“The average American’s view of the natural communities of the Southeastern U.S. is that it is comprised mainly of swamps, alligators and big, old moss-hung cypress trees. On the contrary to this view, when early explorers visited the southeastern region they saw “a vast forest of the most stately pine trees that can be imagined, planted by nature at a moderate distance. . . enameled with a variety of flowering shrubs.” Fire defined where the longleaf pine forest was found and fostered an ecosystem diverse in plants and animals. - The Longleaf Alliance The Big Picture“
Considered to be one of several species grouped as a Southern Yellow Pine native to the southeastern United States, the habitat of the Longleaf Pine stretches along the coastal plain from eastern Texas to southeast Virginia and into northern and central Florida. Today these pines can grow 98-115 ft tall and have diameters up to 28 inches. However, it has been reported that in the past they could reach heights of up to 154 ft with diameters of almost 4 ft. It takes 100 to 150 years for a Longleaf Pine to reach maturity, and it is possible for these trees to live up to 500 years.
The needles of the Longleaf pine are known for their length (obviously) and can grow up to 18 inches long. Mature Longleafs naturally prune their lower branches and grow almost perfectly straight. Oddly, for the first 5-12 years of growth the Longleaf pine may not reach heights greater than one to two feet and with it’s long needles it resembles something more grass or bush like. Due to this appearance and lack of vertical growth this early stage of the pine’s life is known as the “grass stage”. At this stage the plant while very resistant to wildfires is an incredibly appealing edible for feral pigs. As it has become well known, feral pigs are currently wreaking havoc across the Southeastern United States. Apparently they always have. It is believed that feral pigs have been playing a major role in shrinking Longleaf Pine numbers since the days of the early American settlers.
The Longleaf pine is not only a preferred snack for unruly swine. It is also very useful for humans. Overtime timber harvesting has destroyed what was once one a dominant species along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America. While this pine’s timber is available in some nurseries within its natural range it is believed that only 3% of the original Longleaf Pine forest remains intact.
Since the first settlers arrived Longleaf Pine has been valued as a prize source for naval stores like resin, turpentine, and timber. Turpentine by itself having hundreds of uses in all facets of human life. As you will see in the picture below it used to be in Vic’s Vapor Rub, a long used “cure all”. The timber is valuable for its high resin content causing it to deter rot far better than many other species. Farmers have been known to dig up resin saturated, rot free tap roots from fields that had been clear cut in the century before. These taproots also hold high demand as fatwood for use as fire kindling. While extremely rot resistant this resin soaked wood is extremely flammable and structures crafted from it burn easily and very hot. This may seem odd due to the fact that while alive the tree is incredibly fire resistant and actually thrives through cycles of natural burning that take place within its environment.
Today Longleaf Pine is commonly used for construction purposes including but not limited to the creation of stringers, roof, trusses, and joists. This wood has also become popular as a reclaimed material due to it’s heavy use in the prior century. As reclaim its straight grain and medium to fine texture make it a popular choice for crafting hardwood flooring, wall paneling, and furniture.
The story of Longleaf Pine and humans is a sad one. What was once thought to be an never ending resource has been endangered for sometime. Oh how beautiful and diverse these “stately pine barrens” must have been prior to our interaction. In closing enjoy these lines from a man far ahead of his time, wilderness preservation advocate and naturalist John Muir.
‘In “pine barrens” most of the day. Low, level, sandy tracts; the pines wide apart; the sunny spaces between full of beautiful abounding grasses, Liatris, long, wand-like Solidago, saw palmettos, etc., covering the ground in garden style. Here I sauntered in delightful freedom, meeting none of the cat-clawed vines, or shrubs, of the alluvial bottoms.’
– John Muir