Longleaf pines making a comeback
William Bartram, a naturalist from Philadelphia, traveled across the Southeast in the spring of 1773 and described “a vast forest of the most stately pine trees that can be imagined.”
Bartram was describing the longleaf pine forest that covered the Southeast. It was the dominant pine from Virginia to Florida and over to east Texas, covering an estimated 90 million acres.
When the explorers first came to Virginia in search of gold and silver, they did not find these elements but they found the longleaf pine. From these trees came naval products: pitch, tar and turpentine. They also noted the straight, strong trunks were ideal for masts of their ships. These were most valuable to England because they were a naval power and these products were critically important to their growing fleet.
As colonies grew, logging of these tall, straight, majestic trees followed. Slowly the forests were replaced by farmland and the stately trees began to disappear. In the mid 1900s, when plantations of pines were planted, the loblolly and slash pine were planted. These trees have a more rapid growth rate and this meant landowners could harvest pines faster for pulp and lumber, and a profit was made quicker.
People who grew up in North Carolina are familiar with the longleaf pine, the native pine that filled the forest. The area was always green in the winter because the area did not have the natural assortment of large hardwoods that grow in the Piedmont and mountain areas. Longleaf pines hold a special place for me.
Many years ago, I decided I wanted to plant a few longleaf pines. My dad had always said it was superior to loblolly and I wanted the 18-inch long
pine needles to use as mulch around the house and garden. I obtained four seedlings and went to work planting. The first longleaf trees I planted are now about 40 feet in height.
I have learned over the years about planting these trees. First, they put down a deep taproot as they are starting to grow. You can plant a longleaf pine seedling and it might sit for three years and you think it is not growing, but that root is going deep into the ground. Then all of a sudden it will take off and the tree will grow quite rapidly.
I have also learned that if you plant a longleaf pine, you need a seedling, not a larger-size tree. I was once given six longleaf pines, each in five-gallon containers, and I planted all of them. They lived, but because they had not put down the taproot first, each of the trees over time fell over. The weight of the tree above ground was too much for the surface roots. They needed that taproot to anchor the tall skinny tree when it started to grow. I have found that planting a seedling is the best way to go and these small trees catch up to a larger one you might plant at the same time.
Longleaf pines are said to be a superior tree. Longleaf trees are more resistant to insect attacks than the other pines grown on the east coast. Insects drown in the thick sap that oozes from the tree when they bore a hole through the thick brown bark.
Longleaf pines are also notably more tolerant of fire, reducing the loss factor when fire roars through the forest. The long needles make superior mulch and bring a higher price per bale of pine needles. The tall, straight single trunks produce a stronger wood and are sought after for telephone poles.
Today, there is a comeback of the longleaf pine tree. If you ride through areas of the Carolinas where people plant plantations of pines, you will see more and more groves of longleaf pines being planted. People are realizing the long-term value of this majestic tree.
I will continue to plant a few longleaf pines each year and I will enjoy seeing them grow and mature. I will also enjoy the needles that they produce to put around my plants. My plants will also enjoy the high dappled shade they create which is ideal for azaleas and camellias and other plants. Longleaf pines are on the rise.