Nov 9, 2023 - News

Australian pines along beaches lend shade, beauty — at a cost

One of the 4,000 photos in my phone of the Australian pines along Sunset Beach. Photo: Kathryn Varn/Axios

Welcome to Tree Hugger, an occasional series about that cool tree in your neighborhood you wish you knew more about.

What's happening: For our first installment, we're bringing you the backstory of Australian pines, which grow all over the Tampa Bay area but are perhaps best known for their presence on our beaches.

I remember the first time I went to Sunset Beach and took in the massive, wispy, pine-looking trees lining the shore. They made me feel like I was somewhere else, a slice of, say, the Pacific Northwest in Florida.

  • I was enamored.

Yes, but: Turns out, they're bad!

Why it matters: Australian pines are not only invasive but harmful to our coastal ecosystems, experts told Axios. They also topple easily in strong winds, so they're dangerous to have around your home or business.

Plus: They're not even pine trees, said Alyssa Vinson, a horticultural expert for the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS).

  • Australian pines are angiosperms, or flowering plants, while conifers, including pines, are gymnosperms. The structures that look like needles are actually just tiny leaves, Vinson told Axios.
A black-and-white photo of a beach lined with trees.
Australian pines once lined Pass-a-Grille Beach, too, shown in this photo dated May 1959. Photo: State Archives of Florida/Charles Lee Barron

The history: The trees were brought to Florida in the 1890s and planted along shorelines, canals and farms to break the wind, according to Vinson. People grew to love them for the shade they provided.

Reality check: The trees are decent windbreaks — to a point. Their shallow root system doesn't stand much of a chance in a hurricane, or even a strong storm, said Stephen Brown, another IFAS expert.

  • Their leaf litter also blocks other native wildlife from growing, Vinson said, which isn't good for the naturally occurring structures that actually save us from hurricanes: sand dunes.
  • And, if that's not enough, their roots make it difficult for sea turtles to nest.

The latest: The trees reproduce and have been around so long that they likely will never totally go away, Brown told Axios. But, "we should never declare a truce with this tree," he said.

  • State and local officials have carried out several removal projects over the years, including at Fort De Soto in 2015. Some governments, like Longboat Key, offer reimbursements to property owners who remove them.
  • Native trees, such as cedars and slash pines, can live in the same habitats as a better-for-the-environment alternative, Vinson said.

As for my beloved vestige along Sunset Beach, those trees are on private property, a Pinellas County spokesman told me. It'll be up to the landowners to decide what, if anything, to do about them.

  • As a now-conflicted fan, I'm glad I'm not the one making that decision.

📬 Have a tree or tree species you're curious about? Email [email protected], and we may look into it for a future story! Please include photos and a location if possible.

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