The longleaf roots of the “Tar Heels”

Pinus palustris (longleaf pine). Photo by Wilhelm Kühner (2017).

Created in 1964 the Order of the Long Leaf Pine is among the most prestigious awards presented by the Governor of North Carolina. According to the order’s society, honorees receive a certificate which confers them “the rank of Ambassador Extraordinary privileged to enjoy fully all rights granted to members of this exalted order among which is the special privilege to propose the…North Carolina Toast in select company anywhere in the free world.” The toast was adopted by the General Assembly in 1957.

“Hereʹs to the land of the long leaf pine,
The summer land where the sun doth shine,
Where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great,
Hereʹs to ʺDown Home,ʺ the Old North State!”
 — § 149–2. “A Toast” to North Carolina.

But what’s so special about the longleaf pine? The mascot for the 2017 NCAA champions provides a clue. Folklore suggests that the “Tar Heel” nickname comes from the fact that our state was once a rich source of tar distilled from the longleaf pine tree. But only a couple million acres (less than two percent) of the original longleaf forest remains — and almost none of it is old growth forest. So what happened?

At the end of the last ice age (12,000 years ago), the first humans arrived in the New World, from Asia, and became nomads and eventually farmers and builders. As forests of longleaf pines evolved to dominante the ecosystem in the North American Coastal Plain, these “Native Americans” became the first forest managers. By the time the first Europeans arrived, the coniferous forest ecoregion spanned 95 million acres and was periodically regenerated by fire, started either by nature (lightening) or by Native Americans, who harvested the forest’s resources and cleared it for farming.

“The pine is of the same nature as the stars and holds in itself the same bright light.” — Cherokee mythology on the origin of the Pleiades and the pine.

Logs were used by Native Americans for timber and kindling, needles and pine cones for baskets and trays, needles and bark for medicinal purposes, and pitch or resin as a sealant (Elew John Rogers, 2012). Coushatta baskets made from longleaf pine needles are included in the permanent collection of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. (Teresa Parker Farris, 2012), and the craft is still alive today.

Twenty-five year old pinus palustris. Photo by Wilhelm Kühner (2017).

But in 1584, Walter Raleigh was informed that North Carolina contained a vast forest of “trees which could supply the English Navy with enough tar and pitch to make our Queen the ruler of the seas” (OurState). Queen Elizabeth I granted Raleigh a charter in March of that year to establish a military base in North America to counter Spanish expansion in the New World and to “discover, search, find out, and view such remote heathen and barbarous Lands, Countries, and territories … to have, hold, occupy, and enjoy” (John Locke Foundation). Although he never visited North America, Raleigh did dispatch multiple expeditions that settled in, and then vanished from, the Roanoke Colony in the 1580s.

And in 1705, the British Parliament passed a law that required their Navy to pay inflated prices for tar, pitch, turpentine, rosin, hemp, and masts from British colonies in an effort to encourage the American naval stores industry. As a result, North Carolina would become a leading supplier of the emerging navies of the world into the 20th Century.

“There are very large forests of this tree in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama; and the turpentine business is carried on, to some extent, in all these States. In North Carolina, however, much more largely than in the others; because, in it, cotton is rather less productive than in the others, in an average of years. Negroes are, therefore, in rather less demand; and their owners oftener see their profit in employing them in turpentine orchards than in the cotton-fields.” — Frederick Law Olmsted (1856)
Facebook post by Wilhelm Kühner. 😉

Like the Native Americans before them, European settlers also harvested the longleaf’s resources for medicinal purposes — for both humans and livestock! The April 5, 1917 edition of The Alamance Gleaner (Graham, N.C.) includes an article about the use of turpentine in treating worms in pigs, and the February 6, 1925 edition of the Franklin Press and the Highlands Maconian (Franklin, N.C.) includes an advertisement by the local prescription druggist that includes turpentine among the remedies known to housewives that should always be kept in the home. But by 1927, physicians were warning against taking turpentine without their advice. And as early as 1865, in a note about a patient treated with a turpentine remedy in the archives of the Southern Historical Collection, we find this ominous warning about ingesting turpentine: “Sunday’s entry states ‘Rx…Whiskey and Turpentine every 3 hours.’ Monday’s entry states: ‘Died Jan. 8, 1865.’”

“The Planters make their Servants or Negroes cut large Cavities on each side of the Pitch-Pine Tree (which they term Boxing of the Tree) wherein the Turpentine runs, and the Negroes with Ladles take it out and put it into Barrels.” — John Brickell (Nash, 2011)
Video by Visit North Carolina.

Turpentine, used primarily today as a solvent for thinning oil-based paints and producing or removing varnishes, was also used for medicinal purposes in colonial times. It was apparently mixed with animal fats to make chest rubs and remains an inactive ingredient in Vicks VapoRub today. Longleaf structural timbers were also used for commercial and industrial buildings and bridges and some of that wood is being reclaimed today for use in upscale homes with lawns mulched in longleaf pine needles.

“You talk about treated timber that’s guaranteed for 30 years. Well, my grandfather put a post in the ground in 1921. Four fences have been nailed to that post.” — Robert Abernethy, president of the Longleaf Alliance
Pinus palustris (longleaf pine). Photo by Wilhelm Kühner (2017).

Longleaf pines take over a century to become full size and can reach as high as 115 feet. They may live for as much as five centuries — just to put that into perspective, there may be longleaf pine trees alive today that are two centuries older than the United States! Clearcutting also threatened the forest in the late 19th Century and again in the mid-20th Century as Thomas Croker discussed in his “personal” U.S. Forestry Service Southern Region Report of 1987:

Longleaf pine forests have weathered two crises that threatened their extinction. In the late 1800s lumbermen moved in and ruthlessly clearcut most of the virgin timber with no thought of regeneration. Except for a few tracts conservatively cut by far-sighted lumbermen and land that was diverted to agriculture, millions of acres lay bare and bleaching in the sun. Forest workers, unemployed, were left in hopeless poverty.
Largely without the help of man, a second forest arose from the ashes and debris of the virgin timber. But again destroyers moved in. By 1960 it appeared likely that it would be completely gone by the mid-seventies with no hope of renewal. Clearcutting followed by heavy site-preparation guaranteed its elimination. Objective of the destroyers was to replant the land with slash or loblolly pines that could be managed easier — requiring less skill.
Alarmed, lovers of longleaf pine took aggressive action to prevent its demise as an important commercial forest. The dangerous trend was slowed down and about 4 million acres were saved — a paltry remnant of the original 60 million acres of virgin timber. —Thomas Caldwell Croker, Jr., Longleaf Pine: A History of Man and a Forest (1987)
The Pilot (Southern Pines, N.C.), October 17, 1947 (DigitalNC).

In the late 1800s Charles Herty, a chemist from Georgia who would later become the head of the chemistry department at UNC, revolutionized the turpentine industry and did research and advocacy that led to the creation of a new pulp industry that would utilize the longleaf for a new purpose — to create newsprint. By 1947, the state was already trying to replenish lost forest as we see from this article in The Pilot (Southern Pines).

Today, remaining longleaf forests are at risk mainly from urbanization and the associated fire suppression. There are ongoing efforts to restore and preserve pieces of this ecosystem, but the tree from which our state, and UNC, gets its nickname is still threatened.

Facebook post by the Longleaf Alliance.
“[T]he thing that impressed me is not the merchantable possibilities, but the scenic attractions that these fine and thrifty young forests afford.” — Bion H. Butler, “New Forests of Longleaf Pines,” ‘The Pilot’ (Southern Pines, N.C.), 1926.
Facebook post by NC Longleaf Coalition.

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Pinus palustris (longleaf pine). Photo by Wilhelm Kühner (2017).