Nationwide, the pines are probably the most important timber tree group, especially in the west and south where they are the predominant tree species. In our area pines are not plentiful, but are still important for providing lumber, wildlife habitat, visually pleasing views, and erosion control.
The native pines that grow in our area include Shortleaf, Virginia, Pitch and White Pine. Though not a local native, Loblolly Pine has been widely planted and does well in our area.
Everybody knows a pine tree when they see it, but many can’t tell them apart. The easiest way is to look at the needles. They always grow in bundles, and by counting how many needles occur in each bundle (science guys call it a fascicle), you can determine the species.
Here’s how you do it:
• Shortleaf has needles are 3-4 inches long and occur in bundles of mostly two, but with an occasional three bundle.
• Virginia Pine has needles 2-3 inches long in bundles of two. Virginia pine needles tend to be twisted.
• Pitch Pine has needles around 4-6 inches long in bundles of three.
• White Pine has needles 3-5 inches long in bundles of three.
• Loblolly Pine has needles over 6 inches long in bundles of three.
If the pine you’re trying to identify is too tall to see the needles, look on the ground under the tree. The needle bundles usually stay together and you can count them there.
Most of our pines tend to grow on dry sites, such as south and west facing slopes, and ridge tops. Virginia Pine (also called old field pine) is very common on abandoned farmland. It is a pioneer species, meaning it is one of the first plants to move into disturbed areas.
Besides being used by humans for paper, lumber and hundreds of other products, wildlife utilizes pine trees for food and shelter. Several kinds of songbirds use pine seed as food, including dove, turkey and quail. Rabbits, deer and fox squirrel eat the seed as well as the bark and foliage. Because pines are evergreen, they provide important year round shelter and cover for wildlife, especially for protection from cold winter wind and snow, referred to as thermal shelter.
If you are interested in growing trees either in your yard or on several acres, pines can be valuable both visually and financially. They can grow rapidly and produce timber in less time than most hardwoods. For more information on growing pine trees contact your local forestry office.
Steve Roark is the area forester in Tazewell, Tennessee for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.