When Spanish explorer Panfilo de Narvaez landed in 1528 on the shores of Boca Ciega Bay he called the spot “Punta Pinal,” or point of pines. Pine forests once towered over nearly 90 million acres along the southeastern coastal plain, from North Carolina to east Texas, but 300 years of intense logging and settlement have diminished the forests, leaving a fragmented patchwork between mushrooming urban sprawl. Except for the logging forests of the panhandle, there are few large stands of pine remaining outside of state parks.
“Logging was a main way to make money here in Florida,” said Steve Robinson, commercial horticulture agent for the Pinellas County Extension Service in Largo. “A lumberman stands in the pine forest, and he looks up and sees 25 feet or more with no branches, a perfect piece of wood that’s easy to harvest.”
Most of the old trees here in Pinellas were gone by 1934, and mostly sand or slash pine, two faster-growing native species, were replanted in their place, according to Robinson.
Our native longleaf pine (Pinus palustris), the largest southern yellow pine, was used for everything from buildings to great ships. Timbers were perfect for tall masts and spars of sailing ships, while the pine tar caulked hulls and decks.
The declining pine ecosystem also supports diverse wildlife, including threatened and endangered species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker that nests only in old-growth longleaf pine. Colonies of gopher tortoises burrow in the sandy loam of these piney flatlands, also home to pine snakes, dusky gopher frogs, and the rare, elusive eastern lndigo snake.
Today, Pinellas County – so-named for those pines of yesteryear – is the most built-out county in Florida; not much nature pokes through the asphalt of strip malls along the ever-widening roads. Manicured subdivisions have replaced the piney grasslands that thrived here for millenia, but what about the pines?
Take a walk around your neighborhood and you’ll probably find pines, but too often they’re leveled to make way for development, while oaks are saved.
Lara Milligan, Natural Resources Agent for UF/IFAS Extension Pinellas County, at Brooker Creek Preserve in North Pinellas, focuses on wildlife, water, and environmental education.
“We have some of the biggest stands of pine in Pinellas here at Brooker Creek, with sand, slash, and longleaf pines,” she said, and they allow some small fires as part of the natural ecosystem.
Milligan explains how to tell the three common local pines apart:
Sand pines keep their lower branches and have short needles. It’s trickier to discern the difference between slash and longleaf pines because both shed their lower branches, but Milligan says everything else about longleaf pines is longer or bigger, such as the leaves, or needles, which can be 15 inches.
“Longleafs are so tall eagles and ospreys nest there, and owls, too,” she said.
Longleaf pines don’t spring up overnight. They take a century to reach full size, can live 300 years and are adapted to survive fire. Their pine cones need heat to release seeds, and they spend five years in the “grass phase” as a small green bush.
“Most people don’t plant longleaf pines because of the grass stage, so you can now buy trees in the ‘rocket’ stage, ready to grow up,” said Milligan,
There’s a movement to restore stands of longleaf pine in state parks. The Florida State Parks Foundation wants to replenish these magnificent forests, so it’s partnering with Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s Outdoor Fund to double every dollar donated to the Plant a Pine Campaign–two pines for a dollar, so $10 can plant 20 longleaf pines.
To donate to the pine tree fund, visit the Florida State Parks Foundation here. Learn more about pines on Lara Milligan’s blog.