Tales from the Bent Twig Trail: Making Change

By Wren Smith

Virginia Pines are agents of change.

IMG_5682Like all trees, virginia pines, Pinus virginiana, are alchemists, transforming ingredients such as water, carbon dioxide, and the energy of the sun, into food (carbohydrates) for the planet. But first the energy becomes trunk, root, and leaves, or in this case, needles. During this remarkable transformation the trees release oxygen. While we may have learned the basics of photosynthesis in grade school, science has not yet teased out the mystery enough to duplicate this process precisely and widely. If they did, we’d have an endless supply of energy.

But virginia pines along with other trees, such as wild cherry and eastern red cedar, also transform old fields and disturbed sites, into forests in an orderly process known as succession. These pioneering trees can grow in a wide range of soil types and thus help create conditions favorable for trees such as hickory, oak, and maple which you can also find in abundance on the Bent Twig Trail.
Virginia pines are common in many sections of Bernheim, but they are not  flamboyant. Only a downed branch bearing needles or cones, and the large flat reddish plates of bark announce the presence of these trees on this trail. Sometimes known as scrub pine, these are small to medium size trees, with short needles that grow two in a bundle. When you hold one of these bundles it forms a “V” for Virginia, which can be helpful for remembering and identifying  these silent transformers in this forest. Because virginia pines are not tolerant of the shade they helped create, they are beginning to decline here and in other maturing forest. One way to examine nature is to observe change. Sometimes we clearly see the forest by noticing some of the silent partners in in the process of transformation.
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