“In ‘pine barrens’ most of the day. Low, level, sandy tracts; the pines wide apart; the sunny spaces between full of beautiful abounding grasses, Liatris, long, wand-like solidago (goldenrod), saw palmettos, etc., covering the ground in garden style. Here I sauntered in delightful freedom, meeting none of the cat-clawed vines, or shrubs, of the alluvial bottoms.” -Naturalist John Muir
The longleaf pine is known as the legendary southern yellow pine. The longleaf pine once covered over several million acres of the southeastern United States Coastal Plain, but 200 years of logging and land clearing substantially reduced its range. The USDA states that longleaf pines once covered 90 million acres in North America and by 2010 distribution had been reduced to 3.4 million acres.
As the longleaf pine takes up to 150 years to become full size and may live up to 300 years old, reforestation methods are helping to revive longleaf pines.
In 1904, Colonel Raymond Robins purchased a little over 2000 acres in Brooksville, which today is called Chinsegut and included 445 acres of old-growth longleaf pine. (http://myfwc.com/chinsegut) This pristine place is called Big Pine and is managed by Matt Koenig, a Wildlife Biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The longleaf pine consists of five stages:
Seedling Stage: Pine seeds will germinate in a few weeks depending on the right soils. Areas like Big Pine are rich in minerals.
Grass Stage: During this stage, the longleaf pine looks like a clump of grass which contains a bud. These thick needles protect the bud from fires.
Bottle Brush Stage: Beginning around late February to mid-March, the candle (white tip) may grow a couple of feet in a short few months. Around late May, the bright green needles begin to emerge from the candle. This candle creates scaly and brown texture as bark begins to form.
Sapling Stage: The longleaf pine is now reaching 6 to 10 feet tall and branches are beginning to shape and emerge.
Mature Stage: It will take up to 30 years to reach a mature stage and to produce cones.
Longleaf pines can grow up to 120 feet tall and over two feet in diameter. A healthy tree can reach 250 years, however, there has been documentation of longleaf pines that are over 400 years old.
Longleaf Pine and Wildlife
“There is a whole range of different species, mammals, reptiles amphibians that we manage for that are dependent on fire-maintained communities,” Koenig said. “And the longleaf pine is the single most important plant species that thrive in fires.”
Florida native species such as gopher tortoise, Sherman’s fox squirrel, Eastern indigo snake, Florida mice, gopher frogs, and the red-cockaded woodpecker thrive in longleaf pine communities. Squirrels, turkey, quail, and brown-headed nuthatches rely on the seeds as a source of food.
Just because a longleaf pine has died, they still play an important role for wildlife.
“Snags (dead trees) are really good for habitat, birds of prey and other species use them as perches,” Koenig said.
Many woodpecker species, known as primary cavity excavators rely on snags. Snags provide more to wildlife than just shelter. Crevices formed between the trunk of a dead tree and the peeling bark provide protection from the sun for bats and amphibians. Fallen dead pines are also valuable for many other species of wildlife and can provide much-needed shelter for animals such as bears and turkey vultures as well as mice, salamanders, lizards, toads, and frogs.
There are situations where trees can undergo some form of stress, which can limit their growth and shorten their life expectancy.
“Trees can endure a lot of stress, whether it’s drought, fire, hurricanes, or waterlogged soils,” Koenig said. “There all kinds of stressors affecting trees all the time, and if they get too weak they become susceptible to beetles.”
Some species of beetles will attack longleaf pines and create an impact under the layers of bark.
“There are beetles who will attack healthy trees and the one that is the most dangerous is the southern pine beetle,” Koenig said. “That’s the worst offender we have.”
For over two years as Area Manager for Chinsegut WEA, Koenig, along with other FWC staff and volunteers have a strong dedication in restoring Big Pine to its natural pristine environment.
“This should be an open sort of grassy base understory with pockets of oaks, not a widespread thicket of oaks,” Koenig said. “You want it (vegetation) to be pretty low to the ground so tortoises can move through it pretty easily or ground-nesting birds can find a patch of vegetation to nest in.”
Oaks trees are also needed at Big Pine, however, the location is important, and specifically for Big Pine that would be on the outer banks of wetland areas.
“When oaks are over 6-8 feet tall, nothing can really move,” Koenig explained. “There is not a lot of sunlight so you lose that herbaceous-grassy component, and that is where all the food is for wildlife.”
There are longleaf pines that are aged over 230 years old at Big Pine. If it wasn’t for Colonel Robins back in the early 1900’s saving over 2000 acres from being logged, they would most likely have been harvested.
“Big Pine is one of the largest continuous tracts of old growth longleaf left in the state,” Koenig said. “The pine trees here are some of the oldest left.”
The process of land management is demanding and restoring properties like Big Pine requires prescribed fire, shredding, invasive plant removal, as well as exotic treatments.
Through the restoration process, longleaf pines are flourishing and a new abundance of wildflowers add amazing colors to its landscape.
If you want to enjoy a great hike while the weather is nice and to see the beauty of nature and some of the oldest original Florida longleaf pines, take a day to visit Big Pine Tract.
Big Pine Tract, a part of Chinsegut Wildlife and Environment Area is located on Old Crystal River Road in Brooksville, just a mile north from Bella Park RV Resort, this area is open from dawn to dusk.