Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris)
Longleaf pine is typically very straight in form and as it's name denotes, it has very long needles, up to 17 inches long on mature trees (www.longleafalliance.org/anatomy.html). On adult trees, the needles form dense tufts the size of a basketball that turn skyward. In addition, the large, silvery-white buds are almost unmistakable. A large tree, easily reaching 100', it is perhaps most well known for its time in what is know as the grass stage (Preston and Braham, 2002). During the grass stage, longleaf resembles a large clump of grass, rather than a pine tree. During this stage, it is very fire resistant, as most growth is taking place below ground in the root system. Eventually, the stem elongates and the tree will grow quite quickly and again become fire restistant once over a few feet tall..
Longleaf depends on fire disturbance to eliminate competition and provide an opening in the canopy to allow the tree can come out of the grass stage. Unfortunately, the suppression of fire in the US over the last century coupled with intensive harvesting has led to a steady decline in the number of acres of longleaf in the southeast. Originally encompassing as many as 60 million acres (www.sfrc.ufl.edu/4h/longleaf_pine/longpine), longleaf now only makes up between 5 and 10 million acres of our forested land.
Longleaf pine is significant in many different facets. Originally highly sought after for naval stores, which includes resin, turpentine, and timber, longleaf is now used mostly for pilings, poles, dimensional lumber, and in pine straw production.
In addition to being harvested, longleaf pine are also associated with a rare ecosystem known as longleaf savannas or forests. These ecoystems are dominated by longleaf in the upper canopy, but have a rich diversity of life in the understory as a result of the light fires that frequently burn in the forest. Rare wildlife such as the red-cockaded woodpecker and the gopher tortoise call these savannas home along with prized birds such as bobwhite quail and wild turkey. In addition to the wildlife, native grasses and shrubs, many of which are endangered, thrive in the longleaf savannas.
Recently, we began working on a project in collaboration with the US Forest Service to test ~140 different longleaf families for genetic difference related to growth traits, disease resistance and geographic adaptability. Seed was collected from each of the families so that we can plant and eventually evaluate the genetic differences among the trees. For example, through testing, we may find that a particular family of longleaf grows much faster than other families. With this information, a landowner that's interested in growing longleaf for timber will be able plant the fast growing families so that timber can be harvested sooner than later.
Our efforts will not only directly impact landowners that want to grow longleaf pine on their property, but we also hope they will aid in the restoration of one of America's dwindling ecosystems.
"The Longleaf Alliance." longleafalliance.org. 3 September 2010. <www.longleafalliance.org/anatomy.html>.
"School of Forest Resources and Conservation." sfrc.ufl.edu. 3 September 2010. <sfrc.ufl.edu/4h/longleaf_pine/longpine.htm>.
Preston, Richard, and Richard Braham. North American Trees. 5th ed. Ames: Iowa State Press, 2002.