Life Cycle of the Long-Leaf Pine Tree

This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on April 16, 2014 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments and find working links to other stories.
GreenpineconeMay2013-1024x768I live in a Pine Flatwoods Ecosystem and have been allowing several Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) and Slash Pine (P. elliottii) trees to naturally restore on various spots of my property. The property had been clear-cut by prior owners, sans a few of these pines.

NP-pinebloomJune2012Longleaf Pine is an evergreen, hurricane resistant tree that can reach a massive height of up to 120 ft. It is native to the southern United States from Virginia down to Florida and across to Texas.  It is monoecious (bears both seed and pollen cones in separate structures on the same plant).

There are various stages of growth in a Longleaf Pine Tree. In addition to several mature specimens I have about 15 or more that are in various growing lifecycles.

Male flower pollen cone is called a catkin.
Male flower pollen cone is called a catkin.

Seed stage: seeds are winged and are contained within female pinecones.  The male pollen cones are called catkins. The seeds are sometimes referred to as “pine nuts” and are used in cooking.

female cones contain the seeds.
female cones contain the seeds.

Grass stage: can last one to seven years, depending upon competition with other plants. This is when the root system is established. At this stage, more grows beneath the soil than above and the pine is virtually immune to fire, which is a common occurrence in pine ecosystems. Note that the tree is capable of sprouting from the root collar if its top is damaged.

In the grass stage it can sometimes be mistaken for native grasses such as wiregrass.
In the grass stage it can sometimes be mistaken for native grasses such as wiregrass.

Bottlebrush stage: a white tip, known as a candle, begins to emerge. The bottlebrush stage is when it works on gaining height, bark begins to form, but no branches are apparent. This stage can last a couple of years.

this year’s newest bottlebrush stage member
this year’s newest bottlebrush stage member

Sapling stage: As the young pine reaches 6-10 feet, it starts to form the lateral branching of this stage which lasts several years.

When lateral branches begin it starts the sapling stage.
When lateral branches begin it starts the sapling stage.

Mature stage: where they grow from 60-110 feet.  It begins producing cones when it reaches about 30 years of age or 10 inches diameter. Pinecones are fun to use in craft projects such as natural bird feeders (smear with peanut butter and roll in seeds) or sprinkle with glitter to make a lovely holiday table display.

a different tree beginning sapling stage
a different tree beginning sapling stage

Old growth: (nearly nonexistent with clear cutting in the early 1900s)

This is mature stage, bordering on “old growth” stage
This is mature stage, bordering on “old growth” stage

Death: The height of these lanky trees just begs lightening bolts to hit so they meet their demise. Other causes of death can be disturbance of root systems.  At this point they are referred to as “snags“.

When the lightening strikes, a new life stage begin for the tree
When the lightening strikes, a new life stage begin for the tree

After Death: the last stage and one that is surprisingly vital to providing for wildlife in a biodiverse ecosystem.

Pileated Woodpecker visiting snag shows why the after death stage is enchanting
Pileated Woodpecker visiting snag shows why the after death stage is enchanting
pine straw
pine straw

The needles make excellent mulch known as pine straw. The Long Leaf Pine tree has needles in bundles of 3 (or occasionally 4)  known as fascicles. The needles are 8 to 18 inches long.

an older bottlebrush stage
an older bottlebrush stage

The Slash Pine species are similar but grow a little more quickly. To distinguish Slash Pines look for needles in fascicles of 2 or occasionally 3 that are 5 to 12 inches long.

Red bellied woodpeckers are fans
Red bellied woodpeckers are fans

Sixty-eight species of birds utilize Longleaf Pine trees. It addition, it provides habitat and food for numerous mammals and reptiles.

Pine warblers seek insects in decomposing wood
Pine warblers seek insects in decomposing wood

Insect decomposers recycle the rotting wood. These decomposing insects are vital protein food resources for developing birds and mammals.

Lollipop stage:  A cross between grass, bottlebrush and sapling stages, possibly a specimen regenerated from the collar after damage.  Ok, I made this stage up  :-)

Lollipop stage
Lollipop stage

So, as you can see, all stages play an important role.  It is an amazing journey to watch the age progression of the Longleaf pines. Patience required but amply rewarded with so much beauty, diversity and activity.

Textures of nature: the pine candle closeup
Textures of nature: the pine candle closeup
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