The secret life of pine trees.

There is a tall, stately conifer in our backyard whose branches begin above the treeline; it’s as if they are hungry for direct sunlight. Max and I have been arguing over what type of pine this might be, and today we decided to settle the score.

After sketching the tree and noting its characteristics, Max said:

“Longleaf pine because they are common to this area and its so tall.”

Alina said:

“No way. It’s between loblolly pine and shortleaf pine. Look at the needles!”

Max changed courts once he realized that the needles are quite short and evergreen. The needles hang so high that it was hard to tell for sure, but they appear to be in bundles of three.

The bark has large scales with reddish tones and irregular scaly plates, though the overall effect from a distance suggests a grayish trunk. Max ripped off a few large pieces of bark and noted that it “would make good shingles”. At this point, it could still be a loblolly or a shortleaf. Comparing the photos of bark in our field guide only served to remind us that pine barks look pretty similar- not the best way to narrow it down. How would we identify this mysterious and stately tree?

The secret was finally revealed to us in the cones, which measured about 5 cm long. A dull, dark brown, the cones have an egglike-shape and thin, keeled scales with a small prickle. Max said:

Mom, there’s really not that many cones under this big tree. I’ve only found two.”

Alina said:

“That’s odd. Look at the tree- it is absolutely DRIPPING with hundreds of blackish pine cones up there.”

Max said:

“Yeah, but they aren’t falling.”

They aren’t falling. Exactly. The other pines in our yard have a few cones hanging, but are not overburdened with cones. That’s because our stately senor is a Shortleaf pine!

Image source: Clemson

Also known as the Pinus echinata, “shortstraw pine”, or “Southern Yellow pine”, shortleaf pines have cones which open at maturity but tend to remain attached to the tree. Often, by the time you find one, it looks pretty beat up. Falling from great heights at a ripe old age can do that. The Shortleaf is a native to 21 southeastern states, where it is used as timber and plywood. After fire or natural disaster, the shortleaf pine seedlings and small trees are the first to sprout up and take advantage of the newly-enriched soil.