Do dwarf Loblollies deserve a fan club? We think so. There’s a rarely seen form of loblolly pine – a dwarf – that needs more attention in the nursery and landscape world of the South. Pinus taeda ‘Nana’ is a class act replacement for a number of pines that find use in the South. With a little time and the right spot, a dwarf loblolly makes a statement like few other trees.
Let’s face it, pines dominate and define the South. There are three main Pines in East Texas: Longleaf, Shortleaf, and Loblolly. Loblolly pines run as far north as New Jersey, down to Florida and then all the way over to East Texas and Oklahoma. They are everywhere. They’re survivors, grow fast, and form the foundation of the southern timber industry. In a good spot, they’re trouble free and low maintenance. However, there’s a down side. When houses pop up in their shade it isn’t long until home owners are staring sadly at 100’ towering giants with a well known reputation to fall right over into your living room. Let’s face it. Young pines like to lean toward sunlight and they grow fast when they’re favored. They often are. A house means a sunlight hole that trees push to fill. In severe ice storms pines – particularly the long needled species – easily shed thigh-sized branches – making fine work out of anything they land on, or they simply fall over and say goodbye. A good rule of thumb is to plant loblolly pines about 100 to 150 feet away from the house.
Or, there’s another solution! Well, there are several interesting dwarf forms of Loblolly – rarely found at nurseries – that make fine specimens in time. While rarely seen and propagated generally only by grafting, they are worth a search. Doremus Nursery near Warren, Texas, has a stunning row of dwarf loblolly pines. There are some beautiful trees at the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, NCSU. I’ve seen dwarf forms on the east coast. The late J.C. Raulston long touted the merits of dwarf adapted pines for sensible landscaping. With a growth rate of about 20’ in twenty years, this is a specimen pine that will never threaten to smash your home, yet it will provide all the positives of a pine. ‘Nana’ features a strong horizontal branching habit with a tendency to keep lower limbs. It can be used as a woodland evergreen screen. The tree form can best be described as dense and round to oval.
The dwarf loblolly is most often created by grafting a witches’ broom on a loblolly pine rootstock. A witches’ broom is a part of a tree that displays unusually high branching and short stems. It’s often a seductive clump tucked on a branch high up in a tree. If one can “harvest” that part of the tree (shotgun, climb the tree and cut it out, or just cut down the tree) and then graft scions to a loblolly rootstock, well, you would have a dwarf loblolly. The root cause of a witches broom is complicated and rests with genetic changes that are often the result of some unique stress (aphids, bacteria, disease, etc.). The seedlings of a witches broom can be but are not always dwarf.
Witches broom, image by Greg Grant
Isn’t it odd that there are so many cultivars associated with “exotic” pines – an amazing number, really – and so few with our very own natives? P. sylvestris, the Scotch pine, has perhaps a hundred varieties in the trade at any one time – a species, by the way, that is impossible across much of the South. There are several dozen varieties of Japanese black pine, P. thunbergii, another species that seems to perform well here for about ten years before succumbing to one thing or the other. So, how do exotic pines fare here in the Pineywoods? Well, not so good. Tip moth and beetles are the main culprits. At one point, the SFA Mast Arboretum had 26 species of Pine that whittled down rather quickly to two exotics that survived. One was the Himalayan pine, P. wallichiana, and the other was the Italian stone pine, P. pinea, which is quite long lived across the South.
When it comes to native pines of the South, we’ve got a long way to go in supply superior cultivars to the public. As far as I know, the longleaf pine (P. palustris) has no cultivars available. The spruce pine (P. glabra) is native to South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida and performs well across much of the South but there are no known cultivars in the trade. What about Shortleaf pine (P. echinata)? Well, it’s pretty much the same picture, but we do have a “weeping” form from North Carolina that is slow growing but promises great things with age. There may be a fastigiate (columnar) form of P. echinata but it is not yet in our collection. The general conclusion here is that Pines are a foundation for Southern landscapes – and when there’s diversity available it should be evaluated and capitalized on.
Culturally, dwarf loblolly can be treated as any other loblolly. In general, the plant responds well to full sun, a well-drained site, mulch, medium fertilizer, and irrigation during dry spells particularly in the establishment years. Because of its nature, a dwarf loblolly pine can be recommended for planting quite close to a home or structure. The down side of dwarf loblolly pines right now is obviously availability (in any sizes) – and their economic sense in the nursery trade. They are occasionally available at Doremus Nursery, Warren, Texas. Part of the problem rests in educating the public and landscapers that there are solutions to many landscape projects where dwarf Loblollies are just the right choice.
This is a seedling from a batch of seed taken from a witches broom. Out of several dozen seedlings we chose six that are dwarf. I think Dawn named this one ‘Little Whiskers’.