Carolina Environmental Diversity Explorations
Wetlands of the coastal plains · By Dirk Frankenberg
Longleaf pine savanna
We begin with the longleaf pine savanna. We start with this habitat not only because longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) is the official state tree, but also because these habitats are simply beautiful to behold. These communities evolved to become dependent on periodic fires to protect them from being invaded by hardwoods. In places where fires have been suppressed, longleaf pine woodlands have been replaced by a mixed hardwood pine community.
The longleaf pine was the basis of our state’s first major economic activity, the naval stores industry. The pines were not only used for ships masts, but their pitch was distilled into turpentine, and the residue was made into tar for caulking the hulls. The use of longleaf pine products was so widespread and economically important to North Carolina’s development that one theory of the term “tar heel” is that the early North Carolinians involved in this industry could be identified by the tar stuck onto their heels.
To visit a longleaf pine savanna we must travel in our imagination to one of the old shoreline scarps on the lower coastal plain, and work our way to the sandy flats near the old dune crest. Longleaf pine savannas are typically found on these flat areas, but they are also sometimes found on sandy areas near swamps. The habitat of the longleaf pine is seasonally wet, but dries out sufficiently to support the wildfires that characterize this community. As you can see from Figure 2, mature longleaf pines bear scars from their repeated exposure to fire.