The perfume of longleaf pine pitch is one of the Southeast’s inherent charms.
The wonderful fragrance is particularly evident on hot summer days, evoking an aromatic reminder of an era when forests of Pinus palustris were found throughout the region, before clear-cutting reduced longleaf populations by more than 95 percent, to be replaced by faster growing pine species.
Today, about 3 million acres of longleaf pines remain in the region. The good news is the trees and their environment are making a slow but steady comeback.
“Many Southeastern landowners have converted parts of their farmland to use for contract hunting, fishing, camping and even bird-watching. The ecosystem supported by native longleaf pines fits perfectly into the business plan for such rural enterprises,” according to Southeast Farm Press.
In addition, timber from longleaf pines is very desirable because it tends to be long, straight and has tight growth rings, the publication added.
Not only does longleaf pine timber tend to bring a premium price compared to pines species such as the loblolly, but longleafs also produce a huge amount of pine straw, which can also be sold to help offset the costs associated with the latter’s longer growing period.
Longleaf ecosystems have other benefits, as well. These include being home to 26 federally listed endangered or threatened species, including the red-cockaded woodpecker, gopher tortoise and flatwoods salamander.
The longleaf is a slow-growing tree, taking 100 to 150 years to reach full size. In addition, it can be difficult to grow because fire is a crucial component to its life cycle.
Modern forestry techniques have sought to curtail fires, which has proven detrimental to longleaf pines.
“A longleaf grows for years without a seed fall; in fact, heat from fire causes seed fall,” according to the website Loblolly Writer’s House.
“Because the cones are larger and the seeds heavier, longleaf seedlings don’t grow far from the parent trees, thus more than a few trees need to be left after cutting for reseeding,” the site added. “Further, those seeds do not do well in shrub and undergrowth – both features natural fires kept at bay.”
Longleaf pines can live for 500 years, and prior to European settlement longleaf forests stretched from Virginia to Texas.
The forests were clear-cut following the War Between the States and trees used as a key source of resin, turpentine and timber. By the end of the 1920s, the species was all but gone from the Southeast, and growers planted loblolly and slash pine in their place.
The latter species could be harvested in a mere fraction of the time it took the longleaf to reach maturity.
“Both are good timber and paper mill trees – and folks looking to raise timber on their private lands saw little future in a tree they couldn’t harvest for three hundred years – not when they could harvest loblolly in 15,” according to the Loblolly Writer’s House.
Concerns over changing global weather patterns have forced scientists to take a new look at native forest species and ecosystems that are better equipped to deal with dramatic changes in local weather systems.
More intense weather and climate extremes that are now being directly linked to increasing frequency and severity of fires, hurricanes, droughts and floods will most directly impact highly cultivated, highly commercial forests, according to Southeast Farm Press.
The longleaf pine’s ability to handle fire bodes well for its future if, as some believe, we’re in for increased forest fires as a result of lightning generated by more frequent and severe thunderstorms, said T.J. Savereno, an extension forestry specialist at Clemson University.
The importance of fire to the growth cycle of the longleaf can’t be understated.
“After several years of developing a strong tap root system, longleaf pines begin to grow in 2-3 feet spurts during each growing season,” according to Southeast Farm Press. “This fast growth quickly lifts their growing tips above the level of most ground fires, and once they add a thick bark, these trees become immune to all but the hottest fires.”
Longleafs have proven more adaptable to extreme weather than most commercial pine species in the Southeast, according to Savereno.
“A few years back Hurricane Hugo came through South Carolina with a devastating effect on forest land. Subsequent studies showed that longleaf pines survived at a much higher rate than loblolly pines and better than other tree species,” Savereno said.
(Top photo: Longleaf pine forest in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southern Georgia. Photo credit: James Staddon.)