No plant indicates that you are in the American South as clearly as the loblolly pine. Driving from western Texas through the Piedmont of North Carolina and Virginia, they are a constant roadside companion. In addition to being ubiquitous pretty much throughout the coastal plains and Piedmont of the region, they’re also huge. This characteristic, along with others mentioned later on, make them useful for forest managers, wood industries, and climate scientists.
The tree is the most commercially important tree in North Carolina for its timber – used both for lumber and wood pulp – and its historical use for tar gave the state its nickname. Loblollies are hugely convenient for forest managers; they rose in abundance during the rise of wildfire suppression and, since then, have become one of the most abundant trees in the Southeast. If they were to disappear suddenly, it would result in more than the loss of a major marker of southern identity. The aforementioned stakeholders in pine populations would be at least a little upset, and there would be implications for forest dynamics and greenhouse gas mitigation. Plus, the Southeast, viewed from above, would look much balder.
Loblolly pine forests, due to their fast-growing nature, are considered highly efficient at sequestering carbon. Forests in general have huge potential as carbon sinks in North America, and loblolly pine, hugely abundant through its range, forms the crux of those sinks through the southeast. They live long, they don’t turn over biomass at the rate of deciduous trees, and they turn much of their sequestered CO2 gas into carbon-dense wood. These factors give southern pines (and especially loblollies) significance in combating climate change. While the disappearance of loblolly might not affect human populations with the same immediacy as if gut bacteria vanished, the implications of this specific pine vanishing – along the research done on it – would be far-reaching. We would lose a major source of carbon sequestration, much knowledge about gymnosperm-specific genes, and a contributor to timber and wood pulp.
The tree has significance for molecular biological research in addition to its macro-level significance. It was the first pine to have its complete genome sequenced, which has since helped shed light on processes specific to coniferous trees. With over 20 billion base pairs, it is currently the largest sequenced organism. This would be a huge amount of information to lose. Understanding the loblolly genome has become a huge project to understand its evolutionary success, especially in the context of its expanded range and sequestration abilities. It would be sad to lose a tree with such important ecological implications, and especially one with such a fun name.
June 18, 2016