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Differentiating Between Loblolly, Longleaf, and Other Southern Pines in the Woods

July 20, 2021

Traveling throughout South Carolina, there is no question you will encounter pine trees. Depending on the region of the state you are traveling through, you may be seeing several different species. Still, no matter where you find yourself, once you step out into the woods, you most certainly will find there are more species present than what may be seen from the road.  South Carolina is host to 10 native species of pines, including Loblolly, Longleaf, Slash, Pond, White, Table Mountain, Pitch, Shortleaf, Virginia, and Spruce Pines. While several of these species are important to the timber industry, others are hidden in the shadows of the forest. When it comes to differentiating between pines, it requires looking at the details. For the purposes of this article, we will look at several of the most commonly encountered species.

Loblolly Pine. Photo Credit: A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina.

Loblolly Pine. Photo Credit: A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina.

Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) is without a doubt one of the most common species of pine found in SC. It can be found growing on high and dry sites as well as low and wet. It grows well on most sites but prefers rich soils and responds well to those sites. Loblolly pine needles are grown primarily in bundles, or fascicles, of 3 but can also be found in bundles of 2 or 4 and are typically 5 to 6 inches long. The bark of young loblolly pines is very dark and scaly, while mature bark is divided by deep furrows and dark brown in color. Cones are 2.5 to 4 inches long, have sharp prickles, and can remain on the tree for three years which is often a useful distinction. Loblolly pines average 80 to 100 feet in height, with the greatest variation being related to the site quality.

Longleaf Pine. Photo Credit: A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina.

Longleaf Pine. Photo Credit: A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina.

Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) once covered much of the land in SC but was heavily harvested by early settlers. Longleaf pine needles are grown in fascicles of 3 and can reach up to 18 inches in length, lending to its namesake, but are typically 8 to 12 inches long. Bare twigs are very stout and often referred to as “thumb-size” and have a rough surface left behind by previously dropped needles. Cones are 6 to 10 inches long with prickles bending downwards to the base of the cone. The bark of longleaf pine is often very thick compared to other species with an orange-brown appearance. This species is highly adapted to growing on poor sites which are often sandy in nature and prone to the occurrence of fire. This is the only species in SC that exhibits a grass stage when young. This growth stage can last several years before the tree shoots up several feet in one growing season. These growth adaptations are in response to frequent fire and made in an effort to get its terminal bud out of danger as well as above competing vegetation following a fire event. During the Spring of each year, it is easy to identify longleaf pine by their white fuzzy terminal buds extending from the tips of twigs before new needles begin to emerge. These white buds are often referred to as “candles” or “candling.”

Slash Pine. Photo Credit: A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina.

Slash Pine. Photo Credit: A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina.

Slash Pine (Pinus elliottii) can often be confused with both loblolly and longleaf pines as it has a similar appearance once mature and grows on similar sites. Slash pine needles are grown in fascicles of 2 or 3, are typically 8 to 10 inches long, and are crowded near the end of branches. Twigs of slash pine are not as stout as longleaf pine but more similar to loblolly pine. Cones of slash pine are glossy brown in appearance which is a distinguishing feature when comparing to loblolly pine which also has more pronounced prickles on its cones. Slash pine can be found growing on many of the same sites but naturally occurs in wet areas where you wouldn’t normally find longleaf pine.

Shortleaf Pine. Photo Credit: A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina.

Shortleaf Pine. Photo Credit: A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina.

Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata) is found primarily in the piedmont range of SC. Needles of shortleaf pine are 2.5 to 4.5 inches long and are most commonly found in fascicles of 2 and some of 3. The cones are also short and average 1.5 to 2.5 inches long. The cones will often remain on the tree for several years once they have opened which is a good way to identify this species. The bark on mature trees is reddish-brown and the bark plates often resemble jigsaw puzzle pieces and have resin pockets within them.

Virginia Pine. Photo Credit: A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina.

Virginia Pine. Photo Credit: A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina.

Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana) is not a commercially important species due to its less than desirable growth characteristics compared to our other pines. Virginia pine needles are dark yellow-green and are twisted and found in fascicles of 2 that are 1.5 to 3 inches long. The cones are also small at 1.5 to 3 inches long with pronounced prickles that resemble a “needle-like” spine on each scale. If grown in the open, Virginia pine will take on a shrubby appearance. They do not self-prune, are rarely found over 50ft tall, and tend to be found in groups in the forest or open areas.

No matter the species, a handy first clue is the number of needles per fascicle. When looking at a mature tree, you may be able to view needles from the ground but be aware the needles you find may be from other pines nearby. Examining the twigs or branching features is another useful tool. Both longleaf and slash pines tend to have large groups of needles near the ends of the twigs. To differentiate between the two, note that longleaf pine twigs remain “thumb-sized” to the tip whereas slash pines decrease rapidly in diameter as they approach the ends more similarly to loblolly pine. Oftentimes, the only easily examined part of the tree is the bark.  Unfortunately, variations in coloring, shape, thickness, etc., can make this very difficult, but with time and experience, these clues will become useful in making an overall determination.

Refer to Table 1 below for the identifying features to differentiate all 10 pine species found in South Carolina.

Table 1. Differentiating Features of Pines in South Carolina.
Pine Tree Species Names Needles Twigs Buds Bark Cones Prickle Habitat
Pinus taeda
Loblolly Pine
3 per fascicle (possibly 2)
3 to 9 inches straight or slightly twisted
moderately stout and rough brown dark in color and often deeply furrowed ovate-conic, persists 3-4 years short, stout, sharp, pointing toward base, very persistent widespread
Pinus palustris
Longleaf Pine
3 per fascicle (possibly 2)
8 to 12 inches
very stout and very rough silver gray to reddish-brown, deeply furrowed, scaly tapering, slightly curved, fall soon after seed drop small, sharp, reflexed toward base, persistent adapted to sandy soils
Pinus elliottii
Slash Pine
2 or 3 per fascicle
4 to 10 inches
stout and rough, needles very crowded at tips brown orange-brown, flat plates scaly conical, fall after opening short, thick widespread
Pinus echinata
Shortleaf Pine
2 per fascicle
(possibly 3)
2.5 to 4.5 inches
slender and rough brown brownish-red, flat, often short shoots on trunk ovate-conic, persist for years small, short, sharp, often fall before mature piedmont
Pinus virginiana
Virginia Pine
2 per fascicle
1.5 to 3 inches
strongly twisted
yellow-green
spindly, irregular, does not self-prune brown dark brown, shallow fissures ovate-conic, throughout crown sharp, slender, persistent prickle primarily piedmont, found statewide
Pinus rigida
Pitch Pine
3 per fascicle
(possibly 2 or 4)
3 to 5 inches
very stiff
thick limbs covered with spur shoots reddish-brown reddish-brown, deeply furrowed, epicormic sprouting is common ovoid, often persistent for many years short, stout piedmont, dry ridges or slopes
Pinus strobus
Eastern White Pine
5 per fascicle
soft, flexible
bluish-green
slender, brittle, light brown yellowish-brown grayish-brown, deeply furrowed short stalks, drooping, cylindrical, requires 2 years to mature none piedmont, ornamental
Pinus serotina
Pond Pine
3 per fascicle
(possibly 2 or 4)
5 to 6.5 inches
moderately stout, rough brown dark red-brown, narrow plates, forms sucker sprouts after fire or other injury egg-shaped, mix of opened and un-opened for several years broad, slender, fragile, straight or curved, fragile swamps, pond/lake edges, poorly drained soils
Pinus pungens
Table Mountain Pine
2 per fascicle
(possibly 3)
1 to 2.5 inches
slender, rough red-brown red to gray-brown, irregularly checked into scaly plates ovoid, whorled on branches large, sharp, hooked mountains
Pinus glabra
Spruce Pine
2 per fascicle
1.5 to 4 inches
slender, reddish-brown red-brown rounded top ridges, dark reddish brown, scaly ovoid, small and round small, short-incurved lower coastal plain

 

This article was originally featured in the Summer 2021 Version of CU in The Woods newsletter.

Author(s)

Ryan Bean, Cooperative Extension, Forestry and Wildlife Agent

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