Falling in love with a longleaf pine.

Today we discovered a hearty old longleaf pine, or Pinus palustris, a few miles away from our home. We were able to identify it right off the bat because our county agent, Neal Hargle, introduced us to a longleaf early this year.

Longleaf pine grows in open to moderately dense stands of pine with various grasses and shrubs in the understory of a woodland forest. It is most commonly found on well-drained soils.

The thick, reddish-brown, scaly bark of mature longleaf pines trees insulate the tree from the heat of fires, providing some fire resistance, as do the thick, silver-white hairs found on buds when longleaf pine is in its grass-stage. This helps explain why longleafs are one of the few types of trees that thrive under low-intensity forest fires. Wikipedia offered more insight into this uncanny fire resistance which characterizes the longleaf:

Longleaf Pine is highly resistant to fire. Periodic natural wildfire selects for this species by killing other trees, leading to open Longleaf Pine forests or savannas. New seedlings do not appear at all tree-like and resemble a green fountain of needles. This form is called the grass stage. During this stage, which lasts for 5–12 years, vertical growth is very slow, and the tree may take a number of years simply to grow ankle-high. After that it makes a growth spurt, especially if there is no tree canopy above it. In the grass stage, it is very resistant to grass fires, which burn off the ends of the needles, but the fire cannot penetrate the tightly-packed needle bases to reach the bud. While relatively immune to fire, at this stage, the plant is quite appealing to feral pigs, and the early settlers habit of releasing swine into the woodlands to feed was greatly responsible for the decline of the species.

The crown is characterized by the “basketball-shaped” tufts of needles at the ends of stout twigs.

Native to the southeastern US, the longleaf pine grows slowly to a height of 75 to 120 feet. Wind carries the male pollen cell to the female cones. Although pollen is transferred to the female cones in the spring, fertilization does not happen until years later.

Needles are in clusters of three, usually clustered towards the ends of the branches, and are eight to eighteen inches long.

Seed cones are six to ten inches long, and have a prickle at the top of each scale.

Longleaf pine used to cover much of the US with its splendid, regal crowns. However, they were quickly chopped down when the Navy and merchants decided to use the turpentine, resin, and timber for their ships. They have been cutover since for timber and usually replaced with faster-growing Loblolly pine and Slash pine, for agriculture, and for urban and suburban development. Deforestation and over-harvesting ensured that only about 3% of the original Longleaf pine forest remains, and little new is planted.

Max observed that “turpentine is some kind of burning agent”. And I reminded him that we use it as a paint thinner when working with oil paints. Despite its threatened status, loggers still cut it down and sell it for lumber, since the reddish to yellowish wood is hard and strong.

Longleaf pines play an irreplaceable role in a woodland forest ecosystem. Pine warblers enjoy feasting on insects which burrow under the bark of longleaf pines. The seeds are an excellent food source for squirrels, turkey, quail, and brown-headed nuthatches. Endangered species such as red-cockaded woodpeckers and indigo snakes are threatened by the loss of the longleaf pine habitat.

Max explained:

“Some kinds of bug larvae are picky and eat only a fungus that grows in dead or dying trees. Black backed woodpeckers come and try to eat the bug’s larvae. And I’m not exactly sure about this, but if I’m right, the droppings of the black-backed woodpecker provide a jackpot of nutrients for the black morels.”

Alina said:

“Wow, Max.”

Max smiled and replied:

“I read it in a book about forest fires. But I can’t find the book- I think Micah hid it. It’s the same book that explains how American Indians use phagnum moss for diapers because the moss can absorb lots of water.”

We decided to make an ecoweb because the longleaf is a threatened species and Max wanted to know what the consequences of the longleaf’s decline might be for other forms of wildlife. So Max looked through books while I scoured the web and we came up with the following list of living beings which depend on the longleaf:

Red-cockaded woodpecker
Nine-banded armadillo
Gopher tortoise
Bachman sparrow
Northern Bobwhite
Pitcher plant
Red fox
Pinewoods milkweed
Cotton mouth snakes
Flatwoods salamander
Fox squirrel
Pine warblers
Indigo snakes

The Longleaf Alliance was founded in 1995 by longleaf pine lovers who refused to allow this magnificent tree to disappear. We learned from their website that the red-cockaded is the only woodpecker in North America that excavates its cavity in a living pine tree. It chips holes around each cavity entrance that causes resin to bleed down the face of the tree. This resin helps to ward off the main nest predator- the grey rat snake. It is sobering and sad to understand that this beautiful bird can only excavate nesting and roosting cavities in old, living longleaf pines.

We also learned that the Gopher tortoise is considered a “keystone species” because upwards to 360 different species of vertebrates and invertebrates use the burrow of the gopher tortoise. Sadly, the tortoise is threatened and declining due to fire suppression and other forestry practices that degrade open forest conditions.

Now off I go to explore relationships between the longleaf and a host of other critters with my ever-curious and always-stimulating Max- the little man that makes forest ecosystems and nature life worth preserving. Hopefully, an ecoweb will be the final result. But who knows? I feel like we learned a lot anyway.

(Source: The Longleaf Alliance)

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