Got into the 80’s this week. It is now reliably warm enough for the snakes to come out and amuse house cats by laying across the front porch. And an amused house cat is unlikely to misbehave, so in general this can be considered a good thing.
In case you’re wondering, they are black racers. Harmless, but seem to be more aware of people than most snakes, so you may hear about them chasing you down. They don’t. They will half stand up and take a good look at you though.
Bluets, Houstonia ssp, are still in bloom all along the trails. They are blue, tiny, like the damp, seem to enjoy growing in the middle of a trail in an attractive clump of moss and are honestly about the cutest little thing you’ll ever see. There lots of different bluets; 78 species worldwide according to one count, three in North Carolina according to the North Carolina Native Plant Society. The bigger of the ones I find are Houstonia caerulea, which you can know due to the yellow middles. These are listed as “azure bluets” as a common name, as is “innocence” and “quaker ladies”, but the different species are so similar that the need for a particular common name for this flower seems a bit unnecessary. There is another bluet, about half the size, without a yellow center and a darker, more purply blue, but I don’t know which one that is. They also seem to like the sun a bit more than H. cerulea. So, just call ’em all bluets, and if you need to talk about a particular one, use the latin.
Virginia Pines are messy. Just generally messy lookin’ trees. Walk through the woods, see a pine, think it needs some trimming’, it’s probably a Virginia Pine. Unlike the other three common Piedmont Pines, they don’t self prune, meaning that they keep their lower branches even after they’ve stopped being of any use and are in fact dead. It’s really the easiest way to ‘id them.
The cones look similar to a Shortleaf’s, and they have two needles per fascicle, also like a Shortleaf. But Shortleaf are generally neater looking trees, with a nice bare trunk. So go with that.
Pinus palustris, the Longleaf Pine, gets the most press of the Piedmont Pines. First, it has a seriously important history. Second, it requires fire to survive in any abundance. Third, it has HUGE cones. Seriously big cones. Bigger than your hand, unless you’ve got abnormally large mutant hands. Otherwise, they are about the same size as the other pines in the area. Oh, and yeah, it has long leaves/needles.
Longleaf used to be the dominate tree in the Piedmont, but since European colonization they have steadily been replaced by buildings and more commercially profitable trees. They were heavily harvested in the 1700’s, being common (at that point), straight, and not so branchy, so if you needed a nice straight, long, round log, this was your tree. But that was centuries ago, and now you will not find one without a good search. It is listed as endangered by the IUCN.
They also require a good solid fast burning ground fire to get going. People have a tendency to resent good solid fast burning fires and put them out. So they’re not doing so well. But if fires are allowed to naturally occur, or maybe occur with some encouragement, they can come to dominate. The enormous cones release their seeds more vigorously after a good burning. The seedlings can spend five years or so as a little poof ball of on the ground needles, building up the necessary strength to outpace a fire. After half a decade of poof-ball, the seedling will make a rapid break for the sky, growing six feet or so in a single season.
The needles are in (usually) bundled in threes, just like Loblolly pines. So the mnemonic of “number of needles in a bundle being sorta equal to the number of syllables in the name, as long as you don’t move much away from central North Carolina” doesn’t entirely work. But the needles ARE surprisingly long, so between that and the giant cones, you’re probably good.
Pinus echinata, the Shortleaf pine, is another common pine tree in the Piedmont. They are very similar to Loblolly pines. Both trees are tall, thin and have no branches on the lower part of the tree. The easiest way to discern between the two is to find a cone, but this can be annoying if a tree of each species is next to each other, what with the cones falling and rolling about. Anyway, here’s three ways to differentiate between the two:
1. Shortleaf pines have smaller cones than Loblollies and are not spiky. You could throw them at somebody and it would be just annoying, but no blood would be involved. Loblolly tossing will get you cussed at.
2. Shortleaf bark sometimes has these cool little zit like bodies called pitch pockets. But not always. Sometimes they will ooze. But not always. It is also thinner. You cannot hide a the end of your finger in it. Loblolly bark is thick and corky, and doesn’t have any acne issues.
3. Shortleaf (two syllables) has two needles bundled together. Loblolly (three syllables) has three needles bundled together.
Now you’re good as long as the forest is only allowed to have two species of tree. References
Pinus taeda, the Loblolly pine, is probably the most common tree in the central Piedmont of North Carolina. (Okay, found a note saying that it “accounts for over one-half of the standing pine volume” which sounds pretty damn common.) Or if not the most common, at least it is damn common. They are large trees, getting well over 100 ft tall, but sort of skinny. They’re “self-pruning”, meaning they drop their lower branches as needed. So the trunk is nice and clean looking, with a poof of needly branches at the top above the roof of a two story building.
The cones are really spiky, oblong and about the size of an orange. It is the most painful cone to pick up locally.
The needles come bundled in threes and are a little longer than the cones.
The bark is dark and sort of reddish, and broken into scales larger than your hand. Unless you have really big hands.
There are five pines you may encounter in the Piedmont. Just ignore everything you buy from the garden center, we’re talking about out in the woods. Two are very common, three less so, but one of the three less common ones gets people REAL excited. So useful to know all five.
First, what’s a pine tree? You’re reading a natural history blog, so you probably already know that pines are evergreen conifers: they have pine cones (duh), and needles that don’t drop in the winter. But there are a few other trees (firs, spruce, sequoia….) that also have needles and cones. So you need more than just “cones and needles”.
The big trick is to look for fascicles. Pine trees group their needles, wrapping them around the base with a papery covering called a fascicle. Find the fascicles, and you’ve got a pine.
So what are the five pines we’re going to try and figure out?