A friend of mine, who once surveyed East Coast trees for her college degree, came by Camp Salmen last spring. As she walked past the little bridge on the Bayou Liberty trail she suddenly exclaimed, “By golly, I think that’s a northeastern pitch pine!” (Pinus rigida). The reason for her surprise was this was a tree she was pretty familiar with from her studies and it was not supposed to be any closer than Northern Georgia. In fact, it’s the main tree found in the famous New Jersey Pine Barrens, a region so named because of its sandy, acidic soils that never could be farmed but produce a heck of a lot of pine trees. I told her, “You got a sharp eye girl,” as we looked over the specimen. It was huge — one of the largest pines in the park, about three feet wide and a head above the other trees. It looks like it should be at least a century old.
I was curious enough to do some research on the tree. This one had most of the traits of a pitch pine: height, location in sandy soil, a thick bark, similar needles, seed-cones and appearance. The needles were not quite as stout as a pitch pine but these trees are known to hybridize with loblolly, shortleaf and pond pine so it might combined with one of those. Like a lot of plant species that are similar to one another, pine trees can hybridize all on their own and come up with either a whole different species or take on traits that leave botanists arguing over what it is. This tree certainly doesn’t look like the other local pines.
Like the Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris ), once the dominant native tree on Camp Salmen land, Pitch Pine is known to ooze gobs of sticky sap or pitch. This was refined into products like tar and resin used to preserve wood and canvas. This was a big industry in these parts and maybe the tree is a remnant of this - Ole Fritz Salmen might have planted it himself. Then again, it could just be a random volunteer.
Unfortunately, we’ll know exactly how old the tree is sooner than later. I was shocked to recently look up and discover it was dead and brown. It doesn’t appear to have any signs of a lightning strike, maybe it was old age, or maybe as a northerner it couldn’t take the heat stress. Since it’s on a busy trail it will have to be removed and we can then count the rings. I’ll let readers know how many. In the meantime, please come by the park and pay your respects.
(Editor’s note: The tree had about 140 rings, meaning it got its start in the 1870s. It also had a sizable termite colony in its center that may have helped kill it.)