One question that I am often asked is, “What is the best tree to plant?” The quick answer to that question lies at the intersection of the specific site qualities and the landowner’s objectives. In other words, it often can and will be a different answer for different people. For example, the site qualities may dictate that loblolly pine is the “best” species for a particular site, but if the landowner wants to engage in pine straw production, that species choice likely won’t work due to the lack of markets for loblolly straw. So, selecting the most appropriate species is an important decision and one that your forester can help you make.
All that being said, many times the species selection may be a “no-brainer” due to the extremes of the site, i.e. it may be so dry or wet or sandy that only one pine species is really appropriate. In those instances, the decision is easy – Mother Nature made it for you! However, in many cases, the landowner must evaluate his or her goals and objectives, as well as local markets, in order to make the best decision. The landowner should also be aware of the characteristics of each species, plus the strengths and weaknesses of those species. Let’s review the major commercial pine species:
Pinus Taeda – Loblolly pine is by far the most planted pine species in the Southeast, making up about 80% of the seedlings planted each year in that region. Known to many locals as “black pine” due to its dark appearance, it has even been planted north of its natural range into parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, and southern Illinois. There is a reason for its popularity – loblolly grows very rapidly on a wide variety of sites. It does especially well on those sites with heavier, clay-based soils, but does poorly on sandy sites or excessively wet sites. Loblolly has high nutrient requirements and responds very well to fertilization, which has allowed it to expand onto sites that were traditionally reserved for slash pine. It is a prolific natural seeder that usually produces a plethora of cones each year and often seeds into abandoned fields, leading some folks to call it “field pine.” Loblolly has shorter needles, making it undesirable for pine straw production. Loblolly also tends to be more crooked, possess more limbs and has wood that is less dense than other species, although the more recent genetically improved varieties have begun to overcome many of those issues. It also is less tolerant of fire and more susceptible to bark beetles than other pine species, especially in overstocked stands. Since it grows naturally in hammocks, loblolly competes well with hardwoods and responds very well to thinning. It is slightly less desirable to sawmills because it does not produce as much grade lumber as other pine species.
Pinus Elliottii – Slash pine grows naturally on sites along the Coastal Plain of the U.S. that are alternately wet and dry, such as flatwoods sites and in the margins around cypress ponds and swamps. It is often planted up on beds because the sites it is chosen for often have a high water table. Slash can grow on a wide variety of sites, and when planted on the right site, it can grow quite rapidly. Its needles are longer than loblolly and hold their color better, making it a desirable species for pine straw production. It is a little more tolerant of fire and bark beetles than loblolly, but it does not withstand hardwood competition well at all. Slash pine tends to grow straighter, and it has less knots, as well as slightly more dense wood than loblolly. Our most serious problem with slash pine is its lack of natural resistance to fusiform rust, a spore borne disease that affects pines in their early years. Fusiform rust can kill the young pines but often will simply deform them via stem galls, degrading their value to lumber mills or rendering them useful only for pulpwood. If thinned properly and grown long enough, slash pines can make fine stands of timber that have high percentages of utility poles and sawtimber.
Pinus Palustris – Longleaf pine, also known as “longleaf yellow pine,” once covered much of the southeastern United States, but now is just a fraction of the acreage that the early European settlers found. It can grow well on a wide variety of sites, including sandy sites where loblolly and slash do not perform well. Longleaf is a slow starter and tends to stay in the “grass stage” where it looks like a tuft of grass, part of its natural defense against wildfire. Longleaf pines have long needles (surprise!) that help to protect a large, sliver bud from fire, particularly in its early stages. Its needles are preferred by pine straw buyers and bring a premium price on the straw market. However, longleaf pine is usually more difficult and expensive to establish than loblolly or slash pine, and it is very sensitive to competition in its early stages. This often requires multiple herbicide treatments and/or prescribed burns to control the competition and release it from the “grass stage.” The lumber is prized by sawmills and pole buyers salivate over natural longleaf pine stands, but it must be grown to a longer rotation (35 to 40 years) than loblolly or slash to attain its maximum economic value. Longleaf tends to be more resistant to insects and most diseases, and it is much more fire resistant than slash or loblolly pine. It is also often preferred by wildlife managers because of its tendency to produce a more open canopy that does not shade out herbaceous ground cover and because it can be safely prescribe burned at a very young age. More longleaf is being planted now with the advent of containerized seedlings, increased knowledge, better cultural practices, and government cost share programs that bias toward longleaf pine.
Pinus echinata – Shortleaf pine grows mostly on clay soils and thrives on many of the same sites as loblolly pine. Since loblolly grows faster, shortleaf is not commonly planted. That may change to some degree due to renewed interest in the recovery of shortleaf pine in recent years. It has short needles, as you probably assumed, and numerous, small cones – shortleaf is a very prolific seed producer. This species is quite common on the quail plantations in the Thomasville/Tallahassee area and the trees can get very large. The wood is dense since shortleaf is slower growing than loblolly, making the lumber desirable to sawmills.
Pinus clausa – Sand pine grows naturally only in two areas – the Florida panhandle and in central Florida. True to its name, sand pine grows on sites that are such deep sands that literally no other pines can thrive on them. The trees have numerous limbs with very short needles and lots of very small cones. The species is generally only planted where there is no other commercial option since sand pine is usually only suitable for pulpwood or mulch. However, on sites that are not too dry, sand pine will produce surprisingly high pulpwood volumes within a relatively short (approximately 20 years) rotation. Also, since it grows on dry sites that allow for “all weather” logging, sand pine can bring a premium price during extreme wet weather periods.
Pinus glabra – Spruce pine is not a southern yellow pine and is not commercially planted. It typically grows on wetter, mesic sites along river bottoms, creek drainages, and hammocks. Although spruce pines can and do grow to very large sizes, the trees tend to have excessive crook and sweep. These properties make it undesirable to sawmills. However, plywood mills will usually accept it, as will pulp mills. The needles are small, as are the cones, and in fact, it is difficult to differentiate a young spruce pine from a young sand pine tree. The needles are small and dark green, and the cones are numerous and tiny. The bark looks much like one of the hardwood trees that spruce pine commonly grows among.