The week between Christmas and New Year’s is a time we like to sit down together, quietly reflect on the past year and make plans for the coming year. Because our gardens add so much to our lives, planning for the coming year always includes planning for gardening activities. We already know that adding more evergreen plants will be our primary objective.
We really enjoy our evergreen plants, especially during the winter months. Without them our gardens would look rather bleak. In my younger days, I did not place much value on evergreens. I just wanted flowers – plenty of color! However, as I have matured and learned more about garden design, I have come to really appreciate evergreen plants. There is one species of evergreen tree in our gardens and woods that I now especially appreciate. I like to call it the giving tree.
That tree is the longleaf pine. Once we carefully observe the needles of this tree, we understand why it is called longleaf. The needles come in clusters of three and can grow up to 18 inches long. It prefers sandy, dry, acidic soils and requires lots of sunlight. It does not tolerate shade. So young trees thrive only in areas not shaded by undergrowth or other large trees. But once it finds a sunny home, it grows undeterred to command its space in a mighty way. I love to see its uniquely curvy branches and long needles against a clear blue sky.
I call it the giving tree because it gave and gave until it was almost extinct. It was used to build great ships. Much of its once vast forest was cut and shipped abroad for this and other purposes. The walls and floors of Balmoral castle in Scotland were built with longleaf pine. Pioneers used the great stumps as a foundation for their cabins. It gave us turpentine. It even gave us its home. When worthy needs for its strong timber were not motivation for harvest, great towering trees were cut down to make room for agricultural and golf courses. The longleaf pine gave until it was almost extinct. Up and down the southeastern coastal plain of the United States, where its once vast forests stretched farther than the eye could see, a small remnant of 2 percent now remain.
Fortunately, we have come to realize the value of the longleaf pine, and efforts are now being made to save it. New stands are being planted and existing stands are being expanded. However, it takes a long time for a longleaf pine tree to grow and mature. Re-establishing even a small portion of the vast forest that once flourished in the Coastal Plain may take longer than you would think. Longleaf pines may require 150 years to reach full size. But unlike most pines in our area, they can live up to 300 years.
Longleaf pines begin life and may spend several years looking like a clump of grasslike needles. This is called its grass stage. It appears to just sit in this stage for a long time doing nothing. But under-ground, the tree is using a lot of energy to develop a taproot that can be up to 12 feet long at maturity. Once roots reach deep enough to ensure sufficient water will be available, the pine tree begins to grow in height.
The longleaf pine is fire resistant. As a matter of fact, fire is its friend. The seeds of the longleaf, which develop in cones and are dispersed by the wind, will not germinate if they land in leaf litter and debris. They must come in contact with the soil. Fire clears away the litter and debris making it possible for the seed to germinate.
Restoration of the longleaf pine forest has become a major conservation effort. Over the past couple of years we’ve hiked in Peachtree Rock Heritage Preserve in Lexington County and in Silver Bluff Audu-bon Sanctuary in Aiken County. Stands of longleaf pines are being planted in these areas to restore the longleaf pine ecosystem. Hitchcock woods is also home to the longleaf pine and to a local longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem restoration.
The longleaf pine ecosystem is highly diverse. An estimated 27 federal endangered species and 100 species of concern reside within that ecosystem. It is also home to more than 40 species of pitcher plants. It is in the longleaf pine forest ecosystem, that the red-cockaded woodpecker makes its home. The longleaf pine has certain properties the woodpecker depends on for a safe nesting site, which can take up to two years to excavate. Without the longleaf pine, the red-cockaded woodpecker might disappear. We had the privilege of seeing these birds in their na-tive habitat and viewing their babies in their nest through special camera lenses when we took a South Carolina Master Naturalist course.
Stands of the longleaf pine tree have survived on our military bases. In our naturalist class, we visited Fort Jackson. In their longleaf pine forest, our smallest falcon has made its home. That falcon is the beautiful American Kestrel, whose chicks we were to band. I was so fortunate to hold in my hand the delicate life of a baby kestrel. What a special privilege that was!
In our neighborhood, we are fortunate to have many longleaf pines. We also have red-tailed hawks and owls that visit us. I think they favor the longleaf pines in our neighborhood. We feel so blessed to hear the owls hoot, and see the beautiful hawks. We also have pileated woodpeck-ers that favor our pine trees.
The next time you see a longleaf pine tree, please stop and admire this wonderful tree that gives so much and helps our environment. Here in the sandhills, we are fortunate to have some of these giving trees left to enjoy. To learn more about this amazing tree, I recommend the book “Longleaf, Far As The Eye Can See” by Bill Finch, Beth Maynor Young, Rhett Johnson and John C. Hall. It is a very interesting and enlightening book.