Southern forests have grown up

Midwesterners who assume that the East Coast is nothing but urban sprawl are often surprised by the endless dense forests which cover the most of the eastern seaboard from Maine to Georgia.

Midwesterners who assume that the East Coast is nothing but urban sprawl are often surprised by the endless dense forests which cover the most of the eastern seaboard from Maine to Georgia. 

It wasn't always so. 

During the 200-year colonial period, the coastal lands were stripped of their original forests. 

First, the British took the timber to build their immense naval and merchant fleet. The tall, straight trees in the New World were particularly valued for ship masts. 

Trees were needed for fuel. Every home burned wood. Eventually, iron furnaces consumed entire forests in Appalachia. 


Farther south, when tobacco became a lucrative crop, planters cleared forests to make farmland. The rise of cotton and rice hastened the deforestation. 

When one visits battlefields on the East Coast, from Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts to Gettysburg, Pa., the problem for historians who want the battlefields to remain as they were is that there are more and deeper forests now than there were when the actual battles were fought. 

The lush forests along the road the Redcoats used to retreat back to Boston after the first shots of the Revolutionary War simply weren't there in the 1770s. There was nowhere to hide.

In Gettysburg, removing trees to preserve the sight lines that existed during the battle in 1863 is a major budget item for the Gettysburg Foundation. 

What happened to make the coastal states more forested today than they have been at most times in the past 300 years? 

First, the British shipbuilders were denied the use of the forests once they lost the Revolutionary War. Eventually, the British and everybody else stopped making their ships out of wood. 

As for the land cleared for farming, the soil in the coastal lands is very weak. Fertilization was not yet common in the 1700s. Clearing the land of trees sometimes yielded only a few years of good crops before the soil wore out, and the forest was left to grow back. 

Finally, with the discovery of coal and eventually oil, the need to use wood for fuel decreased. 


As a result, the forests have grown up again and are probably more extensive than they have been in a couple hundred years. 

And the woods are dense. As you drive from Washington, D.C., through Virginia, most of the freeways are virtual tunnels. Driving east down the peninsula towards colonial Williamsburg, so thick were the woods in the median that we went a good 70 miles without once seeing the oncoming traffic in the westbound lanes. 

It is enough to disorient a prairie person. Eventually you get claustrophobic and just want to see some open land. 

But there is no open land. Ever. The only comfort is when you get to the ocean. However, when you realize you can't drive across the ocean, the comfort evaporates. To get anywhere, you have to burrow back into the forest tunnels. Scary. 

The coastal forests of Virginia, even those that have regenerated in recent years, feature impressive trees which form a canopy two to three times as tall as the oak forests of northern Minnesota. 

In Virginia, live oak (a type of oak which keeps its leaves most of the year) mix with pine. In Georgia, pine predominate. Syca-more, gum trees, hickory, ash, walnut, cherry and dozens of varieties of oak also are native.

In more domestic settings you find the legendary magnolia. In older neighborhoods, some are massive and historic.

Enormous trees on battlefields are honored as "witness trees" if pictures can prove that they were there during the Civil War. 


In Savannah, Ga., 21 city squares feature massive oaks planted in rows hundreds of years ago, each draped with strands of pewter-green Spanish moss. 

The most handsome southern tree of all, in my opinion, is the pecan. It isn't the largest, but it is utterly dignified with a straight trunk and a dense crown of dark, glossy green leaves. 

The main enemy of forests in the south is kudzu, a vigorous and invasive vine imported from Japan in the 1870s to feed cattle. 

What a disaster. Easily controlled in the Orient, kudzu took off in the heat of the South and consumes about 150,000 additional acres of land per year. 

Kudzu drapes itself over entire groves, killing the trees and all of their undergrowth. 

But despite the kudzu, one is encouraged to find that in the South, at least, there are more forests now than at any time since the early days of settlement.

What To Read Next
Get Local