Losing Loblolly Pines–Part I

Tammy Brown

It’s All About the Trees

At Little Piney it’s all about the trees. I fell in love with Little Piney because of the trees. Little Piney lies where the Lost Pines meets the Post Oak Savannah in Bastrop . We have pine trees so old and so big it takes three people to circle the trunks with their arms. We have pine trees so tall it hurts your neck to look up at them. Birds disappear completely in the thick needles of their branches. You can hear the wind moving toward you through the pines long before it touches your face.

I love the trees. I’ll fight for the trees if there’s anything I can do to save them. Sadly, many of the trees are in distress, and there is only so much we can do.

Why So Many Dead Trees?

Drought and Weather Extremes

Texas suffered a 5 year drought from 2010-2015. After that, rainfall totals in Bastrop look good on paper, but not so good in reality. Long rainless periods with extremely hot temperatures are followed by heavy rains and flooding raise the rainfall average, but it doesn’t help the trees. Our trees are stressed which makes them vulnerable to insect infestation and disease.

Insects That Attack Loblolly Pines

Southern Pine Bark Beetle

At Little Piney we have lost several pines to the southern pine bark beetle. These sneaky pests kill a tree in about a month. If a pine tree suddenly turns brown at the crown, it’s a sign of pine bark beetle infestation, and it is too late to save the tree. The beetles will have moved on by the time the tree is brown to attack another vulnerable tree. Fortunately ,they usually move some distance instead of killing all the trees in one area.

loblolly pines killed by pine bark beetles
Three dead pines on our road
Big beautiful pine that died from pine bark beetle infestation

Sawfly

We also have sawflies attacking many of our pine trees. The larvae of the sawfly feed on the pine needles creating a thin or bare crown. The pine tree continues to replace the needles, and may exhaust itself in the process. After the first freeze the insects are dormant until spring. If the tree leafs out and the insects move on or predators such as birds eat enough of the larvae, the tree might survive. The insects can be killed with a systemic pesticide. I don’t have a clear answer how that pesticide impacts other insects and birds that eat insects.

These two trees are affected by sawfly. The one on the right was hit harder than the one on the left.



What Can We Do to Save Our Trees?

Honestly, the best answer is “not much.” If you live on a residential lot, the best thing you can do is to water your trees during dry spells dry. Turn a water hose on low and give the roots a deep soaking.

There are treatments for pine beetles and sawfly, but if you have hundreds of trees, the expense is prohibitive, and the damage to your ecosystem may be worse than the loss of a few trees.

An arborist from Heritage Tree Care, Nicholas Arthur, came out to see our trees and discuss the options for treating them. He suggested fertilizing trees near the infested ones to help their natural defenses. We discussed the pesticide option for sawfly and decided to wait and see how the trees look in the spring.

On general tree health, Nicholas suggested a few things:

  • When mowing or shredding, avoid the area within a tree’s drip line. The plants and pine needles help the soil retain water and shade the roots.
  • Be careful with major changes. Taking out surrounding trees can suddenly expose a tree that has always been in shade to harsh sunlight. Mature trees are less adaptable to change. Thinning trees also disrupts the vital root communication between trees that helps them stay healthy.

Suggestions from Forester Gretchen Riley:

  • Protect seedlings that come up on their own. They will adapt to drought better than the old trees.
  • Be extremely careful with herbicides. Many people use herbicides to control yaupon, and drift of those chemicals can be deadly to trees.
  • Diversify by growing a variety of native trees. If pests or conditions kill all of one kind of tree, you will still have the others.
Young loblolly pines growing at the edge of a field.

Sometimes Trees Die

As we discussed the options for treating our trees, Nicholas Arthur said “Sometimes trees die.” It’s true. Trees die, and that is natural but hard for me to accept. Sometimes I think I’d rather leave Little Piney than watch my favorite trees die, but I won’t. We can’t escape death in any of its forms so I might as well stay here and face it.

Nature is actually a great teacher about love, loss, and acceptance. Death is as evident as life all the time in nature. I will do the best I can to take care of the trees, grieve when they die, and celebrate the growth of the new ones.

texas bluebonnets
Bluebonnets and loblolly pine trees large and small in Bastrop TX Lost Pine

Trees and Covid-19

I was about to post a blog about losing pine trees in March, and suddenly people were dying from Covid-19. Losing trees suddenly seemed less important, so I didn’t share it then. Now, the discussion of the value of human life in the context of saving the economy, conserving medical resources, taking exposure risks vs. quality of life is very much on our minds and in our conversations. Somehow we have to consider it all important and make the best decisions we can for ourselves and for the good of others.

That’s why I decided to include a Part II. Part II is an emotional and creative response to losing trees in the context of Covid-19.

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