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Loblolly Pines reclaiming old field - mature pines in background

Just what makes a pine tree a pine tree? Pines are evergreen, members of the coniferous family that have needle-like leaves and bear their seeds in cones. Although they are evergreen, as anyone who has pine trees in the yard knows, they shed their needles annually. However, in the case of pines, compared to broad-leaved trees such as oak and maple, only the oldest needles fall.

Two needles per sheath cluster
Loblollys survive dense snow

The needles that were formed the previous growing season are retained during the winter. Evergreen conifers include pine, spruce, fir, hemlock and others. Interestingly, there are deciduous conifers like bald cypress, larch, and dawn redwood. The pines, however, have their needles attached to the twigs in bundles which are surrounded at the base by a sheath.

Pine = Cones + needles in sheaths
Canada Hemlock - a conifer, but not a pine

One of the identifying characteristics that we use is the number of needles in each sheath and the placement of those sheaths on the twigs. Another important field mark to use is the size and shape of the cones. A very interesting and useful collection can be made of simply various types of cones.

The pine seeds grow at the base of each pinecone scale, usually in pairs. In autumn during, or slightly before, the hickory nuts and acorns fall, you may find pinecones that have the scales neatly removed by squirrels feeding on those seeds. Humans love the seeds of the Pinon Pine in salads.

Typical Pine seed with wing

There are nearly 70 species of pines growing worldwide. Pines, in general, are one of the most important and valuable tree species for lumber, erosion control, food for wildlife, and their beauty. Locally, there are three easily recognized species growing on Nature Preserve lands that I will discuss.

  • White Pine-Pinus strobus

  • Virginia (or, scrub, or spruce) Pine-Pinus virginiana

  • Loblolly Pine-Pinus taeda.

Mature White Pine - wet snow damage

As far as I know the White Pine does not occur naturally growing south of New Castle County, DE. It does grow extensively in the more Northern areas of the Northeastern U.S. and Canada. The white pine has been extensively planted both for its beauty and value as a lumber species. When it is young it grows with a typical Christmas Tree shape and can be sheared to keep it looking like that for many years. In old mature trees, the lower branches are lost, many times because of wet, dense snow as we had this week, then the crowns become flat-topped and picturesque, reminiscent of trees seen in Oriental Art.

White Pine needles five per bundle + young, new cones
White pine cones and needles

The harvesting of white pine timber played an enormous role in the exploration and colonization of the entire Northeastern United States and Canada. Basically, the British Isles had become deforested because of the demand for timber, especially the size and quality of timber needed for shipbuilding. Sailing ship’s masts required long, straight, timber in 70–80-foot lengths no longer found in England. North America was a treasure trove of those resources. These majestic white pines were felled, axe hewn immediately, and secured into huge rafts that were floated across lakes and down streams to the St. Lawrence River. Specialty ships were launched from England that had doors in either side of the bow that would allow long square-hewn timbers to be loaded lengthwise directly into the hold, then sailed home. The St. Lawrence River was one of the major points of departure for this massive industry.

White Pine bark

White Pines can be seen around the Abbott’s Mill Nature Center. These lovely trees were planted as ornamentals. Identify them by the soft, bluish-green needles, grouped five

per sheath. The branches on young trees are arranged on the stem in whorls (tiers). The cones are elongated, not prickly, and have an aromatic resin at the tips that sticks to your fingers.

Mature White Pine Cones

The wood is easily worked, light, weighing about 25 lbs. per cubic foot and used in paneling, shelving, casework for windows, doors and furniture. It is not durable in the weather and is too soft for flooring.

Va. Pine - grown on open site

Va. Pine - new cones - 2 needles per bundle

The Virginia Pine is known by many local names, scrub pine, shortshat pine, and spruce pine to name a few. My father always referred to it as spruce pine. There is a well-known town in western North Carolina east of Ashville named Spruce Pine. The Virginia Pine is a scrubby, much branched tree when growing in open, old-field habitats. When found growing among other species in a forest area, it will develop a straight trunk with a densely branched crown. Many old cones can be seen in the crown since they remain on the tree for three, or more, years.

Dead branches are seen below the crown still remaining on the tree. The wood makes decent lumber for some purposes but has an abundance of knots. Our kitchen is paneled with rustic Virginia Pine logs, but that certainly wouldn’t satisfy the more tidy individuals. My Mother summed it up best by asking, “what goes over that?”

Va. Pine- old persistent cones
Virginia Pine new growth and cones

Virginia pine will quickly colonize barren land, stabilizing the soil, reducing wind and water erosion, providing food and shelter for insects, birds, mammals, and other wildlife. When growing like this with abundant sunlight it develops a bushy, spreading growth form.

Va. Pine - note dead branches on trunk

Virginia pine actually makes a decent Christmas tree, particularly if it has been sheared to improve shape and branch density. Our next-door farm neighbors, some of my friends from the Nature Preserve, and my wife’s Virginia family all used Virginia Pine. My Dad preferred red cedar (which isn’t a cedar; more about that in a later blog). Truthfully, the pine provides more sturdy branches and open spaces to hang ornaments and tinsel. I’ll share one interesting anecdote about my neighbors, the Sharps. One trick they used in decorating their Christmas pine, that I have never seen before or since, was to mix laundry soap flakes (before the days of liquid detergent or “Tide”pods) in a pail with warm water until concentrated to the consistency of cream. This was then whipped with a hand-cranked eggbeater producing a thick, soap suds foam. This “snow” was drizzled

over the branches in all the appropriate places and allowed to dry, making a melt-

proof, “snow”-covered tree. It probably was ghastly but to my pre-teen eyes when viewed in a half-darkened room and the tree aglow, it was beautiful. I’ve often wondered if anyone else has ever heard of that?

Virginia pine has short, twisted needles two-three inches long, in clusters of two per sheath. The cones are numerus, two-to-three-inches in diameter, globular, with sharp prickles. They remain on the tree for three years. The bark is dark reddish brown, broken by shallow fissures into thin plates. The wood is used for paneling, framing, and secondary cabinet wood and weighs about 34 lbs. per cubic foot.

Mature Loblolly Pine

Loblolly Pine is the most valuable timber tree in Delaware. It is easily transplanted as seedlings, quickly establishes itself and grows rapidly. It will grow on upland soils as well as seasonally submerged land. The name Loblolly is an old English term for a wet land or swamp. When a field in Sussex County is left untilled, loblolly pine seedlings quickly appear if there are seed trees anywhere nearby. The winged pine seeds develop in the cones at the base of the scales, are released, and carried by the wind. The seedling trees grow in competition with each other and other species. Those that fall behind will perish since they are shade intolerant. Even the lower branches that are shaded, die and fall away creating straight, relatively knot-free trunks that produce ideal timber.

Loblolly Pine cones - needles in bundles of 3
Loblolly seedling - note: this field was mowed to 2 in. in Mar. 2021

Loblolly pine usually has six-to-nine-inch needles in clusters of three per sheath. The cones mature in two years and are four to six inches long, cylindrical and oblong. Each cone scale has a sharp, curved prickle at its tip. The bark is thick, light brownish gray broken into plates by deep fissures on mature trees. The wood is used for framing, flooring, utility poles, piling, railroad ties, and extensively for paper pulp. The wood weighs and average of 38 lbs. per cubic foot.

Loblolly Cones at Blairs Pond
Loblollys in snow

Here is something to think about during your next hike. Since the loblolly pine and Virginia pine are not tolerant of shade, you can use them to determine the age of a forest stand of mixed hardwoods and pine. As you walk, perhaps in Blair’s Pond woods, remember at one relatively recent time, that was open country.

Typical Loblolly pine bark + Va. Pine on right
Pine growing mixed stand with hardwoods

You will notice scattered among the shade tolerant hardwoods, a few tall, shade

intolerant pines among the canopy. If you could determine the age of those pines, you would know the age of that forest as well, since the seedlings of those pines grew in sunlight. Sooner or later one of those canopy pines will die or fall in a storm. If that dead tree is harvested for firewood and we count perhaps 83 annual growth rings, the forest would be 83 years old, too, since that seedling needed sunlight to survive. In our limited timeframe, it is fun to imagine what the terrain looked like at the time. Was it a woodlot? Was it agricultural land? Was it pastureland?

Recently dead loblolly pine snag to harvest
Harvesting dead Loblolly for tree ring data

Tree rings approximately 83 years. Severe setback at 43 yrs.

These are a couple of my favorite pines you may encounter on your outdoor


Japanese Black Pine - Cape Henlopen S.P.

Japanese Black Pine - Cape Henlopen S.P.

Japanese Black Pine- planted extensively at Cape Henlopen State Park

Longleaf Pine (my personal favorite pine) - There are specimen trees in Georgetown, Lewes, Millsboro, and a small planting next to the Route 1, south, on-ramp from State Route 36 at Milford.

Longleaf Pinecones - Route 1, Milford, DE
Longleaf Pine- Lewes, DE

Have fun and get out there and recharge those biological batteries. All your outdoor Nature Preserve Lands are free and open during daylight hours to the public.

Happy Hiking!

The largest Loblolly in Del in 1979

All photographs by the author

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