A natural, cultural, and personal history of the slash pine in South Florida.
Pinus elliottii. Slash pine. A large, heavily branched, deep-rooted conifer growing up to 100 feet tall, its bark gray-brown to russet, deeply furrowed and scaly. Crown shape: oval; pyramidal. Leaf arrangement: alternate; spiral. Leaf type: simple. Leaf margin: entire. Distinguished from longleaf pine by its much thinner branchlet tips only a half inch in diameter versus branchlet tips an inch or so in diameter for longleaf, needle lengths eight to 12 inches versus 12- to 18-inch longleaf needles (in bundles of twos and threes on the same tree, whereas longleaf bundles are always in threes), spiny-scaled cones three to five inches long versus six- to ten-inch longleaf cones. Wild turkeys and squirrels (gray and fox) savor the cones of both species. Natural range: smallest of all major Southern pines, extending from southeastern South Carolina to Central, South Florida, and the Keys, and west to Louisiana. “South Florida slash pine… was the source of dense, resin-free, long-lasting wood, called ‘Dade County pine,’ used in early homes,” according to the authors of Native Florida Plants.
My eight-year-old daughter Eva doesn’t know that slash pine needles and cones are much shorter than the gigantic needles and cones of the longleaf, that they lack the longleaf’s miraculous fire-resistance, and that they often live out benighted lives crowded in straight rows on tree farms for their timber and (mostly) for their pulp, used to manufacture cellulose, rayon, toilet paper, and other paper products. What she knows is that the frilly, pale-green seedlings bursting just a few inches above the sandy soil beneath the torn canopy of their parent trees are “so cute.” She wants to take several home and plant them.
We are touring the grounds of the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Palm Beach County, Florida, the site of a short-lived agricultural settlement founded by Japanese immigrants in the first decade of the 20th century. My wife and I tell Eva that it wouldn’t be right or even legal to harvest these infant trees from the scrupulously maintained grounds. (What we don’t know yet is that these frilly, apparently trunkless seedlings are in the “grass” stage of slash pine life, the first two to five years when these trees forgo upward growth to develop a large tap root, instead. During this phase, the vulnerable apical tip, buried at the center of its foliage clump, is fairly well-protected from fire. The developing tap root hoards carbohydrates for the energy it will use during the “bolt” stage that comes next, when the tree bolts as high as five feet per year to usher the apical tip above the reach of most ground fires.) We promise our daughter that we will visit a plant nursery soon and buy a young slash pine, preferably one a bit older and taller than these ankle-high seedlings. Eva doesn’t seem so happy about this delay in her plan. A band of blue jays holler from high up in the scaffolding of slash pine branches, criticizing each other, or us.
Slash pines “create a natural bird sanctuary,” an online source suggests. “[T]hey provide shelter to birds from predators, attract the pileated woodpecker (the big ‘Woody Woodpecker’), and are home to owls. Even eagles and egrets will make their nests in the treetops of a large pine.” Yes. This morning as I walk the dog, I notice a yellow-crowned night heron perched about 60 feet up on a thick slash pine branch bathing its pretty plumage in the dawn’s molten light. For the past several springs, we have watched a veritable rookery of these handsome herons build their nests and raise their young in the high branches of two slash pines at our neighborhood park. Pine Breeze Park, its name. Eva likes gathering up the rust-colored needles shed by the trees at the park to line the bottom of the screech owl and woodpecker nest boxes we’ve installed in our oak trees.
Locating a slash pine tree for sale at the nurseries closest to our home proves to be more of a challenge than I anticipate.
Locating a slash pine tree for sale at the nurseries closest to our home proves to be more of a challenge than I anticipated. The fellow at the largest nursery I frequent in Broward County offers me a perplexed look when I ask him where he keeps the slash pines, as if I had asked after the tennis rackets, unicycles, or unicorns he surely stocks along his neat garden rows. Gathering his wits, he explains that very few people visit the nursery looking for slash pines, which most consider “sloppy.”
Small wonder that so few slash pines remain in my neighborhood, named Palm Beach Farms. Once a pine flatwoods, then a pineapple farm (hence the neighborhood name), the slash pines and the understory of palmetto, wiregrass, wax myrtle, and the hundreds of other plants associated with this most extensive terrestrial ecosystem in the state were first thinned to provide ample sunlight for the pineapples, peppers, and beans grown here, and then all but cleared by the end of the 1970s as the last homes in my neighborhood were built on lots of a quarter-acre or so. Several large specimens remain here and there, but over the past ten years we’ve lived in the subdivision I’ve discovered that neighbors are a heck of a lot more likely to remove a slash pine from their property than to plant one. Its “sloppy” needles notwithstanding, Hurricanes Frances, Jeanne, and Wilma of 2004 and 2005, then Irma in 2017, spooked the South Florida citizenry about any large trees planted near rooftops and windows. The slash pine’s reputation for dropping its large horizontal branches has made it something of an arbor non grata in my suburban environs. “It’s a nuisance tree,” one neighbor opines when I ask him what he thinks of the slash pine.
The slash pine’s reputation for dropping its large horizontal branches has made it something of an arbor non grata in my suburban environs.
Nuisance tree. Sloppy tree. Cute tree. Commercially valuable tree. The slash pine—perhaps like most trees—can mean multiple things to multiple people. Eva’s sudden interest in these trees makes me want to know more about what they have meant to others whose lives have intersected with them in one way or another. Living in Florida for most of my adult life, I’ve absorbed faint knowledge that slash pines were associated with the turpentine industry. I’ve heard the phrase “turpentine camps,” usually in association with the various atrocities of Jim Crow.
The “naval stores” industry, I learn, dates to the Colonial Era, when it was discovered that resin could be extracted from Southern pines and distilled into pitch to seal ships, and into turpentine and rosin for a variety of uses. (Vicks VapoRub, for example, originally contained turpentine.) The bark of mature trees was stripped down to the cambium in a V-shape with a scythe-like tool called a hack. A “Herty pot” container, named after its inventor, was placed below the V-shaped wound to collect the resin. The industry migrated southward from the Carolinas to Florida as the forests north of my state were rapidly decimated for their timber, and as the Civil War eradicated the scourge of slavery and its free labor for white landowners. To address the perennial shortage of willing and available workers, Florida prisons leased convict labor to the turpentine camps well into the 20th century. By 1909, the naval stores industry was leasing 90 percent of Florida’s black prisoners (!), according to an oral history of the turpentine camps prepared by the Florida Humanities Council. The state eventually outlawed convict leasing, but in 1919 the legislature authorized turpentine operators to hold non-convict workers for debt.
As Isabel Wilkerson writes in The Warmth of Other Suns, her Pulitzer Prize-winning study of the Jim Crow period in the U.S. South that prompted the Great Migration, Florida authorities from the panhandle to the Everglades routinely arrested African American men on the street, charged them with “vagrancy” and assessed fines that they knew the men couldn’t pay, all for the express purpose of hauling them off to the turpentine camps. This institutionalized practice was a form of 20th century slavery called “debt peonage.” By charging the African American laborers for everything from transportation to housing, food, and clothing (which they could only obtain at the company commissary), camp owners could secure a worker’s free labor in perpetuity. There was little state oversight on the conditions in these remote outposts of wildest Florida. White overseers called “woods riders” wielded pistols and leather whips from horseback to keep the African American laborers at constant work under the fierce sun. They worked the men from “can’t to can’t,” meaning from can’t see in the morning until can’t see at night, and beat uncooperative or disruptive laborers severely, sometimes to death. Food was scarce, housing was shoddy, and disease (including malaria, pneumonia, and heat stroke) was rampant, claiming many lives. In the late 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston and Stetson Kennedy, working for the WPA, visited a turpentine camp in northern Florida, recorded the African American laborers’ folk songs, and listened to their stories. When Kennedy asked one worker why he didn’t just leave the camp, the man explained that the only way out was to die, that if you tried to leave they’d kill you because they had folks to bury you out in the woods.
Florida, in 1941, was the last Southern state to strike down its debt peonage laws.
I gaze now at a black-and-white photo of a turpentine camp published in Michael Gannon’s book Florida: A Short History. A white man wearing a cowboy hat, one of the woods riders I presume, sits atop a muscular horse as he oversees six African American laborers within the frame of the shot bent over the trunks of slash (or possibly longleaf) pines. The men look gaunt. Some wear hats to shield their faces from the harsh sun. What could a slash or longleaf pine mean to these men? On the website for the Library of Congress, I pore over the few interview transcriptions from Kennedy and Hurston’s visit to a turpentine camp. I listen to the scratchy recordings of the work songs. But I find no allusions to the actual trees. I can only imagine that to these men pines meant unrelenting work, and cruelty, and isolation from family, and hopelessness.
The story of Florida and slash pines and us gets worse. In 1935, Reuben Stacey, an African American man accused of assaulting a 30-year-old white woman in her home, is hanged by a mob from a slash pine tree in Davie, Florida—just a half-hour or so from my current home—after which the white men take turns firing 17 shots into his body. The black-and-white photo of the lynching re-published recently in The Sun Sentinel sits beside me now. Stacey’s lifeless body droops from the rather slender slash pine trunk. His head tilts rightward. His hands appear to be bound before denim overalls. Several white men and a white woman strike devil-me-care poses in the backdrop. More astonishingly, a girl of about eight years old or so—my daughter’s age—wearing a blonde pixie haircut stands in the foreground to the right. She stares at the camera, apparently unfazed.
1935. This may seem like a long time ago. But how long is it, really? Fewer than 100 years. A blink of an eye to a slash pine.
A recent report published by the Equal Justice Initiative features a table listing Florida a close second, only to Mississippi, of African Americans lynched annually, per capita, in Southern states between 1880 and 1940. Any number of slash pines, I imagine, are conscripted by whites in Florida and throughout the South to enact these racial atrocities.
I can only imagine that to these men pines meant unrelenting work, and cruelty, and isolation from family, and hopelessness.
What do slash pines mean to some African Americans in Florida today? I wonder if I might draw a reasonable connection between these black-and-white photos documenting racial persecution in the woods and the young African American woman in my recent environmental literature seminar, who shuddered when I reached to touch the leaves of a Jamaican caper shrub on a field trip and warned, her voice quavering with what seemed very much like fear, “Be careful! Don’t touch that!” I don’t want to make too much of this isolated incident, but I don’t want to make too little of it, either. In her essay, “Black Women and the Wilderness,” Evelyn C. White reflects upon her visceral aversion to the woods and other rural spaces in the U.S. and associates this wariness to her “genetic memory” of racial violence inflicted upon African Americans in such environments.
Yet White closes the essay by reclaiming a more salubrious ancestral connection to rivers and trees and to the unconstructed landscape generally. It is an act of remembering that Lauret Savoy, too, takes up more recently, and more substantively, in her book, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. “The American land,” she realizes from an early age, “preceded hate.” Savoy notes that enslaved persons “forced to work Piedmont soil had an intimate, immediate relationship with this land, cultivating and harvesting its yield by hand. Another yield had to be a community geography apart from the planters’ lives and imposed bondage. Private and communal meanings, elements of self-autonomy and agency, emerged from endurance and strength grown in place.”
I glimpse something further of this complex and paradoxical relationship between people of color and the American landscape in Dolen Perkins Valdez’s historical novel, Balm, from the reflections of one of her enslaved characters, who recognizes “that the greatest irony of their condition was the beauty of the country in which they toiled, and the heartbreak of their lives was the fogged lens through which they gazed upon God’s country…. This land around them was both the site of their darkness and the source of their light.”
All of which makes me wonder what else the slash pine might have meant to those African American laborers in the black-and-white photo propped beside my keyboard, what else besides unrelenting work, and cruelty, and isolation from family, and hopelessness. Perhaps slash pines also represented a source of light for most, or some, or a few of them.
For now, I spare my young daughter a history lesson on slash pines and racial persecution in Florida. But I’m pleased that it turns out to be difficult to locate a tree for sale. The relative scarcity of slash pines predictably ups its appeal to Eva and gives us more time to linger over slash pine-ness in the world. We begin to play a sort of game as we walk our dog through the neighborhood. First one to locate a slash pine gets a point.
What’s most curious to me during our contests is simply how little I know concerning which trees stand where along these blocks I’ve traversed on foot and in my car hundreds of times. While I consider myself more environmentally receptive than most, I didn’t know, not really, that a rather magnificent specimen can be found a few blocks from my house down Isabel Road Este on the left (its branches favored, apparently, by spot-breasted orioles!), that there’s another nice one with a bougainvillea threading its way through the canopy in the backyard of my neighbor’s house just a short way down on 17th Street, that the largest slash pines seem to be the cluster of four that have been left to stand on one of the busier throughways three blocks to the west, or that one rare soul actually planted a line of young slash pines on his or her swale six blocks to the east. I had taken vague note of the existence of these slash pines in the neighborhood, but I had no idea how many still survived or where, precisely, most of them stood until I started to look for them in earnest. Knowing the locale of particular trees in one’s neighborhood either matters or it doesn’t. As I would like to think that it matters, I’ve tried to make mental notes of the slash pines that either Eva or I spot while we saunter through the neighborhood with the dog, and even as we drive in the car about town. There! Eva will often beat me to the punch from the back seat. And there!
Knowing the locale of particular trees in one’s neighborhood either matters or it doesn’t.
Did the early 20th century Japanese settlers in Palm Beach County take such active note of the slash pines looming over their pineapple fields? What did these trees mean to them? I possess about as vague a knowledge of their defunct agricultural settlement as I did of the slash pines gracing my subdivision. The Yamato Colony, I discover, poring over articles and photos in the archives of the Boca Raton Historical Society, was founded in 1905 by Joe Sakai of Miyazu, Japan, who had signed an agreement two years earlier with Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway to form a Japanese agricultural settlement in the Boca Raton area. He and about 15 Japanese men established the settlement on a 40-acre site of land, actually a few miles farther to the east than the locale of the current Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens. South Florida’s fledgling population mostly welcomed the colony for its promise to introduce new agricultural methods that might stimulate economic growth. The settlement seemed to thrive for a short while. During the 1907-08 season, the Yamato farmers shipped 10,000 crates of pineapples from the newly erected FEC train station nearby. “Progress and prosperity are said to be everywhere in evidence,” a 1906 article in a local newspaper claims, “and a rapid growth for the colony is assured.” Some of the men travelled to Japan to marry and returned with their wives. In addition to a wife, Sakai brought back tea and mulberry shrubs and experts in silk worm production. He and others started families. The children attended school in the one-room Yamato schoolhouse. “The Japanese forming the colony of Yamato are adapting themselves to American ideas in their manner of living and dress,” a newspaper article from 1908 claims. “They are fully imbued with the American spirit, their highest ambition being to be called Americans and citizens of this country, which they greatly admire.”
All the same, the conditions proved difficult for the settlers. “Accommodations were simple and consisted of crude shacks built from native pine trees,” local historian Geoffrey Lynfield writes. Pineapple farming on rugged, uncleared South Florida land was back breaking. “No more than one acre a season,” Lynfield describes, “could be cleared by even the most hard working settlers using grubbing hoe, rake, and shovel. They had no tractors and all work had to be done by hand. The harsh tropical climate added to the discomfort of the immigrants. Rains flooded the fields and ruined crops. Mosquitoes and flies forced everyone to wear head-nets during the summer months.” Competition with Cuban pineapple growers, who could grow them more productively and cheaply, exacerbated these difficulties. Then blight struck the pineapple fields, after which the Yamato settlers switched to growing mainly winter vegetables such as tomatoes and beans. A typhoid epidemic claimed several lives. Most of the surviving settlers returned to Japan or moved to California. The Yamato schoolhouse closed in 1922. The Yamato Post Office closed in 1925. The few who stayed, and for whom records remain, took up jobs as shopkeepers and cooks, while some continued as farmers, and successfully so. Hideo Kobayashi acquired more than 500 acres by the outbreak of World War II. After the Pearl Harbor attack, however, Japanese bank accounts were frozen and their movements restricted. In May of 1942, a U.S. District Judge ordered that Kobayashi’s land and all additional land owned by remaining Japanese settlers be turned over to the U.S. Government for the site of the Army Air Field. The state university where I teach is located on this parcel of confiscated land, long ago cleared of its slash pines and pineapples and peppers and Japanese farmers.
Yet one original member of the Yamato Colony, George S. Morikami, persevered well after World War II and eventually owned over 1,000 acres of farmland in Palm Beach County. In 1967, at the age of 81, he became a U.S. citizen. I marvel at Morikami’s endurance and success, which I feel must bespeak his deep connection with the land he acquired. A 1974 interview with Morikami published in The Miami Herald confirms this impression. Though a millionaire, he lived in a drab yellow trailer on land infested by sand fleas, surrounded by a tropical garden of pineapples, peaches, mangoes, and other fruits. “I like this,” Morikami explains to the perplexed interviewer. “It is simple. The land is all around me. I eat fresh fruits and vegetables I grow myself. No meat. I eat when I am hungry, day or night. If I had to live in town, I couldn’t have this.” By this time, Morikami had built the beautiful lakes that still grace the gardens he would donate to the county. He planned “to plant Japanese pine trees all around it.”
Japanese pine trees. This perks up my ears, of course. The Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii) and red pine (Pinus densiflora) are beautiful conifers native to Japan and surrounding areas, I learn, which vary in appearance from the slash pines that greeted 20-year-old Morikami upon his arrival to Florida in 1906. I can see why he would have wanted to plant several of them around the lakes he had built on his property. I can only wonder what the slash pines looming over the pineapple fields meant to the Japanese immigrants of the Yamato Colony and to Morikami, himself. The slash pine served as building material for their first homes. A black-and-white photo of the settlement features Japanese farmers laboring beneath tall, well-spaced slash pines. Given the great difficulty of their agricultural enterprise and the ultimate failure of the settlement, I suspect that some of them might have hated everything about Florida pineapples and pines. Yet I also suspect that the slash pines, for some of them, represented one of the more familiar and welcoming natural features of Florida, that the mentholated air from slash pine resin beneath the broken canopy of needles might have reminded them of the outdoor aromas in Japan amid their black and red pines.
“Why are they called slash pines, anyway?” my wife asks me one evening out of the blue, or not so much out of the blue, I suppose, as I’d been going on and on about slash-pine-this and slash- pine-that over dinner. This is the type of talk from her spouse to which my wife has mostly accommodated herself over the years. But I don’t have an answer for her question, which surprises her, and surprises me. She raises one of her eyebrows as if to say, Maybe you should find out. Slash pines are called slash pines, I learn, after the landscape pattern of their native terrain, swampy land slashed by trees and bushes.
As she stands there admiring her new tree, I stand there admiring her.
To locate a slash pine for our yard, I finally do what I might have had the sense to do from the beginning: visit my favorite Florida native plant nursery about a half hour from my house. “Sure,” Carl replies when I ask him whether he and Donna have slash pines for sale. He leads Eva and me to a distant patch of their property where three lonely-looking slash pines sit in five-gallon containers. As Carl propagates rows and rows of Jamaican capers and Simpson stoppers and marlberries, and dozens of other native specimens, it’s pretty clear to me that he doesn’t sell very many slash pines. He confirms as much when I inquire. I then ask him if there’s anything special I should know about cultivating a slash pine. “Not really,” he says. “Plant it in a sunny spot and it’ll take off.” Eva picks out the slash pine she likes (it’s somewhat bigger than the other two) and we head home to plant the young tree in the sunniest spot we can find.
Eva joins me to plant the tree in our butterfly garden, pretty much the only area in our front yard unshaded by our oaks. I dig the hole in the loose sandy earth, add a bit of cow manure and peat moss at the bottom, and lower the slash pine into its new patch of South Florida real estate, adjusting, upon Eva’s careful judgment, the precise angle of the trunk and height of the root-ball against the adjacent earth. I take care to bank some sandy dirt around the tree’s circumference to create a nice well for the water, which I let Eva administer with the hose. As she stands there admiring her new tree, as I stand there admiring her, I feel grateful that unlike the African American debt peonage workers or Japanese settlers of the Yamato Colony, she’ll be able simply to enjoy this slash pine pretty close to its own terms, unfreighted by human cruelty or duress of any sort. The next instant, however, I realize the hopeless naiveté of my fancy—that Eva or anyone can or even should enjoy slash pines as some Platonic ideal. She will develop her own associations with slash pine-ness informed by her own personal role (whatever it might be) in the long and tangled cultural history of slash pines and us.
Even so, over these next weeks as we continue to administer daily doses of water to our new slash pine to encourage deep rooting, we linger in the heady throes of slash pine love fairly uncomplicated by history. We pay careful attention to our new slash pine and to the other slash pines in our midst, and isn’t this what love is mostly about, paying attention? Living a life as harried as most, I find it’s nice just to aim my weary eyes for a while at the curious geometries of slash pine branches when I’m lucky enough to be placed in view of one.
The slash pine outside the tinted window of my doctor’s waiting room, looming over the constructed pond, an enormous great blue heron standing on the bank beneath its shade.
The slash pine at our neighborhood park supporting four yellow-crowned night heron nests constructed with live oak sticks.
The slash pine at the northernmost street of our subdivision looming over the drainage canal.
The slash pine trained as a Bonsai tree in a ceramic pot at the Morikami Japanese Museum and Gardens.
The University of Alabama, I discover, hosts an annual Slash Pine Poetry Festival in Tuscaloosa. The English Department at the university houses the Slash Pine Press, which publishes poetry chapbooks and mixed-genre work. In his 1986 poem “Following Pine,” Tony Harrison references the “Fresh-felled, lopped slash pine tree trunks,” though mostly to lament the earlier destruction of virgin longleaf forests. The poet Jesse Millner of Florida Gulf Coast University writes of slash pines more appreciatively in much of his work. I locate several paintings and photographs online that feature slash pines, although our most famous Florida photographer, Clyde Butcher, clearly favors cypresses and live oaks. Even though there doesn’t appear to be a treasure trove of poems and other art works dedicated to slash pines, it’s nice to know that these lesser-than-longleaf evergreens nonetheless occupy the imaginations of several poets, painters, and photographers, as well as certain Florida fathers and their young daughters.
Eva says slash pines “look good with pools.” What she means by this, I determine upon probing, is that she enjoys glimpsing the russet bark and pom-pom needle clusters when she turns her head to breathe during her freestyle stroke at her swim practices. She gazes at them between sets, too, when she ought to be paying attention to her coach. These mature slash pines, along with some stately live oaks, have been left to grow in the park that houses our municipal swimming pool. In addition to my daughter, red-shouldered hawks particularly appreciate this stand of slash pine. The tall perches offer them the perfect vantage for hunting lizards, snakes, rats, and voles, while Eva simply likes the way the needles hold the syrupy orange light of sunset.
Read other work by Andrew Furman appearing in Terrain.org: “The Problem with Pretty Birds,” an essay, “Florida, 1961: On the Grove,” an excerpt from Furman’s novel Goldens Are Here, and “What I Remember About Captain Horace Holtkamp,” a story.
Header photo by NPvancheng, courtesy Shutterstock.