Long Live the Longleaf Pine

Discovery Place Nature

Prior to the settlement of North Carolina, an iconic tree dominated the State, the longleaf pine. This tree once formed over 90 million acres of uninterrupted forest and savanna, and its habitats are some of the most diverse in the world. Naturalist John Muir described this ecosystem so eloquently:

In ‘pine barrens’ most of the day. Low, level, sandy tracts; the pines wide apart; the sunny spaces between full of beautiful abounding grasses, liatris, long, wand-like solidago (goldenrod), saw palmettos, etc., covering the ground in garden style. Here I sauntered in delightful freedom, meeting none of the cat-clawed vines, or shrubs, of the alluvial bottoms.

These tall and relatively slender pine trees form natural, open park- like savannas with stunning arrays of wildflowers and carnivorous plants. The tree itself is unlike any other pine, producing large bundles of long needles and pine cones up to 12 inches long! To understand the history, culture and ecology of the South, one must understand the longleaf pine tree.

The resinous sap of the longleaf pine was an excellent source of tar, pitch and turpentine. These naval stores were used to build and waterproof ships and prevent the decay of ropes and sail riggings. At one point, North Carolina produced over 95% of the naval stores in the country, many of which were exported to supply Great Britain’s navy. The industry took off in the 1800s, and naval stores quickly became one of the top cash crops of the South leading to the boom of ports like Wilmington and the growth of railroads throughout the state. In fact, laborers produced so much turpentine that they were commonly known to get tar stuck to the bottom of their shoes. Ever wonder why North Carolina was nicknamed the “The Tar heel State”?

However, just as quick as this industry grew, so did it decline! Wooden ships were replaced with iron ships and what was once an endless forest of old growth longleaf seemingly disappeared as quickly as it was discovered. Trees were over-harvested for lumber and naval stores, their forests cleared for development of railroads and cities, and the natural occurrence of wildfire, so critical in maintaining healthy longleaf habitat, suppressed. What used to be one of the most abundant forest ecosystems of North America has now been reduced to less than 3% of its original range.

Fortunately, the longleaf pine has been preserved on small tracts of land throughout the South and people can still see this magnificent tree. At Weymouth Woods – Sandhills Nature Preserve in Southern Pines, visitors can gaze upon the oldest living longleaf in the word. At 471 years old, this longleaf pine and the others surrounding it make perfect habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, and the prescribed fires at the site make it possible to maintain a healthy population of the insectivorous purple pitcher plant that evolved with the tree.

In 1957 the North Carolina General Assembly adopted “The Old North State”, a poem by Leonora Monteiro Martin, as its official state toast. A passage of this poem pays tribute to the longleaf pine:

“Here’s to the land of the long leaf pine, The summer land where the sun doth shine, Where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great, Here’s to “Down Home,” the Old North State!”

Shortly after the adoption of the toast, the pine tree was declared the State Tree of North Carolina and the longleaf pine has been a symbol of the State ever since.

The importance of this tree as, not only a State symbol, but also a key component of healthy pine forest has increasingly been recognized, and through events like Fire in the Pines Festival, Longleaf Festival, and Party with for Pine the longleaf is now celebrated every year throughout the State. Do not miss your chance to experience this tree!

Please join us on Saturday, November 23rd at Discovery Place Nature as we revel in the history, celebrate the tree and learn how to get involved with active longleaf restoration!

  • Written by
  • Alden Picard