Longleaf pines brighten Florida woods with candles each spring

As any transplant from the North can tell you, Florida doesn’t grow spruces and firs suitable for Christmas trees.  What goes unreported however, is that Florida pines don’t need to be decorated with lights as they come ready made with their own candles that brighten up the woods in the spring of the year.

Perhaps the most impressive pine of the southeastern U.S. is the longleaf pine, Pinus palustris.  The needles on this pine grow from 10 to 16 inches in length,  with each year’s Pine CrossesCredit: unknownnew grow starting out as long, silvery white stems of leaf buds referred to as “candles”.  While these tall candles are impressive enough, longleafs also commonly put out lateral buds at the base of the main one, giving the appearance of crosses decorating the woods.  As this happens around the time of Easter each year, this new growth can take on a special significance to Floridians familiar with the pine woods.  As the buds grow into needles during the summer they’ll assume the more characteristic form of the tree with tufts of the long bright green needles dancing fountain-like at the end of the stems.

Longleaf pine candles(119344)Credit: Treebeard

A slow grower at first, longleaf pines can spend their first two to seven years working mostly underground developing a strong root system, while the above ground portion looks more like a clump of grass than a young tree.  But it’s this initial slow growing habit that allows it to survive in the dry uplands that it calls home.  When wildfires pass through, the buds of young longleafs are well protected from the flames and persist while more exposed plants are burned back.  The heavy bark that the mature trees develop also serves as protection against all but the hottest fires and makes the longleaf pine particularly well suited to, and dependent upon, fire management.

Young Longleaf Pine in its Grassy StageCredit: Treebeard

In fact, it’s been the suppression of fire and the conversion of natural woodlands that has contributed to the decline of longleaf pine forests from an estimated 60 to 90 million acres during the colonial period of the southeast to no more than three million today.

Longleafs are in it for the long haul however,  continuing to add to their size for 100 years or more, with some recorded as reaching 500 years old.  Years ago, they provided an important part of the forestry stock and their straight trunks, reaching 80 to 100 feet or more, were selected for the masts of sailing ships.  Today they are not commercially planted as frequently as slash and loblolly pines, two other Florida natives that reach maturity and maximum timber value more quickly.

Still, an open flatwoods of mature longleaf pines represents a classic Florida vegetative community, providing habitat for turkeys, gopher tortoises, and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.  This community is considered valuable enough that in 2012 the Florida Forest Service received a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant of nearly $1 million to restore roughly 59,000 acres of longleaf pine stands in state forests of the Florida panhandle.  With efforts like these we may one day again see the flatwoods landscape table set with tall silvery white candles like Florida grew up with.