The Big Five
I’m sure you’ve noticed that not all the leaves on the deciduous trees are deciduous, although none on our deciduous trees remain green through fall and winter. For some yet unknown reason, most likely an adaptive one, many of the lower leaves of oaks tend to stay on throughout the winter and only drop off when new leaf buds begin to unfold in late April and early May. Nevertheless with more than 95 percent of the deciduous leaves fallen, including those of understory and shrub-layer deciduous species, it is a very good time to familiarize yourself with the native evergreens, of which there are several.
Save for a handful of hemlocks, the origin of which is questionable, and a red pine or two, we only have five native evergreen conifers on the South Fork, one of which is a shrub. We have a few conifers here and there that are non-evergreen, i.e. they drop their needles in the fall and put out new ones in the spring. It is the larch that I know of, and there are a few magnificent ones in Montauk in the hilly area east of Fort Pond and large one in North Haven.
Larches are part of the northern boreal forest, the “taiga,” named after that vegetational zone in Siberia which extends around the northern hemisphere. It is not known whether the local ones were planted or are the remains of hangers-on left here when the red and blue spruces, northern white cedars, hemlocks, and firs moved north into New England as Long Island warmed up after the retreat of the last ice sheet.
The least ubiquitous of the five is the Atlantic white cedar, or bog cedar, Chamaecyparis thyoides, which grows in the wetlands of North Sea east of North Sea Road, around some of the Seven Ponds in Water Mill and in the northern part of Sag Swamp south of Montauk Highway in Sagaponack. They are fairly long-lived trees; when I aged a few of the North Sea ones 30 years ago, they were already 120 years old.
For some reason this species, not uncommon in the large cranberry bogs south of Riverhead, never made it to East Hampton. It might be on its way, but will probably never make it, as the East Hampton bogs are already occupied on their edges, at least, by pitch pines and white pines. Atlantic white cedar is one of those woods that lasts forever and is prized in the industry. Logs hundreds of years old have been mined from swamps and bogs and found to be in excellent shape for woodworking.
The second least ubiquitous of the five evergreen conifers is the shrub Juniperus communis, also known as common juniper or ground cedar. Though it is only a very low shrub, don’t let its size mislead you. It can be well over 100 years old. It grows out, rather than up, as it ages. One in the Soak Hides nature preserve at the head of Three Mile Harbor is about 80 feet in diameter, yet only a foot high.
On Route 114 there is one the east side of the road where the grassy shoulder is very wide. It’s less than a foot tall and has been there since before 1980. It is plainly obvious as it peeks out from the woods and tries to conquer the shoulder where there is more light. It would do so, except that the state mowers keep it cut back. The roots of the common juniper exude a substance called an allelopathogen, which is noxious to plant neighbors that might try to invade its territory. Oddly, in southern China the same species is a tree, at times reaching 30 to 40 feet tall.
Our most widespread evergreen conifer of the five may not be the most common, but there is hardly an acre on the South Fork that doesn’t have one or two of them. The eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginicus, is a sibling of the common juniper. It is found most in old fields once farmed but now idle and on coastal strands including low duny areas such as the ocean dunes between Atlantic Avenue in Amagansett and East Hampton Village. Very often local junipers take on the shape of a voluptuous woman, narrow waist, wider below and above. Deer are responsible for this sculpturing. They forage on the juniper needles that are head high, leaving the rest alone. It is believed that the red cedars serve as food, especially in the winter when other vegetative matter is scarce or unpalatable and that the juniper needles have some kind of medicinal value as well.
The tallest of the five native conifers is the white pine, Pinus strobus, which can reach heights of more than 150 feet and live for more than 200 years. The white pine was one of those trees that in early colonial times were tagged as belonging to the king. The straightest and tallest were picked out to serve as ships’ masts for his majesty’s navy.
The white pine is rare on the rest of Long Island, but common in the northwest part of East Hampton, the southern part of Shelter Island, and the wooded area of west Greenport on the North Fork. North of Long Island, it is one of the mainstays in the interior of New England, say, in the Berkshires. The tallest and oldest ones are in Maine.
If you drive along Two Holes of Water Road, Old Northwest Road, and Bull Path you will see mature white pines reaching skyward and under them little white pines just starting out to eventually replace them. This forest approaches a climactic steady state — white pines, once completely cut over, look like they will be the Northwest’s dominant tree for generations to come.
The last of the big five is the pitch pine, Pinus rigida, its needles wiry and arranged in fascicles of three in contrast to the white pine’s soft needles bundled in fascicles of five. The pitch pine is the dominant tree of the Central Pine Barrens, Long Island’s state forest, almost 100,000 acres large. It’s a tough pine that can stand the rigors of the ocean dunes habitat, is at home in old fields with red cedars, and does well in close proximity to the Northwest’s white pines with which it intermingles. It is a fire climax species — its pine nuts survive the heat of forests fires, which open the gummy bracts of the pinecones so that the seeds will drop out on the forest floor and restart the cycle of growth. Pitch pines were called “ill-thriven” by President George Washington when he toured Long Island at the turn of the 18th century.
They have been traveling eastward for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, and have reached Hither Woods where they are common in the area of the Walking Dunes, but they have yet to reach downtown Montauk. They also have yet to reach Gardiner’s Island. A few have made it onto North Haven, which was once an island itself. They thickly cover the western half of Napeague, where they compete with the shorter-lived Japanese black pines first planted in the dunes of Amagansett after World War II. When you see a dead or dying pine in Amagansett, 10 to 1 it’s one of those misbegotten Japanese ones. Old timers tell of an era in the middle of the 20th century and earlier when a ride through Napeague to Montauk showed mostly barren dunes and very little in the way of pines growing out of them.
As the climate warms up, we can anticipate many of the more southern pines, such as short-leaf pines and loblolly pines, making it to Long Island and in the very distant future establishing here.