Wallace Room Volunteer
In the early 1600s, the extreme southeastern region of Virginia was covered with 1 to 1.5 million acres of longleaf pine tree stands. Most of these pines existed south of the James River, but there were reports of the longleaf pines extending even up onto the Eastern Shore.1 The longleaf pine is remarkable in appearance. There have been reports of this species of pine trees reaching a height of 154 feet and a diameter of 47 inches. In addition to its height, the species is distinguishable by its hairy display – the pine needles can grow up to 18 inches long in bundles, giving the tree a shaggy appearance. Despite its ancient dominance of the Virginia forests, by 1850 most of the longleaf pines in Virginia were gone.2
The reasons for the decline of the longleaf pine tree vary from those that are manmade to complications due to the fussy growing conditions demanded by the species itself. One unmistakable fact surrounding the species’ disappearance is that the time period of the decline parallels colonization along the Eastern Coast.
During the 18th century, North American farmers cleared pine forests so they could grow lucrative crops such as tobacco. At the same time, England had depleted its own natural sources of naval stores and was turning to the North American colonies as an alternative source for their trade and maritime needs. The term “naval stores” was used to describe products needed to create and maintain new ships, including materials specifically made from pine trees such as tar, pitch and turpentine. The process to produce these products was messy and did not pay as well as growing tobacco. To entice farmers to switch endeavors, England passed a law to pay inflated prices to the North American farmers if they would produce these naval stores. This did the trick and toward the end of the 1700s much of the vast longleaf pine forests were in decline.3
In addition to the clearing of the pine stands for growing crops and producing naval stores, the new colonies brought with them domestic animals, resulting in an increase in the feral animal population. Farmers would release these feral animals into the woods where they proved particularly harmful to longleaf pines. Feral pigs, in particular, fed on the longleaf species in the seedling or “grass” stage, depleting the pine tree stands even further.4
Even without human interference, the longleaf pine had particular survival needs. To germinate, the longleaf pine requires cleared patches of sandy soil. Once it germinates, it develops into a grass stage where it is extremely resistant to fire. When accidental fires occurred in the forests, they would clear out all underbrush except the young longleaf pine. This cleared area would make room for even more seedlings. As farmers took over the forest areas, causing a decrease in naturally occurring fires, underbrush took over the forest floor so that the pine seed was unable to regenerate. Even in the event of successful germination, the pine’s slow growth rate (over 100 years to become full size) put the species at a further disadvantage. Other fast-growing pine trees, such as Loblolly pines, became more popular choices for regeneration.5
Today, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation has stepped in to assist in maintaining the five small remnants of longleaf populations existing in Virginia today. These stands are located in the areas of Chesapeake, Suffolk, Isle of Wight and Southampton Counties.6
1. Myers, Rick. Longleaf Pines in Virginia: History, Ecology and Restoration. (http//www.fsa.usda.gov/Internet/FSA_File/11p_myers.pdf) retrieved on 2013-11-23.
2. Pinus Palustris in Flora of North America@efloras.org. (http//www.efloras.org/froatoxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=200005348) Flora of North America. Retrieved on 2013-11-23.
3. Walbert, David. Naval Stores and the Longleaf Pine. Learn NC.
(http//www.learnnc.org/1p/editions/nchist-colonial/4069) Retrieved on 2013-11-23.
4. Myers, Rick. Longleaf Pines in Virginia: History, Ecology and Restoration (http//www.fsa.usda.gov/Internet/FSA-File/11p-myers.PDF) Retrieved 2013-11-23.
5.Myers, Rick. Longleaf Pines in Virginia: History, Ecology and Restoration (http//www.fsa.usda.gov/Internet/FSA-File/11p-myers.PDF) Retrieved 2013-11-23.
6. Harper, Scott. Parcel in Suffolk Will Help Preserve Endangered Plants. 23 January 2013. VirginiaPilotOnline.com. (http//www.virginiapilotonline.org) Retrieved on 2013-11-23.