If you have been to Moss Bluff or other areas in northern Calcasieu Parish, or further north in Beauregard Parish, you may have noticed beautiful pine trees that look a bit different from the norm. Tall, straight pine trees marked by loose, scaly bark and few, if any, limbs near the ground are known as longleaf pines, and they are very special trees. Longleafs are set apart from other common Louisiana pines in our area such as loblolly or slash pine in several ways. As their name implies, longleaf needles — or leaves — are around 17 inches long, much longer than other common pines, and are arranged a little differently. The needles appear in tufts on the branches and the trees' seed cones are much larger.
These trees may be rare now, but they once dominated the forest of the southeast United States. In the late 19th century, about 90 million acres of longleaf forests stretched along the Coastal Plain from North Carolina to east Texas. Southwest Louisiana lies in the western portion of that historic range, and only fractions of its longleafs remain. Natural longleaf forests are characterized by scattered, mixed-aged longleaf pines towering over grassy savannah. Longleaf pines are fire tolerant, meaning they can withstand fire and burning. Historically, longleaf forests were subjected to frequent seasonal fires, which eliminated or minimized growth of brush, hardwoods and other competing trees.
Before European settlers arrived in the area, fires were frequently set by Native Americans and lightning. The lack of roads or other interruptions in the forests allowed these fires to continue burning for many miles. The consistent burning cleared the forest floor, helping large areas of longleaf forest to prosper. This cycle helped develop the classic longleaf ecosystem: beautiful grassland and an abundance of wildflowers under old growth pine trees. While in longleaf forests in 1867, naturalist John Muir observed, "In ‘pine barrens' most of the day. Low, level, sandy tracts; the pines wide apart; the sunny spaces between full of beautiful abounding grasses, liatris, long, wand-like solidago, saw palmettos, etc., covering the ground in garden style. Here I sauntered in delightful freedom." However, modern practices to prevent fires have left much of the longleaf landscape unrecognizable.
In addition to fire exclusion, commercial logging and modern development contributed to the shrinking of the trees' numbers. The characteristics of the longleaf pine have also made it commercially valuable. It is more resistant to disease, insects and storms than other southeastern pines. The trees grow tall and straight, making them ideal for use as utility poles, pilings and lumber. Many older buildings throughout longleaf regions, including right here in Southwest Louisiana, were constructed with its dense, durable wood. Longleaf sap was also used to make turpentine, pine oil, tar and pitch. Historically, the resin of the longleaf pine was a also used to produce soaps, paints, varnishes, shoe polishes, lubricants, linoleums, roofing materials and wooden sailing ships.
The longleaf pine has a rich history in Southwest Louisiana and has played an important role in the development of our area. Funded by Sasol through the Community Foundation of Southwest Louisiana, and implemented by the Coastal Plain Conservancy with the support of Louisiana State Parks, the Longleaf Legacy Project underway in Sam Houston Jones State Park is focused on restoring the longleaf pine ecosystem. Project partners aim to preserve the iconic tree's rich history, restore the splendor of local forests, and ensure the resiliency of habitats therein for generations to come.