The longleaf pine, Pinus palustris, once dominated the landscape from Virginia to east Texas, covering an estimated area of over 90 million acres. With the arrival of the British explorers in 1607 and their subsequent exploitation and destruction of the longleaf pine forests, this tree virtually disappeared in many areas. In cultivation, Pinus palustris has no registered cultivars and is, therefore, seldom grown by ACS members. However, the tree has many desirable attributes, particularly in the “grass stage”. The species features 8” to 20” needles, with 6” to 10” cones. The tree itself grows to a height of 130’. Longleaf pine is an imperiled species, and the American Conifer Society has made its first contribution toward the re-establishment of this historic and important conifer.
When John Smith and other British explorers arrived in 1607, they were searching for gold and silver in Virginia. They did not find gold, but they did find another valuable resource, the longleaf pine. From the longleaf pine came naval store products such as pitch, tar and turpentine which were then sent to England. Since England was quickly becoming the dominant naval power of that era, and naval stores were vital to maintaining wooden ships, these products were critically important to their growing fleet.
Soon the naval store industry was exerting a huge toll on the longleaf pine forests through destructive pine resin harvest. This timber was also highly prized in the booming ship building industry and for construction by the colonists pouring into the American Southeast. The forests were eliminated so that agricultural crops could be planted to support the growing human population. Forest regeneration was stifled by the presence of feral hogs which fed on the roots of the longleaf seedlings. Next, the trees were subject to widespread harvest during the era of steam train logging, as the longleaf pine has exceptional straightness and strength in its timber. Lastly, fire was suppressed, which is a critical component of the longleaf pines growth and development.
In Virginia alone, it’s estimated that by 1850 more than one million acres of longleaf pine forest had disappeared. Today, scientists have counted fewer than 2000 native Pinus palustris remaining in the natural forests of Virginia. Pinus palustris has been almost eliminated from its northern most range in the USA.
Longleaf pine forests are an important component of the ecology of the American Southeast. Longleaf pine is a keystone species and mediates fire effects which provide habitat for a wide variety of plant and animal species including Bobwhite quail, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and Bachman’s sparrows. Since the forests often contain wet seepage bogs and flatwoods, Mabee’s salamanders, pitcher plants and sundews can be found. Species of orchids, lilies, wildflowers and sedges also proliferate. Longleaf pine can live for more than 300 years. As a result, they may be most helpful for long-term carbon sequestration. The utilization of carbon is not only good for the Southeast, but our entire planet.
There are many efforts directed toward the restoration of the Pinus palustris. The federal government, numerous environmental groups and even private landowners have partnered to replant the longleaf pine. One such effort is located at the northern range of longleaf pine in Sussex County, Virginia at the 232 acre Joseph Pines Preserve (JPP). Inside the Joseph Pines Preserve, over 60 acres of land have been restored with over 10,000 native Virginia, longleaf pine trees. The seed was collected from the last native longleaf pine trees in Virginia by biologists from Meadowview Biological Research Station and the seedlings were raised at their nursery in Woodford, Virginia. In addition, the goal of Joseph Pines Preserve is to restore the biodiversity of the indigenous longleaf pine – pitcher plant ecosystem (see prospectus on the Joseph Pines link at www.pitcherplant.org).. The preserve is also dedicated to capturing the entire Virginia longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) genome by grafting, fascicle rooting, or seed propagation. Joseph Pines Preserve has recently purchased an adjoining property to create The Center for Biodiversity. This facility will serve as an education and training center for longleaf pine/pitcher plant ecosystem restoration and a nursery will support conservation and restoration efforts.
At the 2014 ACS Board of Director’s Meeting in Atlanta, the Board approved a donation of $1,000 to Joseph Pine Preserve from the ACS Endowment Fund. These funds will assist JPP’s efforts to propagate, replant and preserve the native Virginia longleaf pine. This donation marks the first time the ACS has actively supported an effort to conserve conifers in the wild. Thank you to the Board as the ACS fulfills another important aspect of its mission.
I am working with Dr. Phil Sheridan of Meadowview Biological Research Station to offer another opportunity for the ACS members to personally assist with the restoration of the Virginia longleaf pine at Joseph Pines Preserve. This spring, JPP will be planting another 1,000 Pinus palustris, and you can help to plant these young trees. It is impossible to predict when the ground will be suitable for planting. Therefore, look for updates on the ACS website starting any day. Interested ACS members can also contact me directly by email at email@example.com or cell 585-202-1815. We hope to not only plant these 1,000 trees, but also have some time to learn about this unique and fragile ecosystem. Join us in restoring the Virginia longleaf pine to its northernmost habitat.