Longleaf pine once grew in the coastal plain from southeastern Virginia into southern Florida and west into eastern Texas, as well as in the low mountains of Alabama. This ecosystem had occupied up to 94 million acres, but by 1995 was reduced to three percent of its native range. This is mostly federal and state lands and a handful of large plantation estates.The longleaf pine ecosystem consisted of continuous open forest with a grass-covered floor that was even more diverse in species than the Amazon rainforests.
Frequent fires in its natural habitat developed the longleaf’s system of sporadic seed production. It sprouts but does not begin growth for six to 10 years. During this stage, the seedling is said to be in the “grass” stage because it looks very similar to bunch grass.These seedlings wait for some natural event that removes the canopy, providing sunlight to the forest floor and allowing the seedlings to begin to grow. During the grass stage (and any other time they are not actively growing), they can survive intense fires, as can the mature trees.
Just after the 19th century, logging companies left the cutover forests of Wisconsin and Michigan and soon decimated the vast majority of the longleaf ecosystem. Due to its slow early growth, and a basic lack of understanding of longleaf reproduction, most longleaf pine stands were converted to faster growing loblolly or slash pine.These pines can’t tolerate regular burnings, so they were protected from fire. In the areas where this took place, the complete ecosystem collapsed, as all living things in a longleaf pine ecosystem are adapted to, and very much need, frequent fire. Today, the greatest threat to the remnants of the longleaf ecosystem on federal and state lands is hardwood tree encroachment caused by fire suppression and misguided management actions.
Longleaf pines grow up to 130 feet in height and three feet in diameter. They are the longest living of all southern yellow pines, known to live more than 300 years. They produce the highest quality wood of all North American pines. Their self-pruning growth leads to few knots. Growth rings are thin and tightly spaced.
The good news is that we now understand much of the ecology of the longleaf pine, and efforts are underway to restore the habitat.