Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Joseph Pines Preserve

I had the rare opportunity for a guided tour through the Joseph Pine Preserve in Sussex County in early June. The preserve is owned by Meadowview Biological Research Station, which was founded in 1995 to preserve Virginia's disappearing long-leaf pine/pitcher plant community. The 100 acre preserve is only open to the public on special occasions.

The property is a mix of loblolly pine plantation, hardwood forests, swamp and sphagnous seeps. The diverse terrain provides a home for 18 rare species of plants.

Long leaf pines once covered 1.5 million acres in Virginia, but now there are only about 4000 trees left, and half of those are actually plants from Louisiana planted on the Blackwater Preserve. At Jospeh Pines, they’ve recently planted 3,000 longleaf seedlings specifically from native Virginia pines. Below you can see the typical 'candles' growing at the top of the young trees that makes them easy to identify.
One reason longleafs disappeared is logging and pine sap harvesting. Through the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, longleaf pines were an important source of turpentine, tar, and pitch, until supplies were depleted (read more here). It was the dirty feet of the turpentine workers that gave North Carolina the 'Tarheel State' nickname. In the back of the preserve is a lone remaining pine stump that had been used for collecting sap. All the others were ground up by the Continental Can Company for dynamite production.
Another reason for their demise was fire suppression. Fire is critical for the longleaf life cycle, allowing pine seedlings to survive and releasing seeds from cones. Joseph Pines has had several controlled burns to reestablish the conditions that longleafs need. In the video below you can tell they got a real kick out seeing the fires work their magic.

The tour of the preserve was led by Meadowbrook President Phil Sheridan. It was a good turnout with about 20 or 30 people on the tour.
One of our first stops was a giant pile of sawdust, which marked the location of an old logging operation. According to Phil, the sawdust pile showed up on aerial photos as far back as the 1930’s. After that we walked through meadows filled with bracken fern and pine saplings, and headed for one of the pitcher plants plantings. A large depression, a couple hundred feet across, was home to the loads of yellow pitcher plants,as well as smaller purple pitcher plants. There were a few blooms to be seen but they were low to the ground.To populate the pitcher plant preserve, Phil and his compatriots grew and studied pitcher plants that were obtained from the 6 remaining populations in the state. It's a good thing too, since 4 of the sites have since disappeared. But we still have their gene pool at the preserve. The small tents in the shot below are protective coverings for young plants that keep them from getting washed away.Though Pitcher plants are now rare in Virginia, they didn’t used to be. In fact, back in the 30’s, botanists used to look for roadside stands of pitcher plants as indications of good spots to look for rare plants. But the roads themselves partly lead to the decrease of pitcher plants, as they began to block natural water courses. And as with pines, fire plays a critical role in the pitcher plant life cycle. Pitcher plants get their nutrients from the insects they consume and they don't like rich soils. Periodic fires remove organic material in the soil, and suprisingly, fire leads to more water. In a forest, only about 50% of the water actually reaches the ground. With less plant growth comes more runoff and groundwater for the seeps that pitcher plants like.
At the site, grad student John McLeod explained some the work he and other students were doing to learn about the water cycle at the preserve. They've been taking soil cores to find out how the groundwater moves through the alternating layers of clay and sandy soil on the site. The question is which layers are transporting the water.

Other plants we spotted on the property included reestablished sundews mixed with the pitcher plants, as well as white milkweed and wild yellow baptisia (below).
There was also swamp azalea, maleberry, Black-eyed Susan, wild quinine, meadowbeauty, and butterfly weed scattered here and there. And though I didn’t see it, Mary Hyde Berg reported finding a grass pink in bloom.

Thanks for the tour Phil! I'm very glad there are organizations like yours that are working to preserve these rare ecosystems. You can see the rest of my photos here. For more detailed information on the preserve, take a look at their website. And for general information on long leaf forests, take a look at the Longleaf Alliance website.

1 comment:

Les said...

It's been added to the list.