Mystery Plant! #776

John Nelson

Posted 5/28/24

By John Nelson

We’ve had a number of  mysterious pine tree species in this column, and here is another. There’s always a new pine species to learn about: after all, there are about 100 species worldwide.

(Photo by John Nelson.)

This one is growing in a small park not far from my house, in the Shandon area of Columbia, in my old neighborhood. Around here it is a common native species, and can be seen just about all over town, and for that matter, just about anywhere else in South Carolina (mostly though, in the piedmont counties). Now, you probably have this very handsome tree growing not far from where you live, as it is widespread in the southeast, extending from eastern Texas, and Arkansas and Missouri, to the Florida panhandle, and then north. It is frequently found in the New Jersey pine barrens, and may reach its northern limit on Staten Island (so said the excellent Harvard dendrologist Charles S. Sprague in 1933, in his famous “Manual of the Trees of North America”.)

It is a pine, rather obviously. In the genus Pinus, so there’s not much mystery there. But which one? There are about ten different pines that are native down here in the South. This one is potentially a large, stately tree, to 100′ tall (the national champion is apparently in Mississippi, and is 138’ tall), and is valued as an excellent source of lumber, plywood, and pulp, although it is not grown in extensive plantations as are its cousins, loblolly and slash pine. The needles are straight (not twisted) and fairly short (4″ or so) when compared to most of its relatives. Like all pines, it will produce male and female cones on the same branch. The male cones produce pollen. The female cones are the source of the winged seeds…and they are sometimes called “seed” cones. The seed cones of this pine are rather small, again compared to other pine species. Each of the woody scales on the seed cone comes with a sharp point, so the whole cone is quite prickly. (In fact, the scientific name of this species can be translated as “prickly pine”.)

(Photo by John Nelson.)

This pine doesn’t like wet feet. You will find it on high-ground sites, away from any standing water.  This species is a rapid colonizer of old fields throughout its range. When such fields are colonized, additional pine species as well as hardwoods will invariably show up, too, resulting eventually in what ecologists sometimes call a “mixed pine-hardwood” stand.

            Another mystery presents itself here: way up in the top of the tree on the left, you can clearly see a portion of growth which is especially compact and dense, with unusually crowded, stunted needles. This is a “witch’s broom,” an unusual and bristly growth form that may be the result of an injury to the tree, or possibly from the infestation of a parasite. Witch’s brooms occur in many conifers, as well as in various broad-leaved trees. They are sometimes prized in horticulture as curiosities.

[Answer:   “Shortleaf pine,” “Short-needle pine,” Pinus echinata]

John Nelson is the retired curator of the Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit or email

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