Royalty of the Southern Forest

I've already told you about my favorite deciduous tree, Platanus occidentalis, the distinctive American sycamore. It seems to grow everywhere in the country, and with little effort. Just about everyone who cares about trees can identify the mottled bark of a sycamore tree, and that's part of its charm.

Grassy stage longleaf pine.
But my favorite conifer has been seen and recognized by far fewer people, and grows within a far smaller range, in regional pockets. The king of the southern forest is the longleaf pine, Pinus palustris. This magnificent pine once covered most of the Gulf region, encouraged in its dominance by the annual fires set by The People, our native Americans. Longleaf is fire-resistant both in its early and mature life. It spends its first few years in what we call its "grassy stage", when it looks like a large clump of long, stiff grass sticking up off the forest floor. In this stage, a forest fire passing through will consume the forest litter surrounding the seedling, thereby feeding the baby tree with freshly converted nitrogen, but the seedling itself is protected from the flames by the thick sheath of high-moisture green needles.

It stays in this stage for at least five years, and sometimes ten or longer, depending mostly on the degree of crown cover. Finally, though, when the young tree has gathered enough energy from the sun and soil in its root system, it shoots straight for the sky like a green fountain. It grows quickly from this point on, and eventually the longleaf will catch up with other pine species that started out more quickly.

This trait has always been a deterrent for southern timber company silviculturists, who traditionally have been tasked with producing the most wood in the shortest period of time. For pine plantations to be economic, they need to have flexible return-on-investment; in other words, if the pulpwood markets are especially profitable at some period of time, the company would like to have enough wood on the stem at twenty or thirty years of growth to allow harvesting of the stand at that shorter rotation...which is why the longleaf's faster-starting cousins, the slash pine (Pinus elliottii), and especially the more hardy loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) were favored by the southern timber companies from the 1950's on. And as plantations of slash and loblolly covered the South, the stands of native longleaf grew smaller and smaller, aided in their decline by the fact that wild hogs roaming the forest found grassy-stage longleafs a most delectable snack.

It isn't until the pines reach their later sawtimber size, after fifty years or more, that the longleaf catches and passes the size and yield of its less charismatic cousins. But left to maturity, the longleaf takes on a grandeur unachievable to the other pines...straight, stout, and tight-grained, producing the finest southern pine timber one will ever come across. Unfortunately, in this world of global production of softwood timber, with ever-decreasing rotation lengths, the longer rotation periods and less-dense stocking required by the longleaf to produce its fine timber reduced its presence to small demonstration stands and natural stands left by random chance on out-of-the-way sites.

However, longleaf is making a comeback, led by folks who have come to recognized the ecological value of the species. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has a Longleaf Pine Initiative that is helping landowners interested in restoring the rare and endangered ecosystem of the longleaf. Perhaps the most famous member of the longleaf ecosystem is the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides boralis), which prefers open stands of mature longleaf, and bore into live trees to make their nests. The longleaf so used by the birds reacts by producing extra quantities of pitch to seal off the woodpecker hole, and by this means continues to grow happily along with the woodpecker family.
"The Red-cockaded Woodpecker makes its home in mature pine forests. Longleaf Pines (Pinus palustris) are most commonly preferred, but other species of southern pine are also acceptable. While other woodpeckers bore out cavities in dead trees where the wood is rotten and soft, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker is the only one which excavates cavities exclusively in living pine trees. The older pines favored by the Red-cockaded Woodpecker often suffer from a fungus called red heart rot which attacks the center of the trunk, causing the inner wood, the heartwood, to become soft. Cavities generally take from 1 to 3 years to excavate.
The aggregate of cavity trees is called a cluster and may include 1 to 20 or more cavity trees on 3 to 60 acres (12,000 to 240,000 m²). The average cluster is about 10 acres (40,000 m²). Cavity trees that are being actively used have numerous, small resin wells which exude sap. The birds keep the sap flowing apparently as a cavity defense mechanism against rat snakes and possibly other predators. The typical territory for a group ranges from about 125 to 200 acres (500,000 to 800,000 m²), but observers have reported territories running from a low of around 60 acres (240,000 m²), to an upper extreme of more than 600 acres (2.40 km²). The size of a particular territory is related to both habitat suitability and population density.
The Red-cockaded Woodpecker plays a vital role in the intricate web of life of the southern pine forests. A number of other birds and small mammals use the cavities excavated by Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, such as chickadees, bluebirds, titmice, and several other woodpecker species, including the Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Larger woodpeckers such as Northern Flicker, Red-bellied or Pileated Woodpecker may take over a Red-cockaded Woodpecker cavity, sometimes enlarging the hole enough to allow Eastern Screech Owls, Wood Ducks, and even Raccoons to move in later. Flying Squirrels, several species of reptiles and amphibians, and insects, primarily bees and wasps, also will use Red-cockaded Woodpecker cavities."

One part of the story of the longleaf that especially touches me is longleaf pine restoration being done by the Alabama-Coushatta tribe in East Texas. When I was a youngster, my folks often stopped by the tribal visitor center east of Livingston on our way up to family reunions in Tyler. I loved watching their tribal dances, and never knew at the time that my natural affinity for these kind, shy people probably stemmed from the Cherokee blood provided by one of my great grandmothers, who descendants would have walked the Trail of Tears from Georgia, North Carolina, and Alabama to Oklahoma. From Cherokee tribal lands that were naturally dominated, due to Indian-style forest stewardship in those long-past years, by majestic longleaf pines, hundreds of years old.

In my mind's eye, I still recall strolling through needle-cushioned open stands of towering, beautiful longleaf pines on a hot summer day, watching the feathery long needles sway in the breeze, marveling at their distinctive ecosystem (though at that time, I called it "the woods"), inhaling the pine terpenes that I loved. I remember thinking that women ought to use pine oil for perfume instead of that flowery stuff. What guy could resist a gal who filled the room with the odor of the piney woods?

Longleaf pine making a comeback. Another great story in the world of Going Wood.

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