Wiregrass and Longleaf Ecosystems
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In prehistoric times, most of South Carolina’s Upper Coastal Plain was covered by what’s known as a wiregrass or longleaf pine ecosystem. Wiregrass (Arista stricta) is a foot-tall species of hardy grass which often coexists with forests of the longleaf pine (Pinus palustrist), a relative of the slash pine now used as a cash crop throughout the South. The longleaf pine is fire-dependent, meaning it only reproduces after wildfire—usually started by lightning—releases its seed cones.
Wiregrass savanna and old-growth forests of longleaf pine once covered most of the Southeast to the tune of about 100 million acres. Within about 200 years, however, settlers had deforested the region to a shadow of its former self. Currently only a few good examples remain in South Carolina, especially the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge, Lynchburg Savanna Heritage Preserve, and Longleaf Pine Heritage Preserve.
Contrary to Hollywood portrayals, no one ever needed a machete to tear their way through an old-growth forest. Because the high, thick tree canopy allows little but wiregrass to grow on the forest floor, Native Americans and early settlers could simply walk through these primordial forests with ease.
© Jim Morekis from Moon South Carolina, 4th Edition