Friday, November 26, 2010

Pine flatwoods and slash pine

One of my favorite ecosystems in southwest Florida is the one called pine flatwoods. Anyone who knows Florida knows that most of our state has relatively slight variations in height – and this habitat is a good example. My top drawing shows the edge of a pine flatwoods at the Fred C. Babcock/Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area near Punta Gorda, Florida.

Pine flatwoods typically have poorly drained sandy soil, with a canopy of pine and an understory of low shrubs. The pines in this case are slash pine; the shrubs are saw palmetto. Fire and water play key roles in this habitat. 
Squirrel on slash pine

Natural fire shaped the development of the grasses, wildflowers, and trees living here, most of them evolving to produce flowers and seed in the aftermath of heat and ash. Water levels and soil moisture affect the flowering seasons of wildflowers, and determine which understory shrubs will thrive.

According to Dick Workman in his book Growing Native, slash pine derives its common name from the historical practice of slashing the bark to obtain sap for naval stores. Naval stores are resin-based products made from the sap: pitch, tar, varnish, and turpentine. The wood is also valuable, used for construction and for pulpwood. 

Dead pine at Cecil Webb WMA
One of the reasons I appreciate this tree is its adaptability and the wildlife it supports. Every spring the pine in our yard sports a bird’s nest (maybe a mourning dove?), and each fall I find stripped cones on the ground, left by the squirrels after they’ve feasted on the small nuts hidden under the scales. 

Another reason I enjoy this tree is the beauty of its bark and needles, the sway and curve of the branches and twigs. I found a recently dead tree to draw that shows these branch forms in a wonderfully detailed way. Slash pine bark has large rough scales of varied browns and grays that are intriguing to draw and paint, while the cones are a logistical challenge to map out and draw.

There is also something about the way the wind sings through pine needles, a soft sighing whisper, that strikes a resonant note deep within. And the smell of pine needles and sticky sap on a balmy day – another word for heaven! I love this quote by Terri Guillemets (quotation anthologist), which is both literal and symbolic:
“The best part of happiness is the pines.”