North Carolina’s ‘Brown Gold’

NC Pine Trees LongstrawNorth Carolina’s longleaf pine – also known as the longstraw pine, North Carolina pitch pine, broom pine or turpentine pine – is, as its many names have indicated, one of the state’s most versatile and ancient trees. Although today the longleaf covers far fewer acres than it once did, it remains a vital component of our agricultural – rather, our aboricultural – landscape, both for its value as a timber-producer, but also as the provider of one of our most valued ground covers for commercial and residential landscaping: pine straw.

The North Carolina State Tree… Kind of

Although the official state tree is the pine tree – no specific kind of pine – ask any North Carolina native to point out the state tree and they are likely to show you a longleaf pine.  Native to a swath of land between the state’s coastal plain and the lower Piedmont region, the tall, straight-as-an-arrow evergreen is very distinctive in its size, shape and length of its needles, which can grow as long as 18 inches, in bunches of 3 or 4. Typically thriving for several centuries – not even reaching what is considered full maturity until it is at least 100-150 years old – the slow-growing tree is naturally fire-, insect- and disease-resistant with a scaly, thick bark covering a trunk that sometimes grows up to a yard in diameter. This tree that thrives in warm, wet climates with mild winters and hot summers naturally drops its lower branches as it gains height, ending up, at maturity, tall and straight and with new growth only toward the very top of the tree.

The longleaf pine creates a unique and valuable habitat for certain plants, but also for many wildlife and wild bird species: the gopher tortoise, deer, many species of frog and salamander, the southeastern fox squirrel (largest squirrel in the Southeast), quail, turkey, and various reptiles, for instance; and birds, too – the red-cockaded woodpecker (the only woodpecker in the world to excavate its own home inside a living tree), bluebirds, pine warblers and sparrows. 

Timber and Pine Straw

The timber of the longleaf pine is valuable because of the very straight boards it produces – perfect, for instance, for utility poles! – but the gift that the longleaf pine keeps on giving is certainly the pine needles it drops to the ground, every single fall. More valuable in the long run, therefore, than timber, which can only be harvested once, pine straw is the ‘brown gold’ of the longleaf pine. Farmers and other land-owners who are blessed to have a stand of longleaf pines on their property realize its value as a ground cover and they rake and bale it to sell to homeowners or landscapers as a type of mulch.  

Other parts of the tree are valuable as well. The longleaf’s cones – often growing up to 10 inches long – are the largest in the Southeast, and valuable for decorative purposes. The stump of a longleaf pine, due to its high resin content, does not deteriorate, and this leftover wood is sometimes sold as “fatwood,” or kindling for firepits, barbecues and wood stoves.

History of the Longleaf Pine in North Carolina

Hundreds of years ago, longleaf pine covered up to 90 million acres of land stretching from Texas to Virginia; today, that acreage is just a fraction of what it once was, at only around 3.4 million acres. Figuring much more prominently in the economic development of our state and region than most of us realize, it was cultivated in the 18-1900s for its supply of pine sap – used to manufacture turpentine, glue and other products that were critical for the shipbuilding industry – and over-harvested for its timber. Several devastating wildfires also helped to greatly diminish the amount of land devoted to the growth of longleaf pine. Following a time in the early 1900s when most remaining longleaf pines were in areas too wet or too dry for harvesting and the loblolly pine – a tree easier to grow and to harvest – replaced the longleaf in many aspects, a period of restoration began. Today, although strides have been made in the restoration of longleaf pine timber lands, it is still estimated that only around 3% of the original longleaf forest remains in the South.

The Restoration of the Longleaf Pine

Many organizations work toward restoration of this tree, including the North Carolina Sandhills Conservation partnership. Created two decades ago, the NCSCP is led by a leadership committee of local stakeholders – the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, NC Division of Parks & Recreation, Sandhills Ecological Institute, Longleaf Alliance and many more – who are focused on enhancing and restoring growth of the longleaf pine and its unique ecosystem.

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