- Longleaf Pine Stump in the Uwharrie Mountains of North Carolina
Longleaf pine was once the dominant pine tree species existing on nearly 90 million acres of the southeastern United States coastal plain and piedmont regions (Frost 2006). Today, roughly three percent of the species range remains intact due to centuries of land-use changes, deforestation without replanting, and suppression of naturally-occurring surface fires required to maintain longleaf pine forests. The loss of over 97 percent of the native vegetation communities associated with longleaf forests went largely unnoticed, yet the magnitude of the disappearance of these communities is thought to be far greater than the loss of the American chestnut to blight throughout the greater Appalachian region (Frost 2006). Today, relic stands of longleaf pine comprise a patchwork of forests from southern Virginia to east Texas, although the majority are located in the eastern coastal plain and are in poor condition (Oswalt et al. 2012). Pine-savanna woodlands associated with longleaf pine harbor over half of the 1800+ endemic vascular plants throughout the southeastern US coastal plain, warranting the recent recognition as a global biodiversity hot-spot (Noss et al. 2015).
Longleaf pine forests in the interior piedmont and the southwestern Appalachian and Blue Ridge ecoregions are rare and constitute some of the most a typical longleaf pine communities (Peet 2006). At its interior-most extent, today’s longleaf pine are most frequently found on exposed ridgetops and steep south-to-west facing slopes (Peet 2006). Research on these mountainous (hereafter, montane) longleaf pine forests is limited due to the few extant stands that remain. Montane longleaf pine in northern Alabama (e.g. (Varner et al. 2003a, 2003b, Maceina et al. 2000, Stokes et al. 2010) and Georgia (e.g., (Cipollini et al. 2012, Kronenberger et al. 2014) have been the most studied. Conversely, only a single stand (59 acres) of old-growth montane longleaf pine has been documented in North Carolina (Bates 2001, Patterson and Knapp 2016) with over 400 trees growing on a south-facing slope in the Uwharrie Mountains (hereafter, Uwharries).
The quixotic nature of longleaf pine has fueled our interest in learning more about the extent of this species in the Uwharries. During the past five years we have extensively explored these [End Page 1] mountains searching for remnant stands of longleaf pine and our efforts have been rewarded with the discovery of three undocumented stands on steep, south-facing slopes. Interestingly, we also have documented the existence of hundreds of heart-pine stumps throughout the Uwharries where no living longleaf pine exist. Initially puzzled by the frequency of the “out-of-place” location of these stumps (cover photo taken on a lower elevation, northeast-facing aspect), we have reconsidered where longleaf pine existed prior to extensive logging and fire suppression activities. Ironically, in our effort to find live trees, the ubiquitous occurrence of these stumps challenged our thinking about where longleaf pine can grow in mountainous environments.
The widespread distribution of remnant, resin-rich and decay-resistant long-leaf pine stumps suggest considerably greater flexibility in site requirements for montane stands than we previously thought. We believe that the perception of longleaf pine favoring steep, southerly slopes is principally an artifact of anthropogenic activities during the last two centuries. However, the geographic distribution of century-old stumps in the Uwharries indicates that the species was once much more widespread. Perhaps mapping the extent of old pine stumps can be used in future restoration strategies that help reforest longleaf pine in this region.