One of a half-dozen commercially important pine species found in the southeastern United States, longleaf pine occupies a special place in the region. It was once the dominant tree and the characteristic species of an entire ecosystem, an ecosystem which has now very largely disappeared. It is a superior timber tree, disease and pest-resistant, as well as fire tolerant.
Sometimes known by other names, longleaf pines are large trees, often reaching nearly 100 feet in height and with a diameter occasionally of almost three feet. Champion trees have a circumference of over ten feet, enough that two people can barely put their arms around the tree. The needles, as the name implies, are quite long, ranging from eight to 18 inches, nearly twice the length of those of any other southern pine. They occur, almost always, in fascicles of three. The cones of longleaf pine are also the largest of any of the region’s pines, reaching about 10 inches at maturity. Mature trees are characterized by a long, clear, symmetrical bole, a small open crown with bright green tufts of needles at the tips of stout branchlets, and a deep taproot supported by numerous wide-spreading lateral roots.
Young longleaf pines are very distinctive, the short stem bearing an abundance of needles and appearing very much like a large tuft of grass.
Depending on a variety of factors affecting growing conditions, the young pines remain in this grass stage or broom stage for a year or two, or for several years. Then, when a young tree emerges from the grass stage and begins stem elongation, height growth is quite rapid, often exceeding three feet annually.
Once covering an estimated 70,000,000 acres in the southeastern coastal plain, longleaf pines could be found from Virginia down through the Carolinas and Georgia into Florida and across the Gulf states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, west into Texas. Reaching inland from the coast, longleaf pines climbed the southern foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and reached elevations of 1,900 feet in northeastern Alabama. Habitat conditions ranged from drier sandy soils of hills and ridges in association with wiregrasses and deciduous oaks to seasonally wet flatwoods or savannas occupied by gallberry, saw palmetto, and a variety of shrubs.
Today it is estimated that only 1,500 acres of virgin longleaf pines remain in a few scattered preserves. Even if second growth forests and much-degraded longleaf pine plantations are counted, there is now only something on the order of 14% of the original acreage of longleaf pines. Still there are countless long-leaf pine trees, so the tree—as a species—is hardly endangered. But it's a different story with the ecosystem.