Images and text by Todd Amacker
One of North America’s most biodiverse forests, the longleaf pine forest of the Southeast, is missing from 97% of its historic range. As a proud Southerner, I’ve spent a great deal of time ambling through pine forests in the Florida panhandle. Recently, I’ve made an effort to use my photography and my words to portray exactly what has disappeared along with the forests themselves.
There are a lot of treasures in longleaf pine forests that make them special, both aesthetically and scientifically. It all starts with the longleaf pine tree itself, Pinus palustris. It’s resistant to fire, and that’s important when frequent fires sweep through the understory and flames lap at the trees’ exteriors. Layers of specially evolved, crusty bark protect its delicate innards. It is actually unhindered fire that gives life to the longleaf ecosystem and contributes to its aesthetic beauty. Because of the fire, the undergrowth is burned away and you can see between trees. (This is quite refreshing for forest enthusiasts, as most forests hamper your ability to enjoy the view.)
Well-managed longleaf forests not only survive intense summer fires, they thrive on them. There is far less competition among plants when they are allowed all the light that they want and need. In fact, longleaf pines are so well spaced out (and so terrible at providing shade) that they do very little to hamper the plant diversity found in their understory.
It’s best to think of a longleaf pine forest as being upside down in nature. Its canopy is essentially a monoculture (mostly longleaf pines), but its understory is bursting with diversity. Pitcher plants, orchids, sundews, butterworts, meadow beauties, yellow-eyed grasses, wild blueberries, and relatives of the mint family all call longleaf pine forests home. There are 925 endemic plants in the coastal plain longleaf pine forest alone and many other non-endemic plants share the same space. Speaking of the same space, UNC Chapel Hill botanist Robert K. Peet has discovered a staggering twelve species of plants in a half-dollar-sized site in southern Mississippi. A similar study by Bruce A. Sorrie, a botanist for the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, discovered sixty species of plants in a single square meter at Splinter Hill Bog in southern Alabama. At this scale, such diversity is unrivaled in the temperate world.
And I haven’t even begun to discuss the wildlife, which may deserve its own blog post. Let’s just say that birds, insects, amphibians, and reptiles also reach an extraordinary level of diversity in longleaf pine forests, leaving any naturalist reeling. If you already live in the United States, and haven’t found your way to any of the Southeast’s lovely natural areas, please consider a longleaf pine forest as your next stop. The Florida panhandle, coastal North and South Carolina, as well as coastal Alabama and Mississippi are all good places to consider. If you want to witness something exceedingly special, visit a longleaf pine forest on the Gulf Coast when pitcher plants are blooming. You’ll never forget it.