Carolina Query: Why are pine trees found everywhere in NC, but there are different pine trees in different parts of the state?

Carolina Query is a series we've launched based on your questions. Cathy asked "Why are pine trees found everywhere in North Carolina, but there are different types of pine trees in different parts of the state?” Scroll down to ask a question about the science around North Carolina.

Pines, Pines Everywhere Pines
May 4, 2018

This Week's Question: North Carolina Pines

"Why are pine trees found everywhere in North Carolina, but there are different types of pine trees in different parts of the state?” Thanks for asking a question Cathy! As part of our series that answers YOUR questions about science in North Carolina, we're tackling good questions like this one.

The answer is all about the ecosystem. The pine tree, which is the state tree of North Carolina, grows from the mountains to the coast in our state.

According to Professor Lucy Bradley with the NC State University Horticulture Department, “North Carolina varies dramatically from the coast to the mountains. There are many eco-regions differing in soils, temperature, rainfall, and elevation. Various types of pine trees have evolved to thrive in different eco regions." 

Regional Differences in Landscape

North Carolina has three different geographic regions: the coastal plain, the piedmont and the mountains. And each of these regions is home to a different type of ecosystem. “Also, the impact of people on the land varies across the state, "Bradley said. "There was more logging in some parts than others. In other areas, there was more planting of a specific type of pine tree to be harvested for turpentine. Specific types of pine trees were also introduced in ornamental plantings.”

Organizations like the North Carolina Long Leaf Pine Coalition work to study the habitat of pine trees. Some of the most common types found in the state are the eastern white pine, loblolly pine, longleaf pine, pitch pine, pond pine, shortleaf pine, table mountain pine, and Virginia pine.

The Versatile Pine

There are at least 126 different species of pine trees found around the world. Those trees can be found in a wide range of environments. Pine trees can grow in semi- arid deserts and mountains as well as rainforests and swamps. They can be found at sea level and up to 5,200 meters (17,100 ft).

Henry McNab, a research forester at the U.S. Forest Service’s Bent Creek Experimental Forest in Asheville, agrees that where pine trees grow has a lot to do with the ecosystem. But he adds that dramatic changes to an ecosystem, such as a fire or a flood, can also change where and how pine trees grow.

“In the coastal plain, longleaf pine is predominant," said McNab. “In the piedmont, it’s mainly loblolly pine. Here in the mountains, it’s mainly eastern white pine.” McNab also said that you can observe changing ecosystems in North Carolina just by looking. The short answer to this question: where there are different types of pine trees, then there’s a good chance that you can find an ecosystem here that helps them grow.

—Nathan Katzin 

Nathan Katzin is a writer on the UNC-TV Science Team

This article is part of a series called Carolina Query, in which the UNC-TV science teams answers your questions about science in North Carolina. Ask a question below!