The History of Heart Pine - KSLA News 12 Shreveport, Louisiana News Weather & Sports

The History of Heart Pine

The beautiful and durable Heart Pine, also known as Southern Longleaf yellow pine, old growth pine or pitch pine, given the name because of the high content of heart wood, Heart Pine is different from other pines because of the tight growth ring pattern and its unique red - amber color. Colonists who set foot on this vast land found nearly 100,000 square miles of forests covering from Virginia to central Florida, and along the gulf coast as far west as Louisiana and Texas.  These dense forests contained enormous trees that grew as tall as 175 feet and as wide as 125 inches.  Most trees averaged 125 feet tall and 40 inches wide at maturity.

Where there was once approximately 90 million acres, less than 10,000 acres of old-growth heart pine remain today. Put another way, what was once 41 percent of the entire landmass of the Deep South now covers less than 2 percent of its original range. The hardwood trees had been growing for centuries, producing only an inch of growth in diameter every thirty years. It takes up to 500 years for heart pine to mature.

The wood from these trees built a great number of structures throughout America and the world, many of which still stand today.  Homes, plantations, mills, warehouses, factories and public buildings were constructed out of longleaf pine.  In fact, the settlers of Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas built 75 percent of houses and public buildings out of longleaf pine.  The astounding versatility of this wood was apparent, being incorporated into everyday items such as farm implements, furniture and cabinets, to construction, flooring and siding.  The exceptional structural quality of the longleaf pine was utilized in bridges, wharves, trestles, posts, joists and piles.  The wood was used to build ships for the first English Navy, followed by the American Navy.  Longleaf pine was also a major source for naval stores.  The massive historical ship, the U.S.S. Constitution, also known as "Old Ironsides," has a keel made of a single heart pine timber, and its decks are of heart pine planks.  This ship, built in 1794, is the oldest commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy. 

Longleaf pine continued its historical impact with the ruling of King George II, who mandated that all straight pines exceeding 24 inches in diameter would be considered property of the crown.  He then ordered his surveyors to brand the pines with his mark of a broad arrow.  In response to this proclamation, the colonists tarred and feathered the surveyors.  This act is considered by many to have been a precursor to the Boston Tea Party. 

Heart pine played a key role in the growth and development of the United States as an economic power. As industrial America began to flex its muscles later in the 19th century, heart pine was transported in tall ships made of heart pine up the Eastern seaboard and over to Europe. The Herculean wood provided flooring, joists and paneling for homes and factories, as well as timbers for bridges, warehouses, and railroad cars. Also appreciated for its beauty, it was utilized in Victorian hotels and palaces. Anytime you visit an old building, look around. You are likely to recognize heart pine still hard at work and in excellent condition. 

Today, original-growth heart pine is as rare as sunken treasure, with less than 10,000 protected acres of original-growth Longleaf Pine forests remaining. Antique heart pine and heart cypress timbers are revered for their rich history as much as their beauty and durability. Sadly, clear-cutting of the vast southern forests in the late 1800s wiped out virtually the entire range of original-growth heart pine and heart cypress trees. The only place to find the last vestiges of this antique wood is reclamation from old buildings or where it was left behind - under water in the southern rivers used by many timber operations in the 1800s to raft their logs to nearby sawmills.

Characteristics of Heart Pine

  • Red tones: light rose to deep burgundy in color.

  • Beauty: famous for a handsome variety of grain patterns.

  • Durability: heartwood lasts for centuries, comparable in hardness to Red Oak.

  • Rarity: once the dominant landscape of the coastal Southeast, now covers less than 3% of its original range.

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