A drive across the southeastern United States from Maryland to east Texas makes one thing abundantly clear. This is the land of the pine.
With 11 (or perhaps 12) species, pines predominate, especially in the Coastal Plain. Some species occupy a fairly narrow range, while others like the loblolly pine occur throughout the region. But one pine in particular has achieved an importance out of proportion to its current abundance in the landscape, the longleaf pine, Pinus palustris.
As the name suggests, the longleaf has the longest needles—8” to 18”— of any pine in the United States, if not the world. The needle clusters resemble ballerina tutus when they hang downward. Owing to their great length, the needles tremble and shimmer hypnotically in the slightest breeze. Widely spaced on the longleaf’s stout twigs, the needle clusters lend a tree with a coarse branching structure a surprisingly delicate appearance.
At the time of European arrival in the Americas, longleaf pines abounded, occupying an estimated 90,000,000 acres from Virginia to east Texas. Now they occupy 3% of their former territory. What happened?
The longleaf was too useful a tree for its own good, with strong lumber, generally straight growth, and resistance to rot. The King of England had first dibs on logs from superior specimens. And in an era of wooden ships, the pine’s resin was tapped for naval stores, a process not beneficial to the tree’s health.
To make matters worse, longleaf is particular when it comes to its cultural requirements. It needs abundant sunlight and doesn’t tolerate competition, even from its own kind. Its seeds typically germinate only on bare soil, free of abundant leaf litter. Fire to the rescue. For most of their life cycle, longleaf pines are highly resistant to fire, so flames can consume leaf duff and knock back potential competitors without hurting the pines.
This strategy of fire dependence only works when you have periodic burns, however. Before humans arrived on the North American continent, lightning would have produced frequent fires that would have been extinguished only by rain or through encounters with wet ground. When the first peoples arrived, they would have observed that fire was a useful tool for maintaining an open forest. European colonists would have followed suit— until their increasing numbers made fire an unwelcome neighbor.
Today, the longleaf pine is making something of a comeback, thanks to considerable human intervention. Controlled burns and thinning now give this majestic tree an opportunity to prosper.
Where are some good places to see longleaf in its native haunts? Head south to the North Carolina Sandhills, and the aptly-named town of Southern Pines. Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve, a few miles east of town, has several miles of trails leading through open woods of longleaf, with wildflowers in the understory in spring and fall. The Boyd Tract, a separate unit of the preserve, is home to the second-largest longleaf pine in the country, as well as to what appears to be the oldest, dating to 1548.
Traveling toward the N.C. coast, you can visit two quite different longleaf areas. Green Swamp lies between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach, S.C., and much of it is not swampy in the usual sense of the word. About 5.5 miles north of Supply, N.C. (at the intersection of U.S. 17 and NC 211) is a preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy. Leaving the small, sandy parking area, you initially walk into an open woodland of mostly slash pines, native to South Carolina, and now being replaced by longleafs. Continue on, and the trail traverses a small boggy area (aka pocosin) via a narrow boardwalk, and then emerges into a longleaf pine savanna. This area is known for carnivorous plants that grow in the longleaf savanna. Pitcher plants (Sarracenia spp.) show their trap-like leaves most of the year, with the flowers appearing in May. Venus flytraps (Dionaea muscipula) are also here, but given their small size, much harder to spot.
About two hours northeast of Supply lies the Croatan National Forest, a large area occupying much of the land between New Bern and the coastal sounds. A good place for walking among longleafs is the Patsy’s Pond area, 6.3 miles east of the intersection of NC 24 and NC 58 and directly across the highway from the offices of the N.C. Coastal Federation.
Several well-marked trails wind through this area and around its small ponds; it’s a good idea to take a picture of the preserve map at the trailhead. Many of the longleafs are marked with a white band a few feet off the ground, indicating that red-cockaded woodpeckers are nesting there. Most of the pines stand tall and straight, but occasionally you can spot a twisty one that’s been racked by passing hurricanes.
If you want to explore a pocosin, a slightly elevated bog inhabited by shrubs and trees, drive seven miles northeast from Kuhns (on NC Hwy 58) along Great Lake Road. Many of the trees in here are pond pines, one of the few pines that can sprout from a stump. In late summer you might spot the white flowers of the loblolly bay tree, Gordonia lasianthus, a camellia relative.
With high plant diversity in the understory, but only one tree species in the canopy, longleaf forests might at first glance appear to be boring or monotonous. Instead, the great uniformity of the forest is totally mesmerizing, especially when a strong breeze is soughing through the needles.
But what about longleaf pines in Virginia, the northernmost point in their range? Studies indicate that in historical times longleaf grew south of the James River and east of the Fall Line. Now it is restricted to a few preserves in the southeast part of the commonwealth that protect longleaf and its associated ecosystems. Access is generally limited, but some preserves may be visited by arrangement through the steward. Check the website of the Virginia Natural Heritage Program. For the Blackwater Ecological Preserve near Zuni— part of Old Dominion University—try contacting them at (757) 683-3595.