The Forests
By John Paul Lilly
Associate Professor Emeritus, Dept Soil Science
North Carolina State University
When European explorers first visited the area, they saw an almost unbroken expanse of forest. By all accounts, the extent of the forest and the size of individual trees were almost beyond our comprehension. However, the forest was not untouched. Native Americans had inhabited the region for hundreds of years and had left their mark, primarily with fire. Of course, fire had always occurred naturally and had helped shape the vegetative communities, but the Indians also intentionally set fires to open the forest, aid in hunting, and clear small patches for agriculture. The sand ridges were covered almost exclusively by long leaf pine. Explorers of the 1600s reported huge tracts of such pines suitable for ship masts and other naval stores. The loblolly pine, now so common, was a tree of the swamps and an invader of newly cleared areas. The loblolly could not tolerate fire as well as the long leaf. The long leaf was replaced by agriculture and other tree species as it succumbed to turpentine and tar production and the rooting of range hogs. Cutting the trees to collect the sap made them extremely susceptible to fire, and range hogs devoured the young pine seedlings. Virgin growth trees were much larger than most of the ones we see today. As late as the 1890s, a pine was considered marketable only if it had 12 inches of heartwood on the small end of the log (Ashe, 1894). Destructive forest fires occurred frequently. Settlers used fire for land clearing and intentionally set woods fires to encourage new growth for cattle grazing and to control ticks. Both cattle and hogs ranged freely and had a considerable impact on native vegetation.

In between the sand ridges and the swamps were the Oak Flats. Few of these remain, because they occupied some of the better agricultural soils and were more easily drained than the more inaccessible swamps. The grove of oaks at Plumblee Park in Plymouth is a small reminder, as is the oak grove south of US 64 just east of Creswell. Oak Flats have been described as one of the rarest of the tidewater vegetation communities.

Wetter areas of the county were forested by swamp blackgum, tulip poplar, red maple, sweet bay, red bay, and an occasional loblolly pine or bald cypress. In Washington County, there were extensive areas of this type of vegetation, especially south of Roper in the headwaters of Mackeys Creek. A remnant of this plant community can be seen on the north shore of Lake Phelps west of the cypress stand. This is probably as close to a virgin forest as exists in Washington County. Other noteworthy areas with similar vegetation include part of what is known as the Parker tract southwest of Roper, and part of Van Swamp. In 1982 these areas were identified by the North Carolina Coastal Energy Impact Program as areas worthy of protection (Lynch and Peacock, 1982), even though somewhat modified.

As mentioned previously, the land north of Lake Phelps was originally forested by baldcypress. Edmund Ruffin described the forest (Ruffin, 1861) with its large trees and the method of girdling and felling for land clearing. A remnant exists today in Pettigrew State Park on the North Shore of Lake Phelps. This area was also noted by the North Carolina Energy Impact Program (Lynch and Peacock, 1982).

Atlantic White Cedar was an especially prized wood of the swamps, and there was originally a much larger acreage than exists today. The cedar is rot-resistant, does not splinter, and is easily worked. No large stands are in the county today, but there are a few small groves, and scattered individual trees are not uncommon along drainage ways. One easily observed stand is just north of US 64 on Welch’s Creek at the Martin County line. Atlantic White Cedar typically occurs in even-aged stands and requires land disturbance, such as fire, to become established. However, it is not fire-tolerant and is easily killed by wildfires. It is usually found on deep organic soils, and many stands were destroyed over the years, first by fire and later by logging. Atlantic White Cedar has been difficult to grow commercially, but the North Carolina Forestry Department, Weyerhaeuser Company, and others have several experimental plantings in the region.