Oak Mountain State Park has one of the best examples of a very rare ecosystem, the Montane Longleaf Pine Woodland. Before Europeans colonized the Americas, these forests covered broad swathes of the Southeast stretching from Texas to Virginia. Today, the range of these special forests has been reduced to about 3 percent of its original size, making it one of the most threatened ecosystems in the United States.
The tall, stately Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) – Alabama’s state tree — takes 100 to 150 years to grow full size and can live to be 500 years old. Curiously, the young conifers don’t look like seedlings but like a clump of grass or bristle brush as they emerge from the ground. The Longleaf Pine is useful to people: along with making durable lumber, the tall, straight trees were often made into the masts of sailing ships, while their sticky resin became the tar and pitch needed to protect their hulls. Extensive logging helped limit the pine’s range, as did clearing for agriculture and development and the limiting of natural forest fires, which are needed to make room for young pines to grow.
In Longleaf Pine forests – they’re technically woodlands – the trees are spaced out, allowing more light into the understory, which becomes a lush zone crowded with grasses, wildflowers and shrubs. The diversity of plants supports a rich assortment of animals; around the country, the remaining longleaf pine forests are home dozens of endangered and threatened species.
These important woodlands are normally found on the coastal plain, but in one small part of north central Alabama and northwest Georgia, they climb into steep terrain. These montane (the word simply means “mountain”) Longleaf Pine woodlands are few and far between, and Oak Mountain State Park protects one of the largest. These stands on the peaks and south-facing slopes of the park’s highest hills shelter the rare Confederate Daisy (Helianthus porteri) and the critically imperiled Boynton’s Oak (Quercus boyntonii), which is only found in Alabama.