Longleaf Pine: The Resiliant Conifer
The Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) is an evergreen conifer tree 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! The long trunk reaches up to 3 feet in diameter. The trees naturally prune their lower branches and grow nearly perfectly straight. 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.
Longleaf pines can survive in a range of habitat types, but they prefer sandy, dry, acidic soils ranging in elevation from sea level to a few thousand feet above sea level.
The historic range of the longleaf pine once extended from southeastern Virginia to Florida, west through Louisiana to east Texas and once covered an estimated 90 million acres. Today the Longleaf Pine only covers 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 destroyed 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 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.