Virginia pine is pretty easy to identify, having yellowish-green, fairly thick needles that form in clusters (called fascicles) of two. The individual needles are often twisted. If you see a pine tree full of old roundish cones, it’s likely Virginia. The cones are around 2-3 inches long, with each scale armed with a sharp prickle. The bark is mostly smooth, with older trees having thin reddish-brownish plates. Dead branches often persist along the trunk as broken stubs. The canopy often has a twisted, gnarled appearance.
Virginia pine locally goes by other names, including scrub pine and field pine. The unflattering scrub name comes from the fact that the tree lacks eye appeal. The foliage is often sparse and has that unhealthy looking yellow-green color, and the persistent dead branches and old pine cones don’t score beauty points either. The name field pine comes from the fact that Virginia pine is what is called a “pioneer” species, one that quickly moves in on abandoned or disturbed land, such as old farm fields and road cuts. A lot more land was cleared for farming than there is now. After World War II kids had more opportunities to leave the farm to work, and the established farmers got old and could no longer take care of the land. So they gradually let portions of the farm grow up, usually the steeper, harder to manage areas. I visit a lot of farms in my work, and almost all of them have old field area that reverted back to forest, with Virginia pine often in the mix, along with red-cedar. You often will see a lot of road banks growing dog hair thick with Virginia pine where the soil was exposed during construction. Pines have to move fast when growing on a new site because they are very intolerant of shade and have to be first in line for the sunlight. I call them sprinter species.
Moving quickly onto untended ground has earned Virginia pine the reputation of being a weed tree. But a lot of the farm land they now grow on was eroded and worn out, and their fast colonization served to hold the soil in place and over time add organic matter and nutrients back into the soil and improving it for hardwoods that will eventually move in and take over when the pines age and die. Land in our area is ecologically hard wired to be a forest, and wants to be one bad. Paved parking lots dream of being a forest. The process of going from bare ground to weeds and briars, to pioneer pine and cedar trees, to a hardwood forest, is called forest succession. It’s a very persistent survival mechanism of the forest. The only thing holding back your yard from becoming a forest is the lawn mower.
Besides holding soil on old farm fields, Virginia pine does the same for other areas that are too dry, rocky, or clayey for most other trees. They are often found on dry ridge tops. It is one tough tree, and has been planted in mine reclamation projects where the soil is very acidic and compacted.
So while not a pretty or commercially desirable tree, Virginia pine does good things. Several wildlife species make use the seed for food and the low growing branches for cover.