Pines: In the Landscape and in Your Garden

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Virginia Pine on the right, Loblolly Pine at the left edge, serving as a screen. Photo: Charles Kidder.

A trip across the southeastern U.S., from the head of the Chesapeake Bay, down to Florida and across to East Texas, will quickly convince you that this is indeed the Land of the Pine. Depending on exactly where you are, various pine species will predominate, but the overall presence of the genus Pinus in the South is astounding. Given their natural abundance, how can they fit into your landscape? And going beyond your own property lines, what role do pines have in the overall ecology of Albemarle County and Virginia as a whole.

Let’s look first at the native pines that grow around us. The Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana) would probably get the prize for abundance, if not for ornamental value. It’s sometimes called Scrub Pine, owing to its rather scruffy appearance. It tends to hang on to its lower branches, even after they have dropped their needles and died. The small cones, only about 1 ½” to 3” long, hang on to the tree long after they have shed their seeds. The short needles turn a sickly yellow in cold weather. So, what’s good about this tree? Well, it will grow in some of the worst conditions you can throw at it. If you have some bare, compacted, red clay where nothing else wants to grow, Virginia Pine will soldier on. And what about those yellowish needles in winter? In a noteworthy example of making lemonade when you’re dealt lemons, the cultivar ‘Wate’s Golden’ has needles that turn a golden yellow in cold weather, a bold contrast to plants like a red-twigged dogwood. And any Virginia Pine will serve as a good screen if given full sun and room to grow outward.

Also abundant locally, Shortleaf Pine (P. echinata) lends an architectural character to the landscape with its upright growth habit, scaly bark, open crown and sinuous lateral branches. It is a fast grower and puts down a long taproot, allowing it to tolerate very dry sites. Given the difficulties associated with growing a taprooted plant in containers, you are not likely to find this plant for sale at your local garden center.

The South’s most abundant pine is the Loblolly (Pinus taeda), although its native range barely reaches Albemarle County. With its rapid growth, tall straight trunk, adaptability, and prolific seeding habit, loblollies seem to be proclaiming, “Here we come, so get out of our way!” If you want to create a quick screen, plant two or three rows of loblolly pines. The downside: as they get taller, the lower branches will drop off, removing your screen. The solution: plant shade tolerant species like azalea and holly among the pines. They’ll assume the screening function as the pines grow up. You’re most likely to find loblolly pines either at a nursery specializing in native plants, or buy them from the Virginia Department of Forestry.

Growing throughout most of western Virginia, the Eastern White Pine (P. strobus) is a northern tree that has adapted to cooler parts of the South. In our part of the world it is the sole representative of the white pine group. Also known as soft pines, these trees have five needles in each cluster (fascicle); the yellow pines discussed above have harder wood and two or three needles in each cluster. Needles on white pines tend toward bluish-green in color, opposed to the more yellow-green of the hard pines. White pines appreciate moderate moisture and good drainage, and given adequate water they will grow rapidly; two feet or more per year can be expected from established trees.

Another significant difference between the white pine and all its yellow pine cousins: its perceived landscape value. I will grant you that value in the garden is pretty much a personal opinion, but the white pine’s blue-green needles and soft, graceful appearance definitely make it stand out in the sea of yellow pines. (Presumably this “standing out from the crowd” factor wouldn’t hold as much in New England, where the White Pine is abundant.)

The numerous cultivars available for White Pine also are a major factor in its popularity. Depending on whom you consult, there are a few dozen out there; below are just a few:

‘Compacta’ and ‘Nana’ are catchall terms for dwarf plants, generally low and mounding. You might see a ‘Compacta’ white pine at one nursery that is somewhat different from another of the same name at another nursery.

‘Contorta’—an open, irregular tree with twisted needles, only 18’ high at 40 years;

‘Fastigiata’—upright and columnar when young, becoming somewhat broader with age, with branches at a 45-degree angle;

‘Glauca’—various cultivars with bluish needles;

‘Minima’—dense and low-spreading, growing about 1” per year, needles very short (1”);

‘Pendula’—a weeper with long branches that will sweep the ground unless staked or trained, somewhat resembles a wooly mammoth with age;

‘Angel Falls’—another weeper that appears more restrained and elegant than ‘Pendula’.

All of these cultivars will cost more than the straight species, especially the dwarf/compact forms. Slow growth equals more time growing in the nursery before the plant is ready to sell. And not to sound like an arbiter of taste, but weeping plants need to be placed carefully in your landscape. Otherwise your garden can look like the local freak show.

Our native pines have value as pioneers that colonize open spaces, later to be followed by the hardwood species. All pines provide evergreen cover for wildlife, with birds and squirrels feeding on the seeds. Deer can browse the branches—not exactly a good thing if you just plunked down hundreds of dollars for a choice cultivar!

There’s still a lot to say about pines. More to come in March.

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