Pinus palustris. Longleaf pine. 5 January 2002

The Tree that Built Tidewater--Winter Reflections on Longleaf Pine

Winter is my favorite season to enjoy longleaf pine. Without leaves on trees and shrubs, this pine seems to assume a more prominent position in the cutover, farmed and abused landscape it once reigned over. No ticks, chiggers, or mosquitos are other benefits of winter walks! Marks of fire, required for longleaf survival, are more conspicuous this time of year in the scorched trunks of standing trees and the charred remains of those shrubs-- ecological interlopers-- not adapted to fire.

Pine forests are famed for the lilting whispers that frame their presence on a summer day with even the slightest breeze, a sound so enticing that when motels first appeared, many were called Whispering Pines. The December day I visited the Blackwater Ecologic Preserve was drizzling and grey. Extraneous sounds were muffled by the fog and the gentle, consistent dripping. Vibrant in their understated manner, mosses were green and decidedly happy. Many were producing capsules to open when the air dried so the spores could be distributed by a breeze. Hummocks of peat mosses covered low areas in uneven mounds with varied hues of green and pink where insect eating pitcher plants once grew. These humble mosses define vast areas of bogs in the taiga. Here, they are the deep-pile carpeting of a plant community rare in Virginia. Known technically as wet pine flatwoods 3647, this is one of many vegetation types in the Southeast associated with longleaf.

Trunks of longleaf were wet and dark. As I looked at the few trees probably hatched when Kennedy was president, I wondered how the preserve appeared during the reign of Henry VIII when mammoth longleaf pines towered above the deep sandy soil. I imagined how spectacular these woods must have been but was brought back to the present recalling Aldo Leopold's famous query of what a field of wild sunflowers looked like tickling buffalo bellies, and deciding it was a question not to be asked. It was just too late with too much of the original habitat gone. Fortunately, the longleaf has not suffered the same fate. At least, we can still find vestiges of its former glory even here at its northern limit..

Hearts of longleaf are impregnated with resins virtually resistant to decay. Tracing in the sandy soil what was once a stately tree trunk, I find parts in the ground still hard and fragrant from the pitch, a kind of embalming fluid for trees. Worn smooth by weather and bleached by the sun, these arboreal vertebrae are sometimes used as kindling and known in rural North Carolina as "lighter wood", "fat lighter", or "fat wood" because they burn furiously. Other carcasses remain in the form of big turpentine stumps, trees that had large box like areas hollowed out to collect resin. Even the bark of longleaf strives for immortality and is readily identified by persistent layers at the base of stumps long ago burned deep into the soil. I counted over 200 growth rings on one stump. No doubt when this tree was cut, the pines were abundant. In the first half of the 1800s, records show hundreds of barrels of naval stores shipped from Isle of Wight County.

My eye catches some seeds of longleaf on the white sand. What an encouragement! This means that the trees have produced seed and that the fire has reduced the litter sufficiently to allow for germination. But all the seeds I examine are hollow and lifeless. This could be because the population of trees is so small at the preserve that reproduction can not take place.

Though a southern tree which defined the forest type throughout much of the South, longleaf has a proclivity for winter weather. Seeds germinate in December unlike any other of our native pines. Seedlings must establish themselves during the winter months if they are to see another season. By the heat of summer, the young pine resembles a grass plant (unique among all pines) and sends its tap root in search of water ensuring its survival.

Longleaf needs more than water to survive, however. When Europeans first arrived, the park-like forests of longleaf greeted them in much of Tidewater Virginia. To their delight, the tall trees with long boles (the distance from the ground to the first branch) made excellent masts for sailing ships. Resin and tar were derived from the sap of the tree, producing material so essential in the maritime industry that these products are still called naval stores. There were special places where the naval stores were extracted. "Turpentining" has gone the way of the Santa Fe Chief and the passenger pigeon. Yet, its memory lingers, enshrined in such place names as Pitch Kettle Road.

Products of longleaf pine were so important to the maritime industry that when the limited acreage of longleaf in Virginia declined, a canal was dug through the Dismal Swamp to connect with the longleaf growing region south of Norfolk where so much pitch was made that the term Tarheel may have been conceived in a pitch kettle. It remains the state tree of our neighbor to the south.

Unlike North Carolina, very few longleaf survive in the Commonwealth. Not only were they cut for masts and gouged out to collect the naval stores, they were further humiliated by feral hogs. The tender buds of the young pines were a choice food of these country hams on the hoof. Perhaps the greatest detriment to longleaf growth, however, was the cessation of fires. Unlike Native Americans, European settlers were unsettled by wildfires set either by lightning or humans and spread rapidly by the highly flammable needles of the longleaf. Suppression of fire did not save this forest type, it sealed its doom.

Fortunately, the northernmost stand of longleaf is preserved at the Blackwater Ecologic Preserve near Zuni in Isle of Wight County. This 300+ acre tract, the only such preserve in Virginia, was given by the Union Camp Corporation to Old Dominion University in 1985. We have re-introduced fire and been pleased at the response of the longleaf and other plants, some of them extremely rare. With the support of The Nature Conservancy, Virginia Division of Forestry, Department of Natural Resources, and Union Camp we are slowly--ever so slowly--restoring a long neglected part of our cultural and ecological heritage. My dream is that students in the new millennium will be able to come to the preserve on a winter day and walk through a park-like savanna of longleaf interspersed with boggy areas with peat mosses and pitcher plants to realize how much Tidewater Virginia owes to longleaf pine forests.

[Lytton John Musselman, From the Old Dominion Courier 28(12): 5. February 12, 1999]