-By Todd Amacker, Tennessee, USA: When we last met, we learned about the extraordinary plant diversity that Longleaf pine trees allow to thrive in their light-filled understory. Not just a forest; not just a meadow, but both! An upside down forest, so to speak, with the overwhelming majority of its plant life flourishing in an area where most forests cast an enormous shadow during some (or all) of its seasons.
Frequent fires discourage the growth of pesky hardwoods, which makes way for a seemingly infinite amount of plant life. Pitcher plants, orchids, sundews, butterworts, meadow beauties, yellow-eyed grasses, wild blueberries, and myriad relatives of the mint family. Endemics of coastal plain longleaf alone count for 925 species. (And if you care to know, no place has as many species of Sarracenia, the largest genus of pitcher plants, than the state of Alabama, with nine. All but one are completely dependent on Longleaf pine.)
But this is only the beginning of the cascade of diversity found in Longleaf ecosystems. With so many tasty plants to consume, pollinate, lay eggs on, and hide in, insects flock to this ecosystem. Bees, ants, dragonflies, butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, katydids, spiders, and wasps are lured in year-round by the sequential droves of flowering plants and tasty green leaves. By simply stepping foot into a Longleaf pine forest, especially during summer months, you’ll be met with a cacophony of insect sounds that would send any naturalist into a flurry. It’s best to get down on your hands and knees (watch out for snakes) so you don’t miss anything. You don’t want to miss out on finding a new species to science.
With such an impressive menu, Longleaf pine forests of the Southeast play host to an equally impressive collection of insectivores, including a rich diversity of amphibians and reptiles (not to mention hundreds of bird species, with a few being hopelessly dependent on Longleaf.)
Searching for frogs, one of my favorite pastimes, can keep one quite busy. Do they squawk, squeak, chirp, or bellow? These are clues to help you identify the some 30 species of frogs that can be found in longleaf pine forests. My favorite might be the little pine woods tree frog (Hyla femoralis), which can be found in the early morning clinging to clusters of dew-drenched leaves. There are also a staggering 56 species of reptiles that call longleaf home. Remember the snakes I mentioned to watch out for? The three largest in North America (the indigo, the black pine, and the diamondback rattlesnake) are all found in longleaf pine forests. But only one of those, the diamondback, could actually hurt you.
If you already live in the United States, and haven’t found your way to any of the Southeast’s lovely natural areas, please consider a Longleaf pine forest as your next stop. The Florida panhandle, North and South Carolina, as well as coastal Alabama and Mississippi are all good places to consider. Oh, and pitcher plants bloom in March and April. You’re welcome!
More of Todd Amacker’s photos can be found on his website.