So Whats the Big Deal About Longleaf?

Anatomy of A Rowhouse
Way back in the way back, we talked about the tree species that collectively form the group known as Southern Yellow Pines. Remember? We talked about how most of our joists were various species of SYP: shortleaf, loblolly and slash pines. We did, however, leave one species out of our discussion of SYP, promising that we’d dedicate a separate post to it. Two months later, we’re delivering: here is the post about Longleaf Pine.

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Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) is a tree among trees: virgin trees once grew to up to 150 ft tall with trunk diameters of nearly four feet. “Palustris” refers to swamps or marshes, and represents a significant taxonomic error made by esteemed Scottish botanist Philip Miller, who first “discovered” the species during winter flooding and mistakenly assumed a marshy habitat.
Longleaf forest once dominated the Southeastern region of the US, with an estimated 90,000,000 acres of tall, straight, sturdy trees creating a supply of lumber that was seen as essentially inexhaustible. Fast forward to the present, and only .01% of those old growth longleaf forests exist.
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This photo from 1906 gives you some sense of the scale of old growth longleaf pines (Image courtesy of conifers.org)

In the reclaimed wood world, longleaf represents the gold standard of pines- because the tree grows slowly, it creates an extraordinarily tight grain with pronounced resin in latewood growth rings. High resin content, which made the tree especially useful as a source for pitch and turpentine, makes longleaf lumber wonderfully fragrant, and unusually heavy and hard. For a so-called softwood, longleaf lumber is just about as hard as some maple species.
02_Endgrain - Reclaimed Long Leaf Pine

Longleaf lumber can be identified by its uber tight grain, pronounced latewood, unusual heaviness (owing to such high resin content) and beautiful scent

As a general (though not ironclad) rule, first floor flooring in older houses was milled from harder woods than second floor flooring- higher foot traffic meant that first floors featured oak, ash, maple, and other hardwoods while second floors usually got softwoods like pine and fir. Though hardwood species were predominately used in higher end houses, the rule of using harder wood on the first floor often applies in more modest old houses. On Eager Street, most of the first floors feature longleaf flooring, while the second floors are various softer SYP species.

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In 1907, when the floor was laid, longleaf pine was certainly a lower-cost alternative to hardwood, offering comparable hardness at a discounted price. One hundred odd years later, longleaf is a low-cost alternative no more, fetching a pretty penny as one of the more desirable reclaimed wood species. It’s not hard to see why: a quick pass through a planer knocked off 107 years of footfall and dust, resulting in the gorgeous board you see on the left.

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One thought on “So Whats the Big Deal About Longleaf?

  1. Excellent post! I am reminded of a house I lived in in Old Town Key West for a while. It had been built in the 1840’s. The landlord had described the flooring as being made from “Dade County pine”. He said it was almost impossible to drive a nail into it and that was a fact. That flooring was as hard as any oak I’ve ever run across. He also gave the reason for its hardness as being the fact that it grew in areas where the water had higher than normal salt content thus causing the trees to grow more slowly. I’m not sure that is exactly correct but the growth rings certainly indicated that the species was a slow growing one. Here is a link to an article about reclaimed Dade County pine. http://pinetreebuilders.com/lumber.htm

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