Relics of a Lost Woodland

Fuel build-up beneath a Longleaf Pine
- Photo Credit: R. Scot Duncan
Large relic longleaf on Sandstone Ridge
- Photo Credit: R. Scot Duncan
Longleaf distorted by competition with broadleaf trees
- Photo Credit: R. Scot Duncan
Longleaf Pine crowded by broadleaf trees
- Photo Credit: R. Scot Duncan
Distinctive candelabra branches and pom-pom clusters
- Photo Credit: R. Scot Duncan

One of the surprises awaiting biologists when they first explored Red Mountain Park was relic stands of Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) woodlands. “Woodlands” are ecosystems dominated by trees, but the trees are spaced far apart, and their canopies rarely touch. Abundant light pours in through the canopy and sustains a rich understory of wildflowers, grasses, and small shrubs. Longleaf Pine woodlands were once common in our region, including in two areas of Red Mountain Park: the southeast-facing slopes of Red Mountain and Little Sandstone Ridge, a line of hills that runs parallel to the mountain on its southern flank.

In the past, pristine Longleaf Pine woodlands were breezy ecosystems kept open, dry, and sunny by wildfires that swept through several times a decade. The woodlands blanketed the park’s south-facing slopes until the region was urbanized in the late 1800s. As settlements grew into cities and the iron ore was mined, the strong and rot-resistant timber of the Longleaf Pine was used for railroad ties, as support beams within the mines, and for framing the area’s first buildings. These trees were so valuable that very few were spared the axe. Those that did were overtaken by broadleaf trees like hickory that quickly invaded when wildfires were no longer allowed to burn freely.

Somehow, and despite the odds, several clusters of Longleaf Pine trees survived on the land that is now Red Mountain Park, exclusively on the southeast-facing slope of the mountain. What’s more, they are the only stands of Longleaf Pine on public land on Red Mountain. About 150 trees have been mapped thus far. These relic trees had the good fortune to be too small to be harvested and were safely far away from the mining activities. They are no longer part of a woodland, however. They’ve become engulfed within shady broadleaf forests. The wildflowers and grasses that once kept them company are gone, unable to survive without sunshine. The same is true of young longleaf seedlings – there are none to be found.

Perhaps someday there will be an effort to restore a bit of Longleaf Woodland in the park. Restoration of montane Longleaf Pine woodlands is ongoing at Oak Mountain State Park  and the lessons we learn there could help guide a recovery effort.