It's hard to escape pines if you live in the South. And few of us would want to. The native longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) is just as iconic to the region as is the live oak (Quercus virginiana). As a group, these conifers are much better adapted to our soils and climate than firs (Abies) and spruces (Picea). They tolerate heat, humidity, drought, clay, and sand. Many become tall, graceful shade trees, providing filtered light to gardens below and whisper as the wind blows through the needles. Others featuring weeping, creeping, or dwarf forms make excellent garden accents.
Differences in cone size and shape offer one way to tell these trees apart; another identifying characteristic is the number of needles in a bundle (pines bear their needles in clusters, or bundles, on the branches). Most species carry their long, slender needles in groups of two, three, or five. Those with two needles tend to tolerate unfavorable soil and climate better than three-needle species, and three-needle pines more so than five-needle ones.
Young trees tend to be pyramidal, while older ones are more open or round topped. Seeds of all pines attract birds; some species produce the pine nuts enjoyed by people and sold commercially.
P. bungeana. LACEBARK PINE. Zones US, MS; USDA 6-7. Hardy to -20F. From northern and central China. Grows 5075 ft. tall, 2035 ft. wide. Slow growing. Starts out pyramidal to rounded, then becomes more open, spreading, and picturesque. Often multitrunked, sometimes shrubby. Smooth, dull gray bark flakes off to reveal creamy white patches. Bright green needles in groups of three are 24 in. long. Cones are up to 2 in. long and yellowish brown. Limbs are brittle, can break under heavy ice or snow load. 'Great Wall' is a dense, pyramidal form.
P. cembroides. MEXICAN PINYON PINE. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. From Arizona to Baja, California, and northern Mexico. Grows slowly to 1020 ft. tall, nearly as wide. Rather rangy in youth; in older trees stout, spreading branches form a round-topped head. Dark green needles in groups of two or three are 12 in. long. Cones are 12 in. long, rounded, and yellowish or reddish brown. Very drought tolerant and adapted to poor, rocky, limy soils. Good choice for drier areas of Texas and Oklahoma. Cones contain edible seeds (pine nuts).
P. clausa. SAND PINE. Zones LS, CS, TS; USDA 8-11. From the Gulf Coast and coastal areas of Florida. Grows moderately to 3040 ft. tall and 1520 ft. wide. Slender and upright with an irregular crown. Dark green needles in groups of two are 23 in. long. Cones are 23 in. long; ovoid-conic. Good in sandy soils along the coast.
P. echinata. SHORTLEAF PINE. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. From dry, upland soils of Georgia, Oklahoma, and Texas. Fast growing to 5080 ft. tall and 3045 ft. wide. Open, pyramidal habit when mature, with sinuous branches. Dark, bluish green needles in groups of two or three and 35 in. long. Pale brown cones are 12 in. long; ovoid-oblong. Important timber species. Adaptable but deep rooted and difficult to move once established. Good lawn tree. Resistant to most insects and diseases that affect other pines.
P. eldarica (P. brutia eldarica). AFGHAN PINE. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. From southern Russia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Grows fast to 3080 ft. tall, 1530 ft. wide. Dense, erect habit, somewhat rounded with age. Dark green needles in groups of two reach 56 in. long. Cones are oval to oblong, 3 in. long, reddish brown. Thrives in heat, wind, and poor soil. Well adapted to the Southwest. Often grown there for Christmas trees.
P. elliotti. SLASH PINE. Zones LS, CS, TS; USDA 8-11. From the Coastal Plain from South Carolina to Florida and west to eastern Louisiana. Fast growing, possibly to 80 ft. high and 35 ft. wide. Dense, rounded crown. Dark green, stiff needles in groups of two or three are up to 1 ft. long. Shiny brown cones to 36 in. long. Usually planted for quick shade or erosion control. Adapted to acid-soil areas of east Texas. P. e. densa thrives in southern Florida.
P. glabra. SPRUCE PINE. Zones LS, CS; USDA 8-9. From South Carolina to Louisiana. Grows to 4060 ft. high and 30 ft. wide. Horizontal branching at the top of trunk with a rounded crown. Branches low, casting heavy shade. Difficult to grow grass under. Dark green, twisted needles in groups of two are 23 in. long. Buff-colored cones to 22 in long; ovoid. Likes fertile, moist, acid soil but tolerates heavy clay. Widely planted in Lower South (USDA 8) east of the Mississippi River.
P. mugo. MUGO PINE, SWISS MOUNTAIN PINE. Zones US, MS; USDA 6-7. From the mountains of central and southern Europe. This slow-growing, extremely variable species can reach 75 ft. tall, but smaller forms offered in nurseries and garden centers tend to be shrubby and symmetrical. Dark green needles to 3 in. long are held in groups of two, crowded on the branches. Cones to 2 in. long are tawny to dark brown. Durable and adaptable. Moderate to regular water.
Look for named selections to ensure uniformity in size and shape. All look best if left to grow naturally; choose plants with a pleasingly rounded form rather than trying to shape them later through pruning.
'Big Tuna' is dense and upright, to 10 ft. tall and 68 ft. wide. 'Gnom' forms a tight globe just 2 ft. high and wide after 10 years. The popular dwarf 'Mops' forms a dense mound to 23 ft. high and wide; needles take on a golden cast in winter. 'Slowmound' is dense and slow growing to 12 ft. high and wide in 10 years. 'Tannenbaum' grows slowly into a dense Christmas-tree shape about 10 ft. tall and 6 ft. wide. The Pumilio Group includes several compact selections. Selections with golden needles are also available.
P. mugo mugo, dwarf mugo pine, is widely offered. It is low growing, usually topping out at 48 ft. tall and up to twice as wide. Excellent performer but quite variable in habit.
P. palustris. LONGLEAF PINE. Zones MS, LS, CS, TS; USDA 7-11. From Virginia to Florida and west to Mississippi, southeastern coast. Slow growing for 510 years, then fast to 5580 ft. tall and 2530 ft. wide. Young plants look like fountains of grass. With age, gaunt, sparse branches ascend to form an open, oblong head. Dark green needles in groups of three are 1 ft. long in youth (called grass stage) and replaced by 9-in. needles when mature. Cones are 610 in. long and dull brown. Prefers deep soils (grows on sandy ridges in its native range). The classic, graceful pine of the South.
P. parviflora. JAPANESE WHITE PINE. Zones US, MS; USDA 6-7. From Japan and Taiwan. Slow to moderate grower to 2050 ft. tall and wide or larger. In youth, a dense pyramid; with age, wide spreading and flat topped. Needles are 12 in. long, bluish green, and held in groups of five. Reddish brown cones are 23 in. long. Widely used and popular as bonsai subject, container tree. 'Bergman' has thin, blue-green needles and an upright habit; grows 6 ft. tall, 4 ft. wide, in 10 years. 'Glauca Brevifolia' has short, blue-green needles and persistent dark cones; upright and broad, it grows to an eventual 40 ft. tall and wide. Many other blue-gray and dwarf forms are available. Regular water.
P. strobus. WHITE PINE, EASTERN WHITE PINE. Zones US, MS; USDA 6-7. From Newfoundland to Manitoba, south to Georgia and west to Illinois and Iowa. Slow in seedling stage, then fast to 5080 ft. tall (or taller), 2040 ft. wide. Forms a symmetrical pyramid, with horizontal branches in regular whorls. Becomes broad, open, and irregular with age. Fine-textured, handsome tree. Blue-green needles are soft, 35 in. long, held in groups of five. Light brown cones reach 38 in. long. Intolerant of strong winds. Needs regular water and excellent drainage. Popular Christmas tree. 'Contorta' has twisted branches and needles. 'Angel Falls' and 'Pendula' have weeping, trailing branches. 'Niagara Falls' is also weeping, but with a very broad, cascading habit. 'Blue Shag' is a blue-needled form. 'Louie' has bright-yellow needles in fall.
Plants in the Nana group are broad shrubs, growing slowly to 37 ft. tall, 612 ft. wide. Useful in rock gardens or containers, though plants sold under this name have been known to grow into small trees.
P. sylvestris. SCOTCH PINE. Zones US, MS; USDA 6-7. From northern Europe, western Asia, northeastern Siberia. Grows fast at first, then moderately to 3070 ft. (possibly to 100 ft.) tall and 2530 ft. wide. Forms a narrow, well-branched pyramid when young. With age, becomes irregular, open, and picturesque, with drooping branches. Stiff, 1- to 3-in.-long, blue-green needles often turn yellow-green in winter. Cones to 2 in. long are gray to reddish brown. Popular as a Christmas tree and in gardens. Showy red bark, sparse foliage in maturity. Deer and wind resistant. Needs regular water in hottest areas, moderate water elsewhere.
Plants in the Aurea group take on bright golden tones in winter. 'French Blue' keeps its blue color throughout the cold months. Handsome and dense 'Fastigiata' grows slowly to 2030 ft. tall and just 46 ft. wide. 'Inverleith', to 4060 ft. tall and 2025 ft. wide, sports needles tipped in creamy white. Dwarf forms include rounded 'Beuvronensis', blue-green 'Glauca Nana', and relatively fast-growing 'Watereri'. 'Hillside Creeper' is well named; it grows to 2 ft. high and 8 ft. wide in 10 years and makes an interesting ground cover.
P. taeda. LOBLOLLY PINE. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. From southern New Jersey to Florida, east Texas, and Oklahoma. Fast growing to 5090 ft. tall and 3040 ft. wide. Loose, cone shape in youth; as it matures, loses lower branches to become a rather opened crowned tree. Dark yellowish green needles are 610 in. long and grouped in threes (rarely twos). Rust-brown, oval to narrowly conical cones are 36 in. long in clusters of two to five. Tough tree; withstands poor soils. Useful in Lower South (USDA 8) for quick screening and shade. Adapted to acid soils of east Texas. Widely planted for pulp lumber. Provides light shade; good to garden under. Old favorite in the South.
P. thunbergii. JAPANESE BLACK PINE. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. From Japan. Grows at a moderate rate to 2040 ft. tall and 1520 ft. wide. Spreading branches form a broad, conical tree; irregular and spreading in age, often with a leaning trunk. Bright green needles are stiff, 34 in. long, held in groups of two; new growth (candles) nearly white. Brown cones grow to about 3 in. long. Handsome tree that can be sheared as a Christmas tree or pruned as a cascade or giant bonsai. Regular water in hottest areas. Very salt tolerant but subject to nematodes. 'Majestic Beauty' has good form and tolerates smog and salt. Dwarf 'Thunderhead' (6 ft. tall, 5 ft. wide in 10 years) has dark foliage and white candles that are eye-catching in spring.
P. virginiana. VIRGINIA PINE, SCRUB PINE. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. From New York to Georgia and Alabama. Slow growing to 4555 ft. tall and 3040 ft. wide. Broad, open, sparsely branched habit with wide, stiff top. Yellow-green to dark green, twisted needles are 14 in. long and grouped in twos. Persistant, 3-in.-long, conical to ovoid cones in clusters of two to four. Seldom used as an ornamental but valuable in clay or poor soils. Popular cut Christmas tree in the Lower South (USDA 8). Adapts to most well-drained soils.
P. wallichiana. HIMALAYAN WHITE PINE. Zones US, MS; USDA 6-7. From the Himalayas. Slow to moderate growth to 3050 ft. tall, 1530 ft. wide; much larger in the wild. Broad and conical, it often retains branches to the ground even in age. Gracefully drooping, soft-looking, blue-green needles 68 in. long are held in groups of five. Cones are 610 in. long and light brown. Good form and color make this a fine choice for featured pine in a big lawn or garden. 'Nana' is dense and upright, to about 3 ft. high and wide after 10 years. 'Zebrina' has needles banded in yellow, giving the plant an overall glow.