Growing up, I knew quite a few pines in the woods near my house on a first name basis. I knew them in drought stress, deluge and covered with ice, climbed them in the day and night, shot foes from them in B.B. gun wars, played squirrel, jumping from pine to pine, and even ate edible parts of the pine in efforts to be an Indian. Many was the day where my friend Rudy and I camped beneath Loblolly pines with an occasional breeze making that gentle whishing sound through the needles that is so peaceful and distinctive. Moonlit nights were extra special, and I know from experience what the author of the song “Georgia on my mind,” meant when he penned:
I said Georgia
A song of you
Comes as sweet and clear
As moonlight through the pines
Pine needles also helped me through a long cold December night in Kentucky when my army unit had been separated from its rucksacks, which meant we had no gear to pass the night. Through a teenage experiment, Rudy and I built a debris hut entirely of pine needles that was designed to be a shelter and sleeping bag type of thing (think of a structure topped with needles and filled with needles). It was warm enough but scratchy, pokey and made for a very long night. But back to Kentucky, I piled up a massive pile of pine needles and then wormed into the middle and got a blessed 4 or 5 hours of sleep and earned the title of Hooch Master (Hooch is military slang for a shelter among other things) by my squad.
Pines are conifers, cone bearing evergreen trees which first appeared around 225 million years ago - just about the time small mammals were starting to gather steam but still in the Dinosaurs large shadows. The pines flourished quickly due to the epic evolutionary achievement of the seed. The seed contained an embryonic plant with a reservoir of food to give it a boost when compared with spore-bearing plants which had to land in exactly the right place or die. Conifers are gymnosperms, meaning naked seeds that lack a protective covering like an acorn or an apple. On a fun note, gymnasium means a place of naked training (think ancient Greeks).
At Umstead we only have three species of pine here: Loblolly, Short-leafed, and Virginia Pine with Loblolly making up the lion’s share. After the farm properties that made up Umstead were purchased by the federal government in 1934, the old fields were no doubt quickly dominated by Loblolly Pines. These pines were eventually overtaken by slower growing, more shade tolerant hardwoods such as the oaks, hickories, and sweetgums that make up a lot of Umstead today. The only way Loblollys can resist this transition is if fires come through every few years because they are more fire tolerant than the hardwoods. That thick scaly bark keeps the cambium layer (the green growing part of the tree) from cooking in low to medium fires that would kill younger hardwoods. Beeches, with their very thin bark are on the opposite end, being extremely fire intolerant.
So, go out and enjoy the pines or hike the Loblolly trail named in honor of this beautiful pine. Living in the south can make us take the pine for granted, such is its numbers, but if you take the time to really get to know them, soon you will be singing that “Georgia on my Mind” verse with feeling.
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