Saving the Longleaf Pine

By Larry Nau

Learn about the replanting efforts for one of nature's valuable conifers.

A closeup of the conifer, longleaf pine (Pinus palustris)
A closeup of the conifer, longleaf pine (Pinus palustris)

The longleaf pine, Pinus palustris, once dominated the landscape from Virginia to east Texas, covering an estimated area of over 90 million acres. With the arrival of the British explorers in 1607 and their subsequent exploitation and destruction of the longleaf pine forests, this tree virtually disappeared in many areas. In cultivation, Pinus palustris has no registered cultivars and is, therefore, seldom grown by ACS members.

However, the tree has many desirable attributes, particularly in the “grass stage." The species features 8" to 20" needles, with 6" to 10" cones. The tree itself grows to a height of 130'. Longleaf pine is an imperiled species, and the American Conifer Society has made its first contribution toward the re-establishment of this historic and important conifer.

The History of a Prized Conifer

When John Smith and other British explorers arrived in 1607, they were searching for gold and silver in Virginia. They did not find gold, but they did find another valuable resource, the longleaf pine.

From the longleaf pine came naval store products such as pitch, tar, and turpentine which were then sent to England. Since England was quickly becoming the dominant naval power of that era, these products were critically important to their growing fleet.

Soon the naval store industry was exerting a huge toll on the longleaf pine forests through the destructive harvest of pine resin. Next, the trees were logged. The longleaf has exceptional straightness and strength in its timber, which was highly prized in the booming ship building industry and for construction by the colonists pouring into the American Southeast.

The forests were eliminated so that agricultural crops could be planted to support the growing human population. Forest regeneration was stifled by the presence of feral hogs which fed on the roots of the longleaf seedlings. Lastly, fire was suppressed, which is a critical component of the longleaf ’s growth and development.

A wider shot of the conifer, longleaf pine (Pinus palustris)
A wider shot of the conifer, longleaf pine (Pinus palustris)

The Longleaf Pine and a Conifer Ecosystem

In Virginia alone, it’s estimated that by 1850 more than one million acres of longleaf pine forest had disappeared. Today there are fewer than 2,000 mature Pinus palustris remaining in the natural forests of Virginia. Pinus palustris has been eliminated from its northern most range in the USA. Longleaf pine forests are an important component of the ecology of the American Southeast.

It is a keystone species and mediates fire effects which provide habitat for a wide variety of plant and animal species including bobwhite quail, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and Bachman’s sparrows. Since the forests often contain seepage bogs and flatwoods, Mabee’s salamanders, pitcher plants, and sundews can be found.

Species of orchids, lilies, wildflowers, and sedges also proliferate. Longleaf pine can live for more than 300 years. As a result, they may be most helpful for long-term carbon sequestration. The utilization of carbon is not only good for the Southeast, but our entire planet.

Seedling of the conifer, longleaf pine (Pinus palustris)
Seedling of the conifer, longleaf pine (Pinus palustris)

Restoring Conifers and Biodiversity

There are many efforts directed toward the restoration of the Pinus palustris. The federal government, numerous environmental groups and even private landowners have partnered to replant the longleaf pine. One such effort is located in Virginia’s Sussex County at the 232 acre Joseph Pines Preserve (JPP). Inside the Joseph Pines Preserve, over 60 acres of land have been cleared and burned to plant over 10,000 native, Virginia longleaf pine trees.

Seed was collected from the last long-leaf pine trees in Virginia. These seedlings were raised in Woodford, Virginia. In addition, the goal of the Joseph Pines is to restore the bio-diversity of the yellow pitcher plant, Sarracenia flava, to the traditional longleaf pine–pitcher plant ecosystem.

The preserve is also dedicated to capturing the entire Virginia longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) genome by grafting, fascicle rooting, or seed propagation. Joseph Pines Preserve has recently purchased an adjoining property to create The Center for Biodiversity. This facility will serve as an education and training center and will support conservation and restoration efforts.

At the 2014 Board of Director’s Meeting in Atlanta, the ACS Board approved a donation of $1,000 to the Joseph Pines Preserve from the ACS Endowment Fund. These funds will assist JPP’s efforts to propagate, replant and preserve the native Virginia longleaf pine. This donation marks the first time the ACS has actively supported an effort to conserve conifers in the wild. Thank you to the Board as the ACS fulfills another important aspect of its mission.

Photographs by Larry Nau.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Conifer Quarterly. Join the American Conifer Society to access our extensive library of conifer-related articles and connect to a nationwide group of plant lovers! Become a member for only $40 a year and get discounts with our growing list of participating nurseries in our Nursery Discount Program.