As its name indicates, the longleaf pine’s needles are, indeed, long—as long as 18 inches. Growing as tall as 100 feet on a straight trunk covered in scaly bark, the tree branches into coarse limbs ending in tufts of the long, feathery needles. Its fruit is also exceptionally large, 6-10 inches long—the biggest cones in the eastern United States.
Longleaf pine forests once covered 70 million acres across the southeast. Valued for its high quality timber, the stands were harvested and then replanted with faster-growing loblolly and slash pines for commercial timber production. Today only 3 percent of these woodlands remain. The suppression of the fires upon which the species depends has also contributed to its decline.
As this vital species has fared, so too have fared the many inhabitants of the ecosystem it anchors. Mature stands of longleaf pine provide ideal habitat for the imperiled red-cockaded woodpecker, and 67 other species of birds nest and forage in longleaf pine forests. Containing 25 percent protein, the tree’s seeds provide an important food source for a number of small mammals, and rare plants like the Texas trailing phlox grow in the fire-maintained open spaces of mature forests.
In Texas, the Conservancy is helping restore longleaf pine stands at Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary, part of a comprehensive effort to protect and restore the longleaf pine ecosystem on the West Gulf Coastal Plain. The Conservancy also partners with Texas Parks & Wildlife Department to restore and preserve longleaf pine forests at the Big Thicket National Preserve.
Tidbit: This beautiful ecosystem was the inspiration for the 2005 gospel/bluegrass release Songs From the Longleaf Pines by Charlie Daniels.