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North Carolina

Longleaf Pine: A Century from Grass to Tree

A few years ago, when North Carolina Senator Richard Burr toured longleaf territory, he was surprised when someone showed him a longleaf seedling. “That’s not a pine tree,” he said. “It looks like a clump of grass.”

This grass stage can last from one year to a dozen, depending on competition for resources with other plants. The young longleaf isn’t very impressive above ground, but it is making up for that lack of height below ground – putting down a massive root system. That root system will help the tree in future years; it is able to withstand high winds and fire because it is so firmly rooted and stores its energy below ground.

Younger people may not understand the name for the next stage – bottlebrush. People don’t use bottlebrushes much anymore. But the tree resembles an old fashioned bottlebrush – growing three to four feet straight up with no branches.

After a few years, branches begin to emerge and a sapling is born. The sapling is ungainly looking, with the adolescent quality of other young beings.

After 30 years, the longleaf is finally ready to reproduce – dropping huge pine cones. The mature pine can reach a hundred feet. At about 80 years, many longleaf become infected with the red heart fungus, which softens the dense wood. Longleaf forests are complicated, with all the elements dependent on each other. Here’s where the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker comes in to the picture. The tiny little thick-skulled birds like to live in the old, fungus-infected longleaf, because it has softened up the wood making it easier for them to peck and build their homes. While other woodpeckers live in rotten dead trees, the red-cockaded woodpecker is the only one intent on building its nest in a live tree. The equation for extinction is simple: lose the longleaf, lose the red-cockaded woodpecker.

Longleaf pines live in a region where lightening is common. Many scientists believe that’s why they stop growing vertically at around 100 feet or so – the tallest tree in the forest likely to be hit by lightning. But, the old longleaf still have one more stage – the flat top, which describes the shape a tree will take in its maturity. The Nature Conservancy preserved the oldest longleaf pine in the world – a 465-year old specimen that is now part of Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve near Southern Pines.

Learn more about longleaf pine forests.

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