The Longleaf Pine: A Champion of the Coastal Plain

As far as habitat types are concerned, the longleaf pine savannas of southeastern North America are some of the most stunning. What's more, they are also a major part of one of the world's great biodiversity hotspots. Sadly, they are disappearing fast. Agriculture and other forms of development are gobbling up the southeast coastal plain at a bewildering rate. For far too long we have ignored, or at the very least, misunderstood these habitats. Today I would like to give a brief introduction to the longleaf pine and the habitat it creates.

The longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) is an impressive species. Capable of reaching heights of 100 feet or more, it towers over a landscape that boggles the mind. It is a landscape born of fire, of which the long leaf pine is supremely adapted to dealing with. These pines start out life quite differently than other pines. Seedlings do not immediately reach for the canopy. Instead, young long leaf pines spend their first few years looking more like a grass than a tree. Lasting anywhere between 5 to 12 years, the grass stage of development gives the young tree a chance to save up energy before it makes any attempt at vertical growth. 

The reason for this is fire. If young long leaf pines were to start their canopy race immediately, they would very likely be burned to death before they grew big enough to escape the harmful effects of fire. Instead, the sensitive growing tip is safely tucked away in the dense needle clusters. If a fire burns through the area only the tips of the needles will be scorched, leaving the rest of the tree safe and sound. During this stage, the tree is busy putting down an impressive root system. The taproot alone can reach depths of 6 to 9 feet!

Once a hardy root system has been formed and enough energy has been acquired, young longleaf pines go through a serious growth spurt. Starting in later winter or early spring, the grass-like tuft will put up a white growth tip called a candle. This tip shoots upwards quite rapidly, growing a few feet in only a couple of months. This is sometimes referred to as the bottlebrush phase because no horizontal branches are formed during this time. The goal at this point is to get the sensitive growing tip as far away from the ground as possible so as to avoid damaging fires. It is fun to encounter long leaf pines at this stage because like any young adult, they look a bit awkward.

Photo Credit: Woodlot - Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Woodlot - Wikimedia Commons

Once the tree reaches about 6 to 10 feet in height, it will finally begin to produce horizontal branches. This doesn't stop its canopy bid, however, as it still will put on upwards of 3 feet of vertical growth each year! Every year its bark grows thicker and thicker, thus each year it becomes more and more resistant to fire. Far from being a force to cope with, fire unwittingly gives longleaf pines a helping hand by clearing the habitat of potential competitors that are less adapted to dealing with burns. After about 30 years of growth, longleaf pines reach maturity and will start to produce fertile cones.

Before European settlement, longleaf pine savanna covered roughly 90,000,000 acres of southeastern North America. Clearing and development have reduced that to a mere 5% of its former glory. For far too long its coastal plain habitat was thought to be a flat, monotonous region created by early human burning in the last few thousand years. We now know how untrue those assumptions are. Sure, the region is flat but it is anything but monotonous. Additionally, the coastal plain is one of the most lightning prone regions in North America. Fires would have been a regular occurrence long before any humans ever got there. 

Red indicates forest loss between 2011 and 2014. http://glad.umd.edu/gladmaps

Evidence suggests that this coastal plain habitat has remained relatively stable for the last 62,000 years. As such, it is full of unique species. Surveys of the southeastern coastal plain have revealed multiple centers of plant endemism, rivaled in North America only by the southern Appalachian Mountains. In fact, taken together, the coastal plain forests are widely considered one of the world's biodiversity hotspots! Of the 62,000 vascular plants found in these forests, 1,816 species (29.3%) are endemic. Its not just plants either. Roughly 1,400 species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals rely on the coast plain forests for survival.

Luckily, we are starting to wake up to the fact that we are losing one of the world's great biodiversity hotspots. Efforts are being put forth in order to conserve and restore at least some of what has been lost. Still, the forests of southeastern North America are disappearing at an alarming rate. Despite comprising only 2% of the world's forest cover, the southern forests are being harvested to supply 12% of the world's wood products. This is simply not sustainable. If nothing is done to slow this progress, the world stands to lose yet another biodiversity hotspot. 

If this sounds as bad to you as it does to me then you probably want to do something. Please check out what organizations such as The Longleaf Alliance, Partnership For Southern Forestland Conservation, The Nature Conservancy, and The National Wildlife Federation are doing to protect this amazing region. Simply click the name of the organization to find out more.

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] 

The Plight of the Venus Fly Trap

The fact that endangered plants do not receive the same protection as animals speaks volumes towards our perception of their importance. If one were to gun down an endangered bird, regardless of where it happened, they would likely face jail time. This is a good thing. However, regardless of how endangered a plant may be, as long as it is on private property and written consent is given by the land owner, one can harvest to their hearts content. It could be the last population in existence. The point of the matter is, endangered plants only receive protection on federal lands. Even then, enforcement is difficult at best. 

Plant poaching is serious business. The victims are usually pretty species like orchids or valuable species like American ginseng. The rarer something is, the higher the price. Someone will always be willing to pay top dollar to add something rare to their collection. This story is repeated time and time again throughout the world but one particularly interesting example centers on a plant that most people are familiar with and have probably attempted to grow at one point in their lives - the Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula).

It may be counter intuitive to believe that a plant so often sold in grocery stores could be in trouble but the Venus flytrap truly is. In the wild, Venus fly traps are what we call endemics. They are native to a small portion of land in the Carolinas and nowhere else. Sadly, the long leaf pine savannahs and Carolina bays that they call home are being gobbled up by golf courses, pine plantations, and housing developments. The Venus fly trap (as well as over 100 other endangered species) are quickly losing the only habitat in the world that they exist. 

Of the 107 Venus fly trap populations that remain, only 65 of them are located on protected land. If habitat destruction wasn't enough, plant collectors, both legal and illegal, descend upon this region to get their hands on wild fly traps. This, my friends, is the definition of stupidity and greed. A simple internet search will turn up countless hobbyists and nurseries alike that culture these plants in captivity. It isn't very hard to do and it can be done on a massive scale. 

There is simply no reason to have to harvest Venus fly traps from the wild. None. Despite the plight of this unique species, legal protection of the Venus fly trap is almost non existent. It is listed as a "species of special concern" in North Carolina, which basically means nothing. For poachers, this really doesn't matter. Thousands of plants are stolen from the wild on protected and unprotected lands alike. Recent felony charges against Venus fly trap poachers offer some hope that the situation may be changing but that still does nothing to protect plants that, through senseless loopholes, are collected legally. 

This circles back to those plants we often see for sale in grocery stores. If they are in a red pot with a clear plastic cup on top, you can almost guarantee they came from the Fly-Trap Farm. This company openly admits to buying and selling plants collected from the wild. Despite the afore mentioned fact that culturing them in captivity is done with relative ease, the demand for these carnivorous curiosities coupled with their perceived disposability means that wild populations of this already threatened plant are growing smaller and smaller. 

Venus fly traps are endemics. They grow nowhere else in the world. If their habitat is destroyed and demand for wild plants continues, there is no Plan B. This species will be lost to the world forever. Again, there is no reason to buy wild collected plants. Plenty of hobbyists and nurseries such as The Carnivore Girl, Meadowview Biological Research Station, and California Carnivores (just to name a few) offer reasonably priced cultivated Venus fly traps. Whereas it is difficult or even impossible to squash poaching for good, we as consumers can always vote with our wallets. 

It is tough to say whether or not there is hope for the Venus fly trap and its neighbors. This region of the Carolinas is growing in its human population. So many Venus fly trap populations have already been lost forever and more are likely to disappear in the near future. There may be hope, however, and it comes in the form of land protection. Recent acquisitions of large tracts of Venus fly trap habitat are promising. Regardless, unless the public speaks up about the plight of these long leaf pine savannahs and Carolina bays, no one is going to listen. Plants deserve the same protection as animals. Heck, we wouldn't have any cute and fuzzy megafauna if it were not for healthy plant populations. Protecting plants needs to be a priority. 

Photo Credit: NC Orchid (http://bit.ly/1MUlE0x)

Further Reading:
http://archive.audubonmagazine.org/features0803/carnivorousplants.html

http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/39636/0

http://wunc.org/post/north-carolina-enacts-venus-flytrap-theft-laws-how-big-problem-really#stream/0