Sandhills Conservation Coordinator Gretchen Coll looks up at the oldest longleaf pine in the world. Photo credit Andrew Kornylak.
December 5, 2019
The longleaf pine's important history in the South
The longleaf pine forest is a key part of the cultural and natural history of North Carolina. In fact, you could even say the trees played an important role in the history of the Southeastern United States. Longleaf pines are native to the region. They are found along the coastal plain from East Texas to southern Maryland, extending into northern and central Florida.
Longleaf pines were once one of the most extensive ecosystems in North America. Sadly, that abundance spelled trouble for the trees. Longleaf pines were once so abundant that the trees seemed like an inexhaustible resource to early settlers. Because of their height and the strength of the wood, forests of longleaf pines were cleared for shipbuilding, construction, development and agriculture. The result is that longleaf pine forests, which once covered an estimated 90 million acres, now cover less than three percent of their original range.
Oldest pine found in Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve
Keeping in mind that history, imagine if one tree recently discovered in the Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve could talk. Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, working with the Nature Conservancy, have identified the world’s oldest longleaf pine growing in North Carolina’s nature preserve. Though it looks like any other tree in the longleaf pine forest on the preserve, this tree is 471 years old. When its seed was just starting to germinate in 1548, Michelangelo was working on the Sistine Chapel. The tree was already almost 60 years old when settlers arrived in Jamestown and colonists began moving west.
Those settlers were chopping down trees as they moved. For some reason, this tree was spared from the settlers’ ax as well as countless storms.
In the 1960s, the Nature Conservancy helped protect the area, knowing the trees were old… but not how old. The land was eventually made part of the preserve, which now covers 915 acres in the Sandhills region near Southern Pines.
Besides the towering longleaf pines, the area preserves and restores a portion of the unique longleaf pine community. That includes broad expanses of wiregrass and a host of rare species, including the red-cockaded woodpecker, pine barrens tree frog, bog spicebush, fox squirrel and myriad wildflowers. But just imagine if that one tree could talk.
Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.