco system as when they are alive. Today there are over 30 species of organisms that are endangered or threatened and specifically rely on the longleaf pine habitat.
By 1920 most of the longleaf pine habitats had been cleared for development or agriculture.
Their dense heart wood was lumbered and used as building materials for ships and railroads. It takes a great amount of time for them to reach maturity. Thus, foresters began planting faster growing pines instead. Fire suppression is another reason that longleaf pines were unable to sustain their large populations. Today many organizations are working to reestablish the longleaf pine forests of the United States. For more information on how you can help, go to longleafalliance.org.