Winter Evergreens of Otter Creek Valley
On the distant horizon above is a view of 3,100 foot Hickory Nut Mountain and valley. The white dot on the far left marks the next valley to the south, Otter Creek Valley. Although the colors of autumn are always spectacular, and the flowers of spring bring forth beautiful colors, for sheer consistency, the evergreens, especially in the winter, top the list.
The Loblolly Pine grows all over the South, but once the elevation exceeds 1,200 feet, you rarely find more than a few stragglers. Fortunately, Otter Creek Valley is below 1,300 feet, and large stands of Loblolly thrive in the clay soil found here.
In the western part of the valley, Loblolly, above, is the dominate evergreen. When the autumn leaves turn to orange and red, the bright green of the Loblolly forest is very visible from a high ridge, below.
In summer, the dark green needles are especially lush as the trees cover a ridge above a field of Goldenrod. Below, the large cones are visible among the long needles.
The needles on the Virginia Pine, above right, are the shortest of all southern pines. Also, the cones of the Virginia pine are the smallest of all pines. In Otter Creek Valley, the Virginia Pine, seen below, is the most prolific, with seeds spread everywhere by birds and deer. The tree is not useful as a source of lumber, and is used mostly for paper pulp. The tall narrow trunk makes it fire resistant.
A stand of Virginia Pine above Otter Pond.
A fallen Virginia Pine shows how the tree can release millions of seeds, even as it dies.
In the early days it was a popular Christmas tree, but the Fraser and Colorado Blue Spruce replaced it in the 1970’s. All of the Virginia Pines below grew from seed.
The next most plentiful pine is the Short Leaf, which refers to the needles. It can grow to heights over 100 feet, and is also fire resistant. Unlike the Virginia Pine, the Short Leaf produces fine lumber.
Below is the only individual of its kind that I have found in the entire valley. It is a Pitch Pine, and was used for tar sealant when ships were made of wood. The pine barrens of New Jersey are made up of Pitch Pine. The uniformity of the needle growth, as shown below, makes it a very attractive member of the forest.
In my opinion, the most dramatic of all evergreens in the valley is the Carolina Hemlock. Not only is it the tallest, but its uniform shape and soft leaves give it the traditional mountain appearance that causes it to stand out from all others.
Although the White Pine is one of the most common trees throughout the Eastern Mountains, it is quite rare in this valley. Its needles have a blueish tint, and are much softer that those of other pines. The small stand shown below was found in the center of a Loblolly forest.
Underneath all of those tall trees, you’ll find the deep green waxy leaves of the Carolina Rhododendron. Alongside their cousin, the Mountain Laurel, these flowering bushes can grow so thickly that they create a wall along the mountainside.
Below are other native evergreens that can be found throughout the valley.
Four years ago I began to create an Evergreen Rock Garden. I transplanted Loblolly, Short Leaf, Red Cedar, and Virginia Pine from the forest. I purchased ornamental evergreens that would fit with my all green concept. I included Sedum, Carolina Blue Cypress, Parson’s Juniper, Japanese Ground Juniper, Pacific Blue Juniper, Arbor Vitae, Rheingold Arbor Vitae, Bird’s Nest Spruce, Angel Blue Cypress, Dwarf Alberta Spruce, and Dwarf Cypress. The garden has matured into my original vision, and adds a green oasis to a formerly dead meadow landscape in winter.