A tree that reaches for the sky
by Steve Carroll, Contributing Columnist
Across much of the southeast U.S., including in the mid-Atlantic, pines are a prominent part of our forests and woodlands. And, of all the pines that grow here, loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) is planted more often than any of its cousins.
Much of this planting is in commercial plantations, where trees are grown for later harvest. Loblolly also seeds in on its own and is planted by private landowners as specimen trees, windbreaks and allées, or lined walkways. One reason for this popularity, both for homeowners and commercial operations, is that this tree grows quickly.
The natural range for loblolly is from southern New Jersey to northern Florida, and along the Gulf of Mexico to eastern Texas. It is more common near the coast, but in Virginia, it reaches into the Piedmont and beyond.
Loblolly establishes in upland forests, in old fields (old-field pine is another of its names), along rivers and swamp edges and in poorly drained depressions. Its common name likely stems from these moist depressions, in some areas called loblollies.
Loblolly prefers acidic to slightly acidic soil and does not grow well in shade. As a result, by 40 to 50 years, other trees typically overtop it, eventually shading it out. Loblolly also tolerates fire less well than the closely related longleaf pine, though mature trees can withstand low-level burns.
A mature loblolly pine is a striking tree. On favorable sites, it can reach 60 to 100 feet tall or more with a diameter of 3 to 4 feet. Its aromatic, yellow-green needles are 6 to 9 inches long and, like longleaf and pitch pine, grow in bundles of three. This distinguishes it from two-needle pines, such as Virginia and table mountain pine and the five-needle Eastern white pine.
Loblolly typically sheds lower branches as it grows, resulting in rounded crowns. When mature, its bark forms thick, broad, flat-topped plates. Loblolly is susceptible to ice and snow damage, while hybrids with pitch pine tolerate these environmental stresses better.
As with other pines, individual trees produce both male and female cones. The small male cones last long enough to shed pollen, while the seed-bearing female cones are larger and sturdier and are held on the tree even after the seeds disperse.
Loblolly wood is used for plywood, construction lumber and pulpwood. It’s the most important timber tree in the Southeast, where it’s often lumped with related species and called southern yellow pine. In Virginia, loblolly makes up nearly half of the wood harvested each year.
Stands of loblolly are also important to wildlife, supporting, among others, red-cockaded woodpeckers, bald eagles, osprey and songbirds such as brown-headed nuthatches and yellow-throated warblers. It provides habitat for deer, squirrels and other mammals, and it’s a host plant for many moth species.
A mature loblolly is truly a magnificent tree. If you live in a fire-prone area, don’t plant it near buildings, but if you have a suitable spot on your property, consider planting one, then watch it reach for the sky.
Steve Carroll is a botanist and ecologist who speaks and writes about trees, gardening and the world of plants. He is the co-author of “Ecology for Gardeners,” published by Timber Press.