History of Heart Pine

By Aaron James

Southern Longleaf, Pitch, or Old Growth are all synonyms for the very popular Heart Pine. Given the name because of the high content of heartwood, Heart Pine is different from other pine species due to its tight ring pattern and unique amber color.

The history of Heart Pine began in the Old South where, prior to the colonial era, virgin forests covered much of the coastal plain for thousands of years. Spanning from Virginia to central Florida and westward along the Gulf as far as Texas, the Heart Pine forest was the most extensive, contiguous ecosystem in North America. The woods were so thick, that a squirrel could travel the entire expanse without ever touching the ground. Today, only about five percent of the original 90 million acres remain.

After Heart Pine seeds germinate, new seedlings may grow no more than an inch tall in their first ten years. They devote most of their energy to producing an extensive root system. Once past the “grass” stage, however, they can grow to heights of 175 feet and take150-400 years to mature.

Because of its unique beauty and strength, Heart Pine was used in most early, Southern homes for flooring, furniture, and cabinetry. Because of its tremendous, structural strength, it was also used extensively in larger construction. From the large industrial buildings in Chicago and Boston to the textile mills throughout the South, Heart Pine played a key role in building the Industrial Revolution. The keel of the U.S.S. Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” was made from a single timber of Heart Pine. Due to wood shortages in Europe, large quantities were also exported during much of the Nineteenth century.

The original Heart Pine range was dramatically reduced as a result of extensive logging and clear-cutting to make way for agriculture, “soft” pine plantations, urban development, and suppression of the fires needed for seedling germination. Introducing the feral hog into Jamestown, which fed on the seedlings, also played a key role in the demise. By the turn of the last century, nearly all the old Heart Pine forests were gone, and over thirty plant and animal species associated the ecosystem have become threatened or endangered.

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This sample was found in a construction dumpster on the 1400 block of Peabody in front of a house that was built in 1925. Itwas undoubtedly used as a primary floor-framing member. This 2 5/8 inches thick slab contains sixty-five growth rings with a running average of fifteen rings per inch perpendicular to the growth pattern. By measuring the length and rise of the arc of a median ring, I was able to calculate that this piece was cut approximately 11 3/4 inches from the heart, making the tree a minimum of 225 years old when harvested. Deducting this from the age of the house means that the seedling that eventually grew into this sample germinated in 1700 or earlier! To bring out the natural beauty of the wood, I gave it a light sanding (not enough to remove the historic sawmill cut marks or evidence of its use as a framing member) and a single coat of water-based sealer.

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