Longleaf Pine Savanna: A Botanist’s Paradise
“We find ourselves on the entrance of a vast plain which extends west sixty or seventy miles…This plain is mostly a forest of the great long-leaved pine (Pinus palustris), the earth covered with grass, interspersed with an infinite variety of herbaceous plants, and embellished with extensive savannahs, always green, sparkling with ponds of water…”
William Bartram, a great naturalist explorer, wrote in his travel journals in the late 1700s as he botanized across the Southeast, coming across the vast fire-dependent longleaf pine forests that in his time covered 92 million acres of land from southern Virginia to Florida to eastern Texas. Today, we are left with less than three percent of that, mostly for anthropogenic reasons including logging, agriculture, and fire suppression. This is a staggering loss because these forests are some of the most biodiverse in the world. The low-grade fires that swept through them every 1-10 years maintained an open canopy of longleaf with a rich understory, replete with grasses, ferns, and wildflowers able to grow profusely with the ample sunlight the open canopy provided. Here, minute changes in elevation and moisture create many different plant communities within the umbrella of a longleaf forest, and some of these have over 40 species per square meter, making them more biodiverse than a tropical rainforest. At least 1,200 vascular plants are endemic (found nowhere else), and many of these are now rare or endangered.
One of the most compelling communities embedded within longleaf forests are longleaf bogs. Here, soil moisture is critical and many bog communities are actually the result of a hard, impermeable clay layer beneath porous sand. Rainwater percolates through the sand but runs into an impermeable clay “lens” where it is either trapped (like a pool) or seeps out the side of a hill. The resultant bogs are home to several types of fascinating carnivorous plants, including pitcher plants and sundews. A gorgeous array of orchids and other wildflowers live in these bogs as well, making them a botanist’s paradise.
At Trees Atlanta, we are celebrating the legacy of Longleaf with the creation of an Arboretum space on the Westside BeltLine that will house a Longleaf Pine Savanna and Bog. We recently worked with a local women-owned trail design and construction company, Tailored Trails, to build a boardwalk through close to 400 square feet of shrub beds with species like Buttonbush and Beautyberry that grow prolifically in Longleaf forests. The boardwalk will continue about 2,000 square feet through the Longleaf Pine Savanna, where the charismatic pitcher plants and orchids will be planted. Royal Landscape and Gardens installed irrigation and stonework, and local artist-blacksmith Jason Smith will install a metal railing incorporating unique ecosystem species into its design. Mark Reinke of Marble Branch Farms is providing the pitcher plants.
We will begin planting on Wednesday, May 13, so you can expect to marvel over orchids like Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides) and Marsh Lady’s Tresses (Spiranthes odorata), and pitcher plants like Yellow (Sarracenia flava), White (S. leucophylla), and Sweet (S. rubra) later this week.
Published May 12, 2020
Written by Kelly Coles