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Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Virginia pine deserves a second look

January-February 2024

A Virginia pine growing along the Blue Ridge Parkway. (Courtesy of David Brossard via Flickr)

Needles and an open female cone. (Photo by Milo Pyne courtesy NatureServe via Flickr)

by Steve Carroll, Contributing Columnist

If you live in the mid-Atlantic, you’ve surely seen Virginia pine, though you may have given it just a passing glance. It’s not as tall and graceful as Eastern white pine, and it lacks the striking red-brown, platy bark of loblolly pine. Nevertheless, a large Virginia pine growing in an open field or along a thin-soiled ridgeline can have a dramatic presence against the skyline.

Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana), also known as scrub pine, grows from Long Island south to northern Georgia and Alabama (Cold Hardiness Zones 5-8). In the mid-Atlantic, it’s common throughout the Piedmont and lower-elevation mountains, and locally common along the Coastal Plain.

It favors well-drained, acidic to neutral soil, and is typically found in dry fields and forests, rocky woodlands, and other sunny, dry habitats, including on poor sites where other trees struggle. On higher-quality sites, it is usually replaced over time by deciduous hardwoods. Its tolerance of poor conditions makes it useful in erosion control and reclamation of mining and other disturbed sites.

Virginia pine is a mid-sized, relatively short-lived tree. It typically reaches 30-50 feet in height and 12-14 inches in diameter, though on a good site it can grow taller. The national champion, which grows in Tamarack Park in Fairfax County, Va., stands 91 feet tall!

Needles are 1 1/2 to 3 inches long, usually somewhat twisted, and in bundles of two. The small male cones appear in spring, when they release large amounts of pollen before dropping off. Female cones are larger, roughly egg-shaped, and 1 1/2 to nearly 3 inches long. These take two years to mature, at which time they open and release their seeds. The dry, woody female cones are generally held on the tree for several years, and the large number of these persistent cones is a good visual clue for identifying this tree from a distance.

In addition to its role in land reclamation, Virginia pine has other uses. Its long fibers make it a good choice for paper pulp. It has historically been used for mine timbers, railroad ties and rough lumber, but its tendency to warp makes it an inferior choice for construction-grade wood. In the Southeast, it is sometimes used for holiday trees.

Traditionally, Native Americans had many uses for Virginia pine’s bark and needles. For example, the Cherokee bathed in needle soaks to treat rheumatism, chewed the bark to treat diarrhea, and used the tree in various ways as a treatment for colds.

This pine is also important for wildlife. Seeds are eaten by various birds and small mammals; deer browse lower branches; and caterpillars of many butterflies and moths feed on the needles. It provides winter wildlife cover, especially when growing in near-pure stands, and woodpeckers carve out the softer wood of older trees for their cavity nests.

As a Virginia pine matures, its crown opens up and spreads, giving it a distinctive appearance. In his “Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America,” naturalist Donald Culross Peattie wrote, “A Chinese landscape painter would not despise the silhouette of these trees, marching over the crest of some hill or etched against the slanting lines of Virginia’s winter rains.”

It may just be scrub pine to some, but it can strike a fine pose growing in the right place.

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.