Meet the Longleaf pine, NC's iconic tree

The Croatan National Forest is the only true coastal forest in the East and a remnant of the Longleaf pine forest, which once made up 90 percent of the forest in the Southeast. It is home to several endangered species.

It’s a beautiful drive along NC Route 70, past Cherry Point on the way to Morehead City. The road takes you through Croatan National Forest. Woods line both sides of the highway; no shopping centers or fast food restaurants for miles.

“It’s nice,” says Steven Maharrey, a silviculturist with the United States Forest Service. “But this type of forest is not what we want here.”

Maharrey should know what he’s talking about. Check the dictionary and you find silviculture is the practice of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health, and quality of forests to meet diverse needs and values. That “nice but not what we want” comment is because this stand of trees was planted in Loblolly pine back in the 1970’s. The primary goal of the forest service back then was to produce timber. Loblolly was a faster growing species that could be harvested in a shorter period of time.

Farther up the road, we come to another stand of forest. Tall Longleaf pine trees tower over grasslands. Smaller pine trees are poking up through the grass.

“This is what we want,” Maharrey says smiling as he looks out the window. “These trees started growing here in 1890.”

The is a Longleaf pine forest. It is the natural ecosystem in North Carolina’s coastal plain. Centuries of timber harvesting and urbanization removed most of the Longleaf pines. The long-term goal of U.S Forest Service is to restore the long leaf pine forest in Croatan National Forest. But the irony is that to restore the long leaf pine, but forest has to be burned.

Once the loblolly pine trees are harvested the grasslands and scrub brush are set on fire. Fire is vital to restoring the Longleaf pine forest, which is one of the nation’s most endangered ecosystems.

“The forest looks terrible once the fires go through, but it greens up pretty quickly,” said Nick Holschbach, a fire specialist with the U.S. Forest Service. We’re standing in a green field with knee high grass, small shrubs and tall pine trees. “This was just burned a few months ago, but with all of the moisture and the types of soil we have it all recovers.”

It is hard to tell which is grass and which is Longleaf pine in the early stages of the tree’s life. That’s because the Longleaf pine starts out looking like a thick grass. The actual bud of the tree is in the ground and for the first two-to-four years the tree is simply growing deep roots. But this is why the long leaf pine is very dependent on fire to survive. Once a fire races through the area and clears everything out, the Longleaf pine begins to grow above ground. And because the fire burned away anything else competing with the Longleaf pine for sunlight, the tree thrives.

The forest is burned every three-to-five years. That’s not only to clear out underbrush to prevent a more serious fire, but also to promote the long leaf pine forest, which is not only a mix of tall trees and savannah, it also includes bogs, and raised swamps called pocosins. The Longleaf pine ecosystem totaled about 90 million acres prior to European settlement. It only covers about four million acres now. Most of the habitat is found on national forest land across the country.

The Longleaf pine is one of the most ecologically important tree species in the south. More than 900 plant species plus hundreds of bird, mammal, reptile and amphibians are found in the long leaf pine forest. 29 of those are species are endangered, including the red cockaded woodpecker. That may not seem like a big deal, but 27 other animal species depend on the woodpecker for survival. It’s an example of how tightly nature is interconnected.

“There’s a couple things to see,” explains Hugo Cobos, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service. He points out a thick grove of shrubs and trees as we walk through the forest. In the open savannah, the clump is unusual. “In the midst of this savannah, even a small difference in elevation makes a huge difference in vegetation and how the water is retained on the landscape,” said Cobos. “Even eight inches of elevation change can create a whole difference suite of plant life and that changes what kind of wildlife species you’ll find."

We spot a tree with a woodpecker hole in it. “It’s empty now, but the big thing about woodpeckers is they are what we call primary cavity excavators,” explained Cobos. “They are the first to make the cavity into the tree and a whole suite of species from flying squirrels to bats and owls will use that cavity for nesting or at some life state. All those creatures depend on that woodpecker and the nest it creates.”

With such a unique landscape, it’s not surprising that Croatan National Forest is also home to the largest collection of carnivorous plants of any national forest. Probably the most well known is the Venus flytrap.

“The Venus flytrap is found here, along with the other carnivorous plants because they are restricted in suitable habitat, which in their case means nutrient poor areas that are not too dry and not too wet,” said Andy Walker, an ecologist and botanist with the U.S. Forest Service. Walker is walking through knee high grass, moving the blades out of the way to see the ground. He finally spots a cluster of Venus flytraps.

“These guys are habitat specialists and the ground has to be just right,” adds Walker. “In addition, when you’re a little carnivorous plant laying flat on the ground, it doesn’t take much to shade you out, and none of these guys can live without sunlight. So they are absolutely dependent on fire. Once a fire goes through, the Venus flytraps flourish for a few years until the grass grows too tall.”

It’s another reason why fire is so important to the ecosystem. “It’s such a simple looking habitat, tall trees and grass, but it is so complex,” adds Cobos. “Small different microhabitats within the larger landscape increases the diversity and increases the ecological value of that area.”