The Horticulture Path
Jerry W. Weise, GCSC Horticulture Chairman
Longleaf pine, Pinus palustris, is the ancient giant of southern forests. The longleaf ecosystem is estimated to have historically covered at least 93 million acres. Clues from place names and old botanical records suggest longleaf once grew along the Atlantic coastal plain inland to the fall line from Maryland south to cover about 2/3 of Florida and then west along the Gulf coast. Longleaf grew in a large portion of Georgia, Alabama, south Mississippi and parts of Louisiana and Texas. Today the longleaf ecosystem has been reduced to about 3 million acres. Conservation and restoration efforts are offering some hope that acreage in longleaf is increasing.
Longleaf is easily recognizable when young. As a seedling a longleaf looks like a tuft of grass. The seedling can stay in this ‘grass’ stage as many as seven years. While in this stage with no above ground trunk the seedling is growing a long taproot and root network that will nourish it in the rapid upward growth or ‘rocket’ (bottle brush) stage. The seedling now resembles a scaly broomstick covered top to bottom with long green hair. (Bad hair day in the forest?) Over thousands of years longleaf coexisted and flourished with lightning-produced natural fires. This rocket stage lifts the vulnerable whitish growth bud (called a candle) above the reach of flames. Historically, natural fires occurred frequently enough to clear out the flammable build-up of duff and waxy leaved understory forbs that cause such towering infernos today. After years of fire suppression, humans are realizing the value of natural fire and are imitating it with controlled burns. What will the future of the longleaf ecosystem be?
Like the longleaf, the topic is too large for one article. Coming next time: Longleaf maturity, biodiversity in longleaf forests, rare and endangered species, more on the role of fire, forests for the future.