Longleaf pine savannas exhibit a diversity of wildflowers that is second to none. This spectacle is best viewed during the hottest part of summer, when most people are cooling off at the beach - you have to brave the heat to discover some of these beauties. The Francis Marion National Forest located in Charleston and Berkeley Counties is one of the best places in our state to visit fabulous examples of longleaf pine forest.
Longleaf pine itself has made a significant contribution to the South Carolina economy. During the 18th and 19th centuries, pine tar formed the basis for the naval stores industry. These forests also served as summer homes for planters avoiding malaria.
Longleaf pine habitats are noted for their extreme levels of diversity. In fact, longleaf pine savannas contain even more diversity on small spatial scales than tropical rainforests. The plants of these habitats have adapted to a long history of fire and often low fertility, with the result being the striking, colorful and frequently bizarre forms we see today. These habitats are the only places in the world where many fantastic plants, including the Venus Flytrap, can be found. Today, less than 10% of the original extent of longleaf pine remains in the Southeast, though at one time it was the dominant feature of our Coastal Plain. Our garden will provide a critical tool in the education about these places and the processes that maintain them - FIRE.
In the 1720’s, Mark Catesby wrote: “In February and March, the Inhabitants have a custom of burning the woods, which causes such a continual smoke...”
Fire has been a part of South Carolina’s past for a very long time. Theories suggest that local inhabitants used fire for at least 10,000 years prior to European discovery. Fire changes the landscape and plays an important role in an ecosystem. It is a natural way for the forest to be ‘cleaned’ of dense, woody undergrowth and old dead logs and to make way for new beginnings. Many plants have adapted to the fire regime and cannot survive without it. Some of our native pines, such as pond pine and Table Mountain pine, need fire for their cones to open and to disperse their seeds. The entire architecture and life history of longleaf pine ecosystem is made for fire. Even the most abundant grass in this habitat, wiregrass, will not flower unless it burns!
Starting in the 1930s, the U.S. Forest Service started major fire suppression. Their successful Smokey the Bear campaign of the 1940s has changed the perception of two generations. Now, we are far removed from the days of cultural fire and few are aware of fire’s past connection to South Carolina.