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With hurricane season upon us, Les Harrison ponders the safety of trees

By Les Harrison
Extension Director Emeritus UF/IFAS Special to The Star

The current potential for extreme foul weather has many residents of Gulf County concerned about the safety of the trees near their homes. While it is almost inconceivable to imagine the area without these important plants, in the wrong circumstance they can be quite hazardous. 

While any debilitated or unhealthy tree has a high risk factor, many native shallow rooted species are on the list which inevitably falls during storm events. Laurel and water oaks are notorious for being on the top of the problematic list. 

One durable, deep rooted native genus which is usually one of the last standing after stormy weather are pines. Its sturdy structure is one of its many useful features.

Pines offered a variety of potential enterprises for industrious settlers and those who followed. These common trees are rarely appreciated and often overlooked today for their true resource status.

Arguably, the stateliest local pine is the Longleaf.  It is capable of reaching 80 to 125 feet in height with a 30 to 40-foot-branch spread. 

A distinctive characteristic this beautiful tree is the new growth clusters at their branches’ end which are silvery white during the winter. These buds are commonly called candles, and it requires little imagination from the viewer to see the similarity.

Longleaf Pines stay in a tufted, grass-like stage for five to seven years after germinating.  They grow very slowly in this phase while developing a root system.

Once the root system is firmly established, the growth accelerates.  The bright evergreen needles may extend up to 14 inches long and are very flexible, giving a weeping effect to the tree. 

Flowers are inconspicuous and occur in spring, along with abundant pollen. The dusty yellow pollen covers vehicles, lawn furniture, and about everything else outside.

Soon large, spiny cones follow and may remain on the tree for several years. Birds and animals use the seed within the fallen cones as a food source.

The timber from the longleaf pines has a reputation for strength and excellent grain quality. The resinous heartwood is especially durable and is found as flooring in many older homes. 

In addition to the sap has historically been a valuable commodity. Its many applications included being a component for waterproofing wooden ship and as the base product for turpentine. The longleaf was sometime called the turpentine pine.  

The slash pine is another large, stately, heavily-branched, long-needled conifer native to panhandle Florida.  It is capable of a rapid growth rate and the potential of reaching 100 feet in height with a three to four-foot-diameter trunk. 

The six-inch-long cones appear among the dark green, eight-inch-long needles, and are favored by wildlife. Squirrels are particularly fond of the seeds, scattering the cone debris below. 

Slash Pines self-prune its lower branches forming an open, rounded canopy which creates a light, dappled shade beneath. The grey-brown bark is deeply furrowed and scaly. 

The filtered light allows just enough sun to reach understory plants and grow beneath this tall, evergreen tree.  This high, shifting shade provides an opportunity for wildlife habitat in the undergrowth.

Healthy pines typically have deep roots except in poorly-drained soil. Once established slash pines are more tolerant of wet sites than most other pines and are moderately salt-tolerant. 

Pines grow well on a variety of acidic soils in full sun or partial shade. The tap root is prominent in well-drained soils and can make young trees difficult to transplant from the wild. 

While pines go largely unnoticed they are still an integral part of modern life.  Pines produce timber for structures, pine needles and bark for mulch, pulp for paper, and many other commercial uses.  

They also are an excellent specimen tree for home landscapes. Many residents of the Port St. Joe area should consider them when selecting a tree for their home site. 

While not a visually striking exotic, they have numerous positive features. And do not forget their deep roots, both historically and literally.

To learn more about pines in Gulf County, contact the nearest UF/IFAS County Extension Office or visit https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/find-your-local-office/. To read more stories by Les Harrison visit: Outdoorauthor.com.

Looking like some sort of green needle-covered lawn ornament, an early growth-stage longleaf pine is beginning its reach for the sky. Give this long lived, deep rooted tree plenty of room to grow when using in the home landscape.