Floridata Plant Encyclopedia

A Floridata Plant Profile 221 Pinus palustris

Common Names: longleaf pine, southern yellow pine, heart pine, southern pine Family: Pinaceae (pine Family)
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longleaf pines
A pair of longleaf pines standing tall in Jack's front pasture.


The longleaf pine is a majestic tree with a towering, straight trunk, and a relatively small, open crown. The bole lacks branches for most of its length. Mature longleafs on the best sites can get up to 100 ft (30 m) tall with a trunk up to 3 ft (0.9 m) in diameter, but trees this size are very rare. On poor sites, longleaf pines even older than 200 years may have trunk diameters less than 12 in (30 cm). Old longleafs (more than 150 years old) tend to develop a flat and spreading crown because the tip loses its apical dominance over other branches. The needles and cones of longleaf pine are larger than in other pines: needles 12-18 in (30-46 cm) in length, and cones 7-10 in (18-25 cm) long. The needles are borne in tufts at the tips of stout branchlets. Longleaf pine is similar to slash pine (P. elliottii) but has larger cones, and the very tips of the branchlets are an inch or more in diameter, whereas the branchlet tips in slash pine are a half inch or so in diameter.

Seedling longleaf pines are unique. They show no development of a trunk for the first 3-15 years (average about 5 years) of their lives. Instead they remain in a "grass" stage while they develop a large tap root and root system. During this period, the longleaf pine looks very much like a clump of grass. When the time is right, the young pine bolts upward, as much as 3-5 ft (0.9-1.5 m) in the first year.

longleaf pine in grass stage
The longleaf pine resembles a clump of grass for the first several years of its life while it develops a long tap root.


When the first Europeans arrived in the New World, vast savannas consisting of nearly pure stands of widely-spaced longleaf pines, Pinus palustris, and a groundcover of nearly continuous wiregrass (Aristida beyrichiana - formerly A. stricta) covered some 70 million acres (more than 60% of all the uplands!) on the southeastern coastal plain from SE Virginia to central Florida to east Texas. Today only about 3 million acres remain, and this in small, isolated, degraded, second growth stands. No virgin longleafs remain. The best places to get an idea of what the pre-colonial landscape looked like are a few Nature Conservancy preserves, some Florida state parks, Tall Timbers Research Station near Tallahassee, and some of the National Forests in the southeastern U.S., especially Riverside Island in the Ocala National Forest. Individual longleaf pines (but not the intact longleaf savanna community) are still common in upland and mesic situations throughout its historic range. Today longleafs usually occur with turkey oak (Quercus laevis), invasive laurel oaks (Q. hemispherica) and slash pines (Pinus elliotii), saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), and scattered remnant sprigs of wiregrass.

Two longleaf pines in Georgia are co-champions on the American Forests' National Register of Big Trees: One near Tazewell is 87 ft (26.5 m) tall and a little less than 4 ft (1.2 m) in diameter; and one near Macon is 120 ft (36.6 m) feet tall and 3 ft (0.9 m) in diameter. Proud relics of a once majestic ecosystem.


Longleaf pine is a slow grower, taking at least 15 years before it begins to produce seeds and more than 125 years to reach full size. Longleafs can live more than 300 years. Light: Longleaf pine is a big tree that doesn't grow in anybody's shade! Moisture: Longleafs grow naturally in the driest, sandy uplands, and in wetlands that have saturated soils for 6 months of the year. Hardiness: USDA Zones 7 - 9. Propagation: On average, longleaf pines produce an abundant seed crop once every 5-7 years. Seeds that fall on bare mineral soil germinate quickly, but the seedlings remain in the grass stage for several years. Young trees will not mature unless a gap is created and they are "released" from the shade of the larger pines.
longleaf pine branch
The longleaf holds its cones and needle clusters at the tips of its branches.


Longleaf pine was the most important of the southern pines. It was the source of naval stores used to waterproof ships and sails. Early settlers burned longleaf heartwood or "lightered pine" in shallow pits and collected the boiling pitch in sunken barrels. Tar was extracted from the pitch, and those involved came to be called "tarheels", a nickname much beloved in North Carolina. Near the end of the 18th century, the settlers learned how to tap living longleaf pine trees (much like sugar maples) for the gum which was distilled into turpentine and rosin.

Longleaf pine heartwood, immune to decay and termites, was used for all kinds of construction, and many buildings made of longleaf pine heartwood decades and even centuries ago are still standing throughout the southeast. By the end of the 1920's, the virgin longleaf pines were gone, and the timber industry moved to the Pacific northwest. Today second growth longleafs are harvested for lumber, but they are not large or old enough to have useful heartwood. A small turpentine industry still collects longleaf sap for specialized uses (like oil painting), but most turpentine and related products are synthesized from crude oil.

longleaf savanna
This is a typical longleaf pine savanna.


The longleaf pine savanna (a.k.a. "sandhills", "high pine" and "longleaf pine flatwoods") was an ecological community that depended on naturally occurring fires for its existence. Lightning ignited ground fires swept across the landscape every year or two. The flammable wiregrass, which carried the fire, grew back within days after a burn. Mature longleaf pines have thick bark that insulates from ground fires, and they grew far enough apart that fire couldn't spread between their crowns. Young longleafs are vulnerable to fire only during the brief period between the grass stage (when the vulnerable growing tip is protected inside a tuft of needles) and the sapling stage, when the growing tip is above the flames. Without frequent fires, other plant species that are not tolerant of fire (e.g., turkey oak, laurel oak, live oak (Q. virginiana), water oak (Q. nigra), red maple (Acer rubrum), and slash pine (Pinus elliotii) invade the pine savanna community and out compete the longleafs and the wiregrass. When the frequency of natural fires was reduced by European settlers who created fireproof barriers like roads, fields, and settlements that stopped the progression of natural fires, and by outright fire suppression (remember Smokey the Bear?), these and other fire intolerant plants invaded the longleaf pine savanna. Today remnants of the original fire-maintained ecosystem persists only in conservation-managed areas such as state and national parks and forests, and Nature Conservancy preserves.

The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker is the only American bird that excavates its nesting cavity in a living pine tree, and nearly all their cavities were in old (more than 100 years old) longleaf pines. The woodpecker is nearing extinction because old longleafs are so rare.

Steve Christman 1/12/00; updated 3/29/03

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Pinus species profiled on Floridata:

Pinus clausa

( sand pine, scrub pine )

Pinus echinata

( shortleaf pine, yellow pine, shortstraw pine )

Pinus elliottii

( slash pine )

Pinus flexilis

( limber pine,Rocky Mountain white pine )

Pinus mugo

( mugo pine, mountain pine, Swiss mountain pine, mugho pine, dwarf mountain pine )

Pinus nigra

( Austrian pine, European black pine )

Pinus palustris

( longleaf pine, southern yellow pine, heart pine, southern pine )

Pinus strobus

( eastern white pine, northern white pine, northern pine, soft pine )

Pinus sylvestris

( Scots pine, Scotch pine )

Pinus taeda

( loblolly pine )

Pinus thunbergii

( black pine, Japanese black pine )

Pinus virginiana

( Virginia pine,Jersey pine,poverty pine,scrub pine )

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