In the case that you ever visit central South Carolina, you will want to check out our Congaree National Park, one of the most breathtaking places in the world. It boasts an impressive diversity of plants and wildlife, especially migratory birds. Some of its acreage is dominated by tracts of land never before timbered, and thus, some of eastern North America’s tallest forests are here. I’d like to show you an example.

The tiny human being at the base of this tree is one of my former students, Chanda Cooper. She and I were part of a crowd that went to the Park the other day: what a great time we all had. The intent of the field trip was to visit some of the largest trees there, and we were not disappointed. When we weren’t just ooh-ing and aww-ing below this forest giant, our thoughts turned rather academic, wondering just how come such monstrous trees occur so close to a big city.

This tree being a conifer, its seeds are produced in cones, which at maturity are about 4-5 inches long, dark brown, and rather prickly. This is a potentially tall tree, easily able to get to 140 feet tall on “good” sites. It was originally at home mostly on the coastal plain, but due to land disturbance, has managed to find its way well into the piedmont. These days it can be found from Delaware south to northern Florida and eastern Texas. This species is probably the most common native tree species in the Southeast. (Red maple has got to be just about as common, if not more so.) And, it is surely one of the most important species economically, now grown in plantations and occupying many millions of acres. Its wood is prized for general construction, as well as pulp. Because it has been widely grown in extensive plantations for many years, its natural range has considerably increased, due to the tendency of its seeds to travel well away from the parent tree.

This particular tree is nearly 170 feet tall, and is surely one of the largest of its kind, anywhere. Curiously, we saw no seedlings, or young individuals. This trees’s canopy is quite healthy, and it is still producing plenty of cones. So why no seedlings? Well, it turns out that the seedlings of this species are rather intolerant of shade, and so they die soon after sprouting. Therefore, no small or medium-sized trees here, only these giants. So how did this tree get here in the first place?

The prevailing notion is that long ago, the bottomlands along the Congaree River were subjected to repeated devastating wind storms (hurricanes, you might say) that effectively removed whatever canopy was present. Seeds drifting in from higher ground sites would have been the source for the forest giants present now, which, although they are producing seeds, are not propagating any replacement trees. This means that when these venerable old behemoths eventually die and fall over, there will not be another generation of replacements. Until after the next series of hurricanes, of course.

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John Nelson is the retired curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina.

As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit or email


I have been editor of the Rockdale Citizen since 1996 and editor of the Newton Citizen since it began publication in 2004. I am also currently executive editor of the Clayton News Daily, Henry Daily Herald and Jackson Progress-Argus.

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