Jane's Garden 3/16/14: Longleaf pines and woodpeckers

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Trees provide nesting for threatened species

Visitors to my garden comment on the tall Longleaf Pines, Pinus palustris, scattered throughout the landscape. They ask, “don’t pines attract lightning?”


The answer is “yes.” Lightning is attracted to the tallest thing that can lead it to the ground. The tall pines do just that. Lightning killed one Longleaf the first month I bought the house in the sandhill habitat of the Brooksville Ridge. Each year, several pines nearby get struck by lightning. Neither I nor the neighbors have had lightning damage inside our homes. Mature Longleafs conduct lightning to the ground.

Our houses are spared, but the trees slowly die. Needles turn orange and fall off. After two to three years, the Longleaf will drop most of its branches. These fall straight down close to the standing trunk. A year or two later, the top third will topple. The tree top seldom lands far from the trunk. It decomposes on the forest floor to release its stored nutrients into the soil. Other plants grow on the nutrients.

Remaining dead snags provide nest sites for cavity-nesting birds and wildlife. Finally the roots rot away, allowing the trunk to fall naturally. Pushing on the snag is sometimes enough to direct the snag to fall where it will do the least harm to other vegetation.

Longleaf once dominated the natural Florida landscape. It ranged from South Florida north to southwest Virginia and west to southeastern Texas in cold hardiness Zones 7-10. Over-harvested, Longleafs now grow across less than 10 percent of their former range. Marion County forester Greg Barton told me the Florida range today is about 2 percent of its historic range before European contact.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers nest mainly in Longleaf Pines. South of Longleaf range, some nest in South Florida Slash Pines, Pinus elliotii. In Texas, these birds nest in Loblolly Pines, P. taeda.

As humans removed the Longleafs, the red-cockaded woodpecker population declined. These woodpeckers are federally endangered and have disappeared from Tennessee and probably Virginia and Kentucky. Commonly called RCW, they can be spotted in Goethe State Forest in Levy County, and in three locations in the Ocala National Forest in Marion County. Citrus County has recovering populations in the Withlacoochee and Croom State Forests. Look for a wide, white-painted band marking colony trees near the intersection of Trails 10 and 13 near Central Landfill south of State Road 44.

Charlie Pedersen oversees the RCWs in Goethe State Forest. His tip is to look for Longleafs with their lower trunks wrapped in aluminum foil in May. This prevents red rat snakes from climbing the tree and eating the nestling RCWs in that particular tree. Birders can easily see parent and helper juveniles flying in to feed babies. RCW food is insects — particularly ants found on pine bark.

Birdwatchers from around the world come to see this rare woodpecker. Some Citrus County birds have been relocated to other protected Longleaf forests in Florida where there is sufficient food. Nest boxes are installed inside healthy Longleaf Pines to encourage breeding. RCWs seek out trees infected with red heart fungal disease, as the wood is softer to chip. Biologists gas-drill starter holes to encourage colonization.

Lightning is normal and inevitable in Florida, particularly in the hot summer. Land warms early in the day, heating the air above it. Hot air rises; the ocean and gulf on both sides of Florida’s long peninsula are cooler, with cooler air above them. Rising air above hot land leaves a place for cooler, denser air to be drawn to. The two air masses collide, producing lightning, thunder, and drenching rains.

Lightning ignites natural fires which cause some pine cones to open and release their seeds. Longleaf seeds flutter down from open cones still on the trees in winter. If the seed lands on mineral, sandy soil it germinates and sends down a long tap root. From January to March, I watch for the seed wing sticking up indicating a tiny pine seedling. Tiny seedlings can be dug up without damaging the tap root and promptly be replanted in a suitable location where they may grow to maturity. I usually have potted seedlings ready for visitors to adopt. They remain in the grass stage for five to eight years before growing a foot of trunk the next year. After that, the trunk can grow 3 feet per year. Mature Longleafs grow 120 feet tall with a 30 to 50 foot spread. Lifespan can be 200 years.


Jane Weber is a professional gardener and consultant. Semi-retired, she grows thousands of native plants. Visitors are welcome to her Dunnellon, Marion County, garden. For an appointment, call 352-249-6899 or contact JWeber12385@gmail.com.