The Forest and the Trees

A first encounter with Sandyland Sanctuary

It’s an old saying, and a familiar experience. “I couldn’t see the forest for the trees,” someone declares, and everyone smiles knowingly. We’ve all been there.

On the other hand, the opposite can be equally true. At first glance the pineywoods of east Texas — crowded, dim if not dark, deeply unfamiliar — can seem impenetrable: a pile of sticks leaning against a wall of green. Even the Big Thicket’s name seems off-putting. People who’ve never picked dewberries or read the journals of early Texas settlers still have a vague understanding of thickets. They’re difficult to pass through, possibly dangerous, and best avoided.

But thickets can be more than obstacles on the way to somewhere else, and the Big Thicket offers proof. Step inside the forest, and it’s easy to see the trees in a new way.

Longleaf pine upland forest ~ Big Thicket

Look more closely, and enchanting details begin to emerge.

Some especially appealing longleaf bark
An unidentified vine secures itself as it climbs
Shadows of neighboring shrubs play against the trees’ rough surfaces
One face of the forest peers out from among the leaves

Here and there, young longleafs bide their time, developing their root systems. For periods as long as several years, they resemble clumps of grass: their buds protected beneath a bundle of needles. Should fire sweep through, the needles may burn but the bud will remain protected and virtually immune to fire.  

Longleaf pine grass stage ~ Sandyland Sanctuary

When the root collar (a transitional zone between the roots and the trunk of a tree) becomes about an inch in diameter, the longleaf begins to grow. A single white tip called a ‘candle’ emerges from the protective sheath of needles, new needles develop, and, in time, bark begins to form.

Rapid growth allows the seedling’s growing tip to rise above potential fires, and after a year or two the bark has thickened enough to withstand most fires. No branches form during this so-called ‘bottlebrush’ stage, when all of the tree’s energy is focused on ‘up’ rather than ‘out.’

Longleaf pine bottlebrush stage ~ Sandyland Sanctuary (Sandhill Loop Trail)
Longleaf needles-in-waiting ~Sandyland Sanctuary (Sandhill Loop Trail)

After passing through the bottlebrush stage and the aptly-named candelabra stage so obvious in my photo of dawn in the Big Thicket, the longleaf moves on to maturity.

Longleaf pine showing off new needles and cones ~ Big Thicket (Solo Tract)

In time, cones will fall and seeds will disperse, preparing the way for more trees. But more than fallen needles are there to receive the cones. In the Big Thicket, pine trees of various sorts coexist with everything from cacti to ferns, and any fallen cone becomes an invitation to further exploration.

Pine cone and needles with eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa) ~ Sandyland
Pine cone with ferns ~ Big Thicket (Sundew Trail)


Comments always are welcome.

69 thoughts on “The Forest and the Trees

    1. There are loblollies at Sandyland and in the Big Thicket, of course. I can find it hard to tell them apart, although needle length, bark, and the size of the cones helps. The longleaf cones are the largest among Texas trees, and I saw some truly big ones.

    1. You’re welcome, Pit. I’ve had the good fortune to visit the area three times with knowledgeable guides — always a good thing for someone with almost no knowledge of the area. I didn’t take my camera on the field trips, but went back on my own to take pictures. I think I absorbed much more information that way, instead of dividing my attention between the guides and the camera.

      1. Two visits (for different purposes) are a good idea. We may do that on our visit to the Grand Canyon in September: one day with the tour group, and another day on our own, bicycling the Grand Canyon Greenway.

  1. The second picture’s arrangement of pine trunks seems especially harmonious, and the bark textures are your lagniappe.

    It’s news to me that longleaf pines pass through a grass-like stage; the candles I’ve seen.

    1. I was fascinated by the bark. The introduction to pine savannahs was intriguing, as well. The combination of pines and prairie-like plants was so interesting, and so much sand away from the beach was almost amusing. In 1867, John Muir wrote in his journal:

      “In ‘pine barrens’ most of the day. Low, level, sandy tracts; the pines wide apart; the sunny spaces between full of beautiful abounding grasses, liatris, long, wand-like solidago, saw palmettos, etc., covering the ground in garden style. Here I sauntered in delightful freedom, meeting none of the cat-clawed vines, or shrubs, of the alluvial bottoms.”

      He’d have been a great trail companion, I think.

  2. As Ed Abbey said in “Desert Solitaire:” “…get down on your hands and knees and crawl…then MAYBE you’ll see something.” Very astute observations, Linda.

    1. I wish Abbey’d been around when I was trying to photograph dwarf sundews. I think he would have approved the absolute loss of dignity required for that little endeavor. Not only that, he could have explained the situation to the fellow who stopped his truck to be sure I was alive — although, as soon as I mentioned sundews, the nice man laughed a hearty laugh and went on his way.

  3. Visually lovely and extremely informative. It is not a habitat I have ever encountered, but that is true of many ecosystems throughout the world. Surely one of the great joys of blogging is to see the world through others’ eyes and to vicariously explore regions unknown – and likely to remain so.

    1. I’ve enjoyed your reports of your birding trips so much, David. It’s nice to know that I can share a quite different and unfamiliar world with you. One of the great surprises of east Texas is the variety of ecosystems there — forests, baygalls, bayous, and bogs — and the rich diversity of both flora and fauna. I’ve learned that the longleaf pine forest is home to the Red-cockaded woodpecker, and I know one person who’s sure (albeit without concrete evidence) that the ivory-billed woodpecker is out there — somewhere!

    1. The next time I go, I might try the floodplain trail, although there are so many things to see and see again on the sandhill loop, it’s always worth a revisit. I’ve not yet done the entire sandhill loop, and may not until fall. It’s a little toasty out there!

  4. Could that be a grapevine, Linda? I imagine they grow wild in that area, but it’s hard to identify without leaves and fruit. This is a lovely spot of nature — who knew there were such interesting barks to see? And thanks for doing the research on the pine stages. By the way, aren’t longleaf pines used as Christmas trees?

    1. I’m sure it’s not a grapevine, but I’m not at all certain what it is. There were grapevines and dewberry vines scattered around the area when I was there; in fact, there still was fruit on the dewberry vines. The variety of trees was a little overwhelming. Some I’d never heard of, but most of my tree knowledge is rooted in the midwest and this part of Texas.

      I’m fairly sure the longleaf pine wouldn’t be used as a Christmas tree, just because of it’s growth habits. It doesn’t begin branching until it’s got a few years under its bark, so to speak. I think the spruces and firs are the most common Christmas trees; at least, I’ve been told they’re the species that are most often farmed.

  5. The trees do look like some ancient tribe or aliens. (Pine trees were the “crop” on our farm. Tried different varieties. The long leaf ones were so beautiful and elegant compared to other – but guess they need to grow in natural dense forests to protect each other. An ice storm destroyed years of planting/growth one year as those long needles carry so much ice and weight. Terrible sight of 12-15 foot trees crashing. All mowed down and planted with less lovely but more resilient types.
    The pine cone picture and those of the bark are my favorite images today

    1. Was that the ice storm of 1997? I remember how many palms came down in Houston — not to mention power lines — and east/southeast Texas took quite a hit. I recall a few boats sitting pretty far down in the water, too, because of the weight of ice on the rigging.

      It’s been interesting to learn about the restoration of the longleafs in places like Sandyland. The Solo Tract, very near the Big Thicket visitors’ center, not only had some gorgeous trees like the one shown against the blue sky, it also has baby trees: so young you still can see the plugs that were planted. It’s heartening to see so many seedlings, and think about the work going on to help them thrive.

      1. Oh, far earlier than that – late 50’s-early 60’s. Simply a weather cycle /pattern that reoccurs – they probably have data that show how many years between. I remember the winter of ’67 being bitter cold with snow in East TX early. (And the college couldn’t turn on the heat in the dorms/classrooms as the state schools were all regulated by a state uniform strict AC/heat unit schedule. So everyone bought and plugged electric room heater…and blew fuses…) That was one long cold cold winter. In Early ’70’s there was snow all the way down to Palacios. Ice on there bay there. Routine reoccurring weather patterns…but usually only those who’ve been through the cycles and noted them see the normalcy of “change”…sooo when will Dallas be ocean waterfront property again HAHA.
        You’re right there’s little more beautiful than young long leaf pines against a blue sky. Good to save regional wild spaces.

        1. I still think the best ever was the Christmas Eve snow in 2004. That one wasn’t especially destructive, but it was memorable beyond words. Everyone was a kid that year.

    1. I was surprised to learn about the trees providing their own insulation. Once they leave the grass stage and begin to gain some height, they’re more vulnerable, but once that growing tip gets above the level where ground fires can reach it, they can survive quite well. The use of fire as a management tool in restoration efforts means that fire-scorched trees are around, and it’s clear that the thick, heavy bark of the older trees provides a good bit of protection.

    1. I completely enjoyed visiting the area, Pete, and I know you’d enjoy it, too. There’s much more to see there than pine trees, including some very interesting insects. There are a lot of little creatures nibbling their way through the landscape, and more katydid nymphs than I could count.

    1. The coping mechanisms nature develops are something. I was especially intrigued to learn that the red-cockaded woodpecker roosts and nests only in live pines: especially the longleaf, but others as well. The birds peck holes in the bark around the nest entrance, and the sticky sap that flows down helps to keep tree-climbing snakes away.

        1. Down here, the rat snake often is called the chicken snake because of its ability to climb into hen houses and grab an egg or two. It still seems odd to me that snakes can climb, but they sure can.

  6. “a pile of sticks leaning against a wall of green” – I love that description. Very interesting about the Long Leaf Pine, I had heard of this tree but knew nothing about it.

    1. That line you like came to me very late; it was the last change I made in the draft, and I thought it was just right.

      When I first went to Sandyland, I didn’t know much more about the longleaf pine than its name. I was hunting rare flowers, and the trees were just there. In time, of course, I read and heard more about the restoration work taking place, and nature of the environment that allows both flowers and trees (and a good bit else) to flourish there. The floral diversity seems especially remarkable to me: I never expected to see pitcher plants and liatris growing together.

  7. I never cease to be amazed at the way lifeforms adapt to their surroundings. When fires clear back the undergrowth, the longleafs are poised and ready to exploit this “cleared field.” I wouldn’t be surprised if their cones burning helps release the seed.

    1. Fire can be useful for opening the ground beneath the trees for germination, but it’s not necessary for seed dispersal. The cones open while they’re still on the tree, and seeds fall in October and November. Despite having a wing, they generally don’t fall far from the tree because of their size and weight. Of course there are people who’ve studied all this. In a page dedicated to the tree on the Fire Effects Information System page (who knew?) it says, “The winged seeds are dispersed a short distance by wind, with 71 percent of the seeds falling within 66 feet (20 m) of the base of the parent tree.”

      Give or take, I suppose. The same page did note that very few critters can get to the seeds before the cones open, since the cones are so large and heavy, and hard to manipulate.

      1. Hmm… The fairly short-distance seed disbursal and resultant dense planting would definitely explain the use of “Thicket” as descriptor for the growth habit of Longleaf Pine, wouldn’t it?: )

        1. Actually, the ‘thicket’ in the name of the region applies to much more than the longleaf pine. That’s only one small part of a complex that includes an amazing variety of shrubs, trees, vines, forbs, and grasses. There are savannahs, baygalls, bogs, and mixed forests that contain everything from orchids to carniverous plants. There are oaks and cypress, alligators and wonderful birds. I wish I’d found the area years ago — but at least I finally found it.

  8. Texas never ceases to amaze me, and the land perplexes me. Who would have thought forests to even exist there? I suppose I have been fed too many westerns and barren rocky sceneries in cowboy movies in my youth. Next you will show us banana plantations!
    Thank you, Linda for proving me wrong.

    1. No banana plantations here, but I could show you a photo of the banana trees growing beneath my bedroom window. Three or four years ago, I actually got bananas from the things. They weren’t very good, but they were quite the novelty.

      Size is relative, of course — Australia’s about eleven times the size of Texas, but Texas is three times the size of New Zealand. Still, we’re big enough to have quite the variety: forests and beaches, deserts, prairies and mixed woodlands. There even are some mountains out west — as you learned from those cowboy movies. Some day I hope to go west, and see those parts of the state I’ve never seen, but I must say what I found by going east is pretty darned cool.

  9. The longleaf bark is fascinating. Almost like someone has peeled it with a potato peeler.

    The longleaf needles-in-waiting is a fabulous photo with all its detail. Thanks for sharing.

    1. It does look rather like someone took after it with a potato peeler, doesn’t it? What a great image! Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches has a department of forestry, and there are wonderful resources from them online, including course syllabi. Here’s a page from one of their sites I found really useful for learning about the changes in the bark as the tree matures.

      I almost didn’t take that closeup of the needles, but I’m glad I did. Now that I’ve seen how marvelous their structure is, I’ll try for some better photos. It’s almost like they’ve been shrink-wrapped.

  10. What a fascinating tree and ecosystem, Linda. I love how it protects itself in the early times. Love the photo of the shadow. The bark reminds me of the jack pines up north.

    1. I’d not heard of jack pine. I read a fact sheet about it, and was interested to learn that it’s the northern conifer best adapted to fire. It’s cones do require heat — either fire or extremely hot temperatures — to open and release their seeds. The Great Lakes and Canada are its home — no wonder I’ve not heard of it!

      The shadow’s made by leaves of the titi (pronounced tie-tie). I’ll show that plant in a future post. It’s native, but a bit of a nuisance since it spreads like crazy.

  11. Fascinating information about how the Longleaf grows and its protective measures against fire. There are other trees in other ecosystems with similar, though different mechanisms for fire protection, but this was instructive with wonderful accompanying photos. You’re right though when you suggest that the term ‘big thicket’ is a bit intimidating–it just seems like something that can’t be penetrated or observed. This post dispels that notion–nice!

    1. Just wait until we get a little farther into the Thicket — you’ll be delighted by some of the brand-new-to-me discoveries I made. Some of those discoveries can’t be conveyed in a photograph, though. On the Sundew and Pitcher Plant trails, there wasn’t one other person around, and I learned that the sounds of the forests and bogs are quite different from the sounds of the places I usually roam. Even pine needles make noise when they fall — and the sound of the wind isn’t at ground level, but high in the trees. It was great fun.

    1. From what I’ve read, the ivory-billed woodpecker is akin to Sasquatch: there are true believers, and then there are those who are convinced it no longer exists. If it is still around, I’d be willing to believe it’s out in those hardwood swamps of east Texas and Louisiana — if it’s smart, it’ll stay there, well away from humans. The story of its loss is a sad one.

  12. What a fine piece of natural history you have presented with your fine images, Linda. You’ve reminded me of the Pine Barrens in New Jersey. I’ve driven past a few times but now think I should have stopped. I read McPhee’s book many years ago and now, as you might guess, I think I should open it up again.
    I really like the mystery in that first image. It definitely depicts impenetrability. Longleaf as a grass, almost a hummock, is surprising…although nothing should be too surprising if Nature has created it.

    1. Like you, I’ve read The Pine Barrens, and I’ve been thinking about pulling it out again. There’s no question that reading it now would be a different experience, because my experience with the trees is different.

      I specifically didn’t reference longleafs in that first photo caption, because I think they might be loblollies, but at the time I wasn’t in any position to make a good identification. In any event, the species of tree isn’t relevant to the effect I was looking for: that impenetrability you mentioned.

      I was so surprised to learn about the grass stage. There again, I wouldn’t have had a clue what I was looking at, and would have missed the photo, had Shawn Benedict, the preserve manager, not been kind enough to give me a tour during my first trip to the place. At the time, I was interesting in finding white gaillardia, but I found much more.

      1. Isn’t that the truth. We concentrate so much on a chosen goal that we often miss everything else…which sometimes is a much bigger deal. In a way, the grass is similar to a butterfly’s larva. Who would look at something so odd looking as a cecropia caterpillar and envision the moth it metamorphoses into? 22 minutes of fascination. Who would think a tuft of grass would become a tree?

        Speaking of impenetrability, quite often one will see deer in a dense forest only to then lose them into trees that would appear to be impossible to navigate they are so tightly packed. Good for the deer, not so much for the hunter.

  13. Very nice article! We don’t have longleafs here, but I remember the large stands of them in coastal North Carolina and they are grown there for lumber. Beautiful trees!

    1. They are beautiful. I had no idea that longleaf forests once spread across the southeast. Now, stands are smaller, and I’ve read that the wood is best reserved for higher quality use, not pulpwood. Ironically, one disease that afflicts older trees, red heart fungus, causes some timber value loss, but makes the stand better suited for red cockaded woodpecker nesting. It’s amazing how things work together.

  14. This is beautifully put together, Linda – interesting scientifically and aesthetically. I’ve never seen anything quite like that grass stage, but the way you described the strategy, it all makes sense. I love the second and third photos, and the super closeup of the young needles. Great post!

    1. Thanks, Lynn. I’ve learned so much about this area and about the trees, and it’s great fun to share some of that new knowledge. The grass stage was quite a revelation to me, too. If I’d not had it explained to me in the very beginning, I would have walked right past those trees, thinking they were some sort of bunch grass. I want to try for some better photos of the still-bundled needles, too. They’re so attractive, and really unusual. Their ‘packaging’ reminds me of modern shrink wrap!

  15. Linda, these are gorgeous! You did a great job capturing all of the details regarding the longleaf pine. The bark is so detailed and visually exquisite. I love the colors also. I also feel your other photo of ‘dawn in the Big Thicket’ would look good with these series.

    My first encounter with one of the southern pines was with the slash pine (or Pinus elliottii) and this tree produces cones sooner than a longleaf. The cones are not as big neither. So a 20-30 ft tree will have several cones already, and MALE cones too (if it’s spring), yes, something that took me by surprise when I first saw them. The male cones produce pollen and are located on the lower branches of the tree. In the spring, the short-lived male cones produce pollen, which is carried to female cones by the breeze.

    1. I just read from an old post that the longleaf pine was the one that was found originally in Florida, and that the slash pine came later and was used to replace the longleaf, so some people are not so fond of them. The longleaf is also said to be much taller and majestic than the slash pine.

      1. The figures I’ve come across vary a bit, but this lays out the reality fairly, I think:

        “Longleaf pine was once one of the most extensive forest ecosystems in North America, covering an estimated 90 million acres, an area roughly the size of Montana. It spanned the Gulf and Atlantic coastal plains from Virginia to Texas and also reached further inland in areas of Florida, Alabama and Georgia.

        Today, the cumulative impacts of a changing landscape have rendered longleaf pine forests one of the most endangered ecosystems in the United States. Less than four percent of longleaf pine forests remain — roughly 3.4 million acres. What’s more, a mere 12,000 of those acres — an area half the size of Montana’s largest city, Billings — are populated by old-growth longleaf pine. Even worse, the remaining longleaf pine is in largely fragmented stands and much is in poor condition.”

        1. Now I understand why the lady in the YouTube video said that the longleaf was slow with cone production. She also mentioned that in order for them to yield fertile seeds they had to grow within a certain distance from each other, not too close to each other (I believe it was). So, it’s kind of sad that perhaps this knowledge might have helped save some of the longleaf forests. Now I understand why she placed so much emphasis on the pine cone production rate of the longleaf pine.

        2. Ok, I just listened to the video again. The professor of the YouTube videos spoke of trees per “basal area”. Basal area is the common term used to describe the average amount of an area (usually an acre) occupied by tree stems.

          However, what the professor says in the video is really interesting. The longleaf produce less cones if the basal area is too high (too many trees per acre), or the cones could have infertile seeds.

          I found another link to a video by the same professor of the loblolly pine you might like, in case you see it one day: (

          She also explains as to why it’s called ‘loblolly’ and I found that amusing.

    2. I don’t know what I thought the ‘slash’ in ‘slash pine’ referred to, but I finally looked it up and found that it means “a tract of swampy ground, especially in a coastal region.” I couldn’t find much more information than that, but that certainly seems to be the sort of conditions that a slash pine likes.

      The bark of all these southern pines is beautiful, and different from what I was accustomed to seeing in our midwestern trees. I found this, which probably helps to explain the difference: “A pine species with smooth bark generally grows in an environment where a fire is limited. Pine species that have adapted to a fire ecosystem will have scaly and furrowed bark.” That’s certainly true of the loblolly and longleaf, which do thrive in the presence of fire.

      1. Yes, the slash pine is supposed to like humid swampy ground, however, I’ve seen it being planted here away from coastland and swamps, so I’m not sure as to how true that is.

        The professor of the YouTube channel came out saying that the loblolly did not thrive well in the presence of fire. Its bark actually becomes thin as it ages, instead of thick, and its needles are shorter and not waxy. This is why I find them a bit tricky to learn.

          1. Thanks for the link! I’m also learning them as I can and I love quizzes. I saw the loblolly pine grows on the eastern part of Texas but in Florida it grows more northerly, so I might not see it around here after all.

  16. What a fascinating post! I have that pine tree, it’s a beauty for sure, the cones are so long. We all need to see beyond the thicket and step into the forest, a wonderful metaphor for life. Love the detailed pictures of the

    1. It was a fascinating visit, Dina. Actually, I’d have to say “visits” now. I’ve been back twice more, and hardly can wrap my mind around all that I’ve seen. I’m working on a post now about the flowers that grow beneath those marvelous trees — they certainly made stepping back into the forest worthwhile!

      And, yes: life does appear to be a thicket from time to time. Sometimes a machete is the only answer, but sometimes there are less destructive to slip in and have a look around.

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