The eighth and last member of the Shortleaf Pine-Oak-Hickory Woodland Overstory is the shortleaf pine, Pinus echinata. The seven other members were the fire-resistant hardwood species consisting of the five oaks and the two hickories that I’ve shown in the last two blog posts.
The Grand Potentate of the Overstory
But the shortleaf is particularly special. It was the grand potentate of the overstory, towering over the fire-resistant oaks and hickories forming a supercanopy. The most fire resistant of all the members, shortleaf pines can reach over one hundred feet tall and can live two hundred years or more.
The loblolly pine and the shortleaf pine are the only pine species native to the Upper West Gulf Coastal Plain Ecoregion (Northwest Louisiana, Southwest Arkansas, Northeast Texas, Southeast Oklahoma) and both species, at adult size, are the most fire-resistant tree species—far more fire resistant than the seven hardwood members. So why did the shortleaf survive the raging fires of this woodland grassland, but only a paltry few loblollies survived? The answer lies at the sapling stage. When fire top kills the saplings (meaning that the saplings are killed by fire from the ground up), the shortleafs will resprout with a healthy root system. But the loblollies do not. They’ve given up the ghost. Fire murders the loblolly babies and spares the shortleaf babies. And this is what gave the shortleaf pine the advantage in a hot-fire community.
Shortleaf pines and loblolly pines can be distinguished by their morphology, but sometimes certain trees seem to fall into a gray zone presenting difficulties for even the experts. Generally though, helpful distinguishing features are the number of needles in a bundle (the small sheath attached to the limb or twig that contains the needles). Usually shortleafs have two-needle bundles (with few three-needle bundles) and loblollies have a predominance three-needle bundles. The bark of older shortleafs has tiny resin pits that extend through the bark plate down to the sapwood. Loblollies have no resin pits. Also, older shortleafs have flat bark plates and loblollies usually have thicker bark plates forming ridges. Shortleafs have shorter needles than loblollies do. And shortleafs have smaller cones.
Old-growth Shortleaf Pine with flat bark plates and resin pits
Before we move on to the understory of the tallgrass woodland I should mention its midstory which consisted of shrubs and small trees such as plum, huckleberry, buckthorn, red buckeye, hawthorn, etc. But the midstory was a distinctly diminutive level because of the hot fires that rolled through our woodland. Each fire that occurred would usually top kill many of the midstory shrubs and small trees so they often remained as low, small plants.
I can see Russia from my house!
In my next blog post, I’ll begin the tour of the magnificent grassland ground cover of the understory, the grasses and wildflowers.
Johnny Armstrong, Author
#Biodiversity advocate. Ecosystem Restorationist. Steward of an old-growth forest and woodland in northern Louisiana. #ForestFolkMatter #ScienceMatters
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