Although the hardwoods are the main show at Congaree, it doesn’t take long for the first-time visitor to become impressed with the number and size of the giant loblolly pines found scattered throughout the Park. Probably nowhere else within the range of this species do they get as big, and as old, as in the Congaree. In fact, the current national champion loblolly pine is found in the park. Measuring more than seventeen stories high – 172 feet – and fifteen feet in circumference, it is one of the tallest trees in South Carolina.
Like the hardwoods, we have a pretty good idea of the maximum potential size, at least for girth, of loblolly pines at Congaree. Fifteen to sixteen feet seems to be the largest circumference they attain before the big pines succumb to old age and death from insects, wind throw, lightning strikes, and disease. Years ago Jim Elder measured a sixteen-foot, three-inch circumference pine at the edge of Big Pine Gut; the top of the pine was only recently dead but the bark at the bottom was still tight. I was able to relocate this tree a few years later – much deader, but there was still some bark attached at the bottom. I think Jim found another recently-dead sixteen footer on Big Hurricane Island on the north side of Cedar Creek. And John Grego, while participating as a volunteer during the recent big tree survey, found a sixteen-foot loblolly near Stump Slough east of Weston Lake.
A Google search tells us that loblolly is an old English name for porridge or a thick gruel. The early English author and explorer of the Carolinas, John Lawson, used the term to refer to a stew made by the Indians with corn, dried peaches, and meat. So when the first English settlers came to this part of the world, they encountered large pines growing in thick, muck-swamp soils and started calling them loblollies. Another old name for them you don’t hear much anymore is rosemary pine.
Loblollies, like many conifers, need abundant sunlight and bare soil to get established. Admiring the big pines in the Congaree today, an observer can easily overlook the fact that there are no young pine seedlings or sapling growing up to take the place of the big pines when they finally die. The canopy is too dense to allow enough sunlight to get to the ground for young pine seedlings to get started.
The open conditions needed to get pines established are usually met by fires that frequent southern uplands; however such fires are rare in bottomland hardwood forests like the Congaree, where moist soils and lack of dry tinder makes carrying a fire difficult. So how then did these enormous pines get started in the park? Are these pines a natural part of Congaree’s complex forest ecology? Or did they get some indirect assistance from humans?
I came upon one possible way to tell, thanks to my interest in the history of the park, an interest that began many years ago when I started delving into the old plats and early land grants of what is now the park stored at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. The early surveyors that made plats to accompany the land grants used standing trees as “witness markers” to delineate the boundaries of their mostly rectangular plats. Surveyors back then had to have a working knowledge of tree identification, and the boundaries of the old plats for Congaree would have the witness trees identified, for example, as “red oak,” “white oak,” “hickory,” “cypress,” “sicamore ” (sycamore) and “hagberry” (hackberry).
After compiling more than sixty plats that covered the original old-growth area of 15,000 acres that first comprised the park, I counted a total of 264 witness trees, of which only four were noted as pines. I’m aware that witness trees were not randomly selected by surveyors, so the list may not reflect the actual tree composition of the forest in the 1700s. But it does suggest to me that in the 1700s loblolly pines may have been much less common in the park than they are today.
We do know the ages of some of the big pines, based on ring-counts from trees that were cut after falling on trails or the boardwalk, or from investigators using increment borers. Many of them date back to the period 1820 to 1840. The very large loblolly by the boardwalk at Weston Lake, the most famous tree in the park, is called the “Richland County pine” because it predates the county’s official founding in 1785, is more than 250 years old, with a birth year around 1750.
I think it may have been biologist Chick Gaddy who first suggested to me that at least some of Congaree’s loblollies could have originated from cowpens. For most people the only thing they know about the term is a vague recollection of the Revolutionary War Battle of Cowpens in upper South Carolina that was a turning point of the War in the South.
A cowpen is an old term for what is basically a coral or holding pen for livestock. Livestock was a significant industry in early South Carolina, especially in the backcountry which at that time consisted of everything beyond thirty miles of the coast. As the first settlers developed their lands in and around the Congaree floodplain, and before the rise of the slave-based plantation system which came later, cattle and pigs were one of the first cash crops for the newly-settled hinterlands. The vast Congaree floodplain provided ideal forage in the form of cane, acorns, beechnuts, and other mast for free-ranging livestock. One of the more ambitious Congaree settlers was Thomas Howell, who had accumulated 111 head of livestock by the time of his death in 1760. Some cowpens were substantial affairs, based on early descriptions. The larger ones could hold perhaps a hundred or more head, and frequently included some type of dwelling or temporary cabin for the overseer or stock minder. Garden plots were often associated with large cowpens as well. Nineteenth century historian John Logan observed that in the South Carolina backcountry, large cowpens “made quite an opening in the woods……”
As noted by author Thad Sitton in East Texas, free-range livestock was rounded up several times a year from horseback, using chase dogs, after the cattle had been running loose in the woods and swamps. The corrals or cowpens were used as temporary holding facilities while the livestock was branded and separated for delivery to markets or processed for slaughter. The high ridges in the Congaree, especially those near water, would have made excellent cowpen sites after the trees had been removed. And after the cowpen was abandoned, the bare ground and abundant sunlight would have provided the perfect medium for loblolly pines to become established.
The eureka moment for the cowpen-loblolly theory at Congaree came a few years ago when crack Congaree historian Mark Kinzer, who has devoted years of his life to researching the park’s history [see his book, Nature’s Return, An Environmental History of Congaree National Park], found in the Library of Congress a Congaree plat from the late 1700s or early 1800s with the place name of Cowpen Gut on it. The plat is detailed enough so that the location of Cowpen Gut can be matched with what I refer to as Circle Gut on my map of the Park. And, perhaps not coincidentally, Circle Gut has a large number of old loblolly pines growing on its banks.
Not all of the big pines at Congaree likely owe their existence to abandoned cowpens. Some may have become established from antebellum crop fields while others could have seeded in from natural disturbances such as strong hurricane winds, tornadoes, or even a rare wild fire. Many of the big pines found along the low and high boardwalks, for example, are growing in a muck swamp which is too swampy for either crops or cowpens. These pines may owe their origins to tornadoes and high winds from passing hurricanes which can blow down enough trees to allow the pines to get established.
I expected to find lots of examples of pine regeneration after Hurricane Hugo passed over the park in 1989 but, except for a few individuals here and there, my expectations were not met. A couple of pines did get started in a light gap in the muck swamp close to the high boardwalk, but did not survive, and a single seedling was found growing in a large blow down on Hurricane Island, but it didn’t make it either. More recently, I’ve seen several young pines growing in a light gap along the western leg of Oak Ridge Trail. Significantly, for the above cases there was a group of large pines in close proximity to provide a seed source.
One of the best examples of natural pine regeneration I’ve seen at Congaree occurred more than fifteen years ago when I found a number of seedlings growing in a canopy gap along the south bank of Cedar Creek, about fifty paces east of the Iron Bridge at the canoe launch. I counted and mapped them with the intent of following their development. There were a total of eighteen, ranging from eight to forty-seven inches in height. I expected the smaller ones to eventually succumb, but there were five hardy specimens thirty-three inches or taller that could one day become mighty Congaree pines. Unfortunately, these pines started their development in the worst possible year, 2003, one of the wettest springs of the past thirty years. After a fairly dry winter, the park started flooding in March and continued to, on and off, for much of the next ten weeks, until early June. Young loblollies can tolerate some flooding, but not during the growing season, when I watched these young pines and their roots stayed submerged for more than a week at a time. After the floods eventually receded, the pines looked brown and half dead. The smaller ones soon died; a few of the taller ones tried to hold on, but eventually all died. Now, when looking at the site, you would never know of the ecological drama that once occurred here.
Many of Congaree’s ancient pines are approaching the end of their lives which is around 250-300 years of age. Lightning, pine bark beetles, disease, and strong winds are taking their toll. And with so little recruitment to provide replacement trees, the Congaree forest of the future will likely feature far fewer of these grand trees than what we see today. Fortunately, there should be a few that beat the odds and grow into fifteen story giants that will inspire new generations of park visitors.