Slash Pine

This week for Flora and Fauna Friday it’s Edisto’s forgotten evergreen, Slash Pine (Pinus elliottii).

Slash Pine is a pine just like any other. Tall and stock straight, needle laden, and cone bearing. In fact, its appearance and its life history fall somewhere between the two defining pines of the Southeast, Longleaf Pine (P. palustris) and Loblolly Pine (P. taeda). Slash Pine’s needles are long, but not too long. Its cones are big, but not that big. It likes sandy, well-drained soils but not those especially dry nor exceedingly wet. Yet, it nonetheless has its standout features. Although its needle length bridges the gap between Loblolly and Longleaf, it’s missing some of the traits that define either. Its needles bow, but don’t bend all the way over like a Longleaf. Its twigs are thin like a Loblolly but lack its torch-like profusion of needles. But, the easiest way to pick it out of a line up is by its cones. Slash Pine cones glisten with burnished brown, as handsome au naturale as any sanded and stained cherry wood or shellacked red oak could hope to get. Another simple test to tell it from the rest is the squeeze test. A Slash Pine’s cone can be safely squeezed in the bare hand as hard as you can muster. Try that with a Loblolly and you’ll be quickly cursing and bleeding. Conversely for a proper Lowcountry Longleaf Pine cone, unless you can palm a basketball, you won’t even be able to try! Beyond these subtle physical differences, the native range and habitat for Slash Pine also differs in similarly innocuous ways. Yet, you may be surprised to learn that Slash Pine is really our native Sea Island pine. Slash Pine is our most salt tolerant pine. It finds itself just as at home in the old field windrows as it does along our tidal creek backwaters, high hammock island thickets, and barrier island beachfronts. Although it enjoys well-drained sandy soils, it also tolerates tidal flooding and saturated water tables. Unlike Longleaf Pine, Slash Pine is not an ecosystem defining tree. It’s more akin to Loblolly Pine in the Lowcountry in that its nature is to blend into the mosaic of our natal forests. Slash Pine carves its place in the jungle of our Sea Island maritime forests and Loblolly Pine cuts its rut in the floodplain underlying our bottomland forests. Slash Pine is also well adapted to fire and benefits from frequent prescribed burning more than Loblolly Pine. Slash Pine has value as timber and, for a pine, has exceptionally strong wood, with characteristics very similar to Longleaf Pine. On Edisto Island, Slash Pine is scarcely mentioned and just as scarcely seen but, don’t let that deceive you, it’s the rightful heir to the pine lands of the Island. Our agricultural heritage runs deep on Edisto Island. The breadth and depth of our Island’s history with cultivation is so thorough as to have purged the once omnipresent Slash Pine from much of Edisto Island. When truck cropping began to give way to forestry in the late 1990s, it was the improved Loblolly Pines from off that filled the void. Leaving little room for Slash Pine to return. Nowadays, Slash Pine is relegated to the margins of a few of our creeks and the backwoods of the beaches. A once extensive evergreen deposed from its throne.

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