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A Woody Connection To New England's Colonial Past

Patrick Skahill
Pitch pines were once found across Connecticut, but have since retreated back to only a few select spots in the state.

One of Connecticut’s most uncommon species of evergreen can still be found -- if you know where to look.

It’s a steep walk up a hill off Candlewood Road in Haddam. Beside me was Emery Gluck, a forester with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Gluck said for the last 30 years -- he’s passed this hill wondering if the trees perched on top were pitch pine.

“Because scattered throughout the valley here, there was a couple of pitch pines that might have had their seeds sourced from up here,” Gluck said.

Today, pitch pine is one of Connecticut’s hardest to find trees. When colonists arrived centuries ago it was everywhere, but generations of logging -- and environmental changes -- pushed the tree back to just a few select spots in the state.

Gluck, who in addition to his forestry work is an avid pitch pine enthusiast, said the tree and the shrubby plant “scrub oak” that it’s often found with, thrive in areas scorched by fire.

“We have a scarcity of fires from an ecological point of view now -- and that’s probably the main reason why pitch pine and scrub oak is one of our 13 imperiled ecosystems,” Gluck said.

Which means the state is actively working to preserve the plant -- partially through controlled burns.

Credit Patrick Skahill / WNPR
Some pitch pine cones are "serotinous," which means they need fire to open.

Where Gluck and I visited had a naturally-occuring fire in 2016. And as we climbed through a graveyard of burnt branches and toppled trunks -- Gluck and I finally made our way to the hill’s top.

It’s windy -- and our view of the valley would be almost clear -- if not for a few pitch pines resolutely clinging to the outcropping’s rocky ledge.

We approached and Gluck described the pitch pine’s bark.

Credit Patrick Skahill / WNPR
A close-up of bark on a pitch pine tree in Connecticut.

“It’s quite flakey, almost like a red pine -- but it curls out,” Gluck said. “Red pine is more flat -- it curls out on both ends. One of our seasonal [employees] called it an alligator-like bark.”

These trees twist upward, curling like bonsai trees because of scant soil. But healthy pines can get quite tall -- with some in Connecticut reaching up to 80 feet.

“When people think of pitch pine they don’t think of Connecticut. They think of Cape Cod and the New Jersey pine barrens,” Gluck said.

But pitch pine’s story is one of colonial America.

“Connecticut, as well as the rest of New England, had a rich history in having pitch pine,” Gluck said. “Because it was very important to the early colonists for tar, pitch, and turpentine.”

Tar and pitch from the tree were an important resource for the English navy. And way back when, there were even laws on the books in New Hampshire allowing taxes to be paid in tar instead of currency.

“A barrel of tar offset 20 shillings worth of taxes,” Gluck said.

Credit Patrick Skahill / WNPR
Gluck said some pitch pine cones on the ledge may be able to open due to the heat from light reflecting off stones on the ground.

Today the tree is much less common in New England. A lack of wildfires has been compounded by threats like the southern pine beetle.

But vestiges of pitch pine’s past remain in our names.

“That’s why we have Tarn Kiln Road and Voluntown and Tar Barrel hill in North Stonington,” Gluck said.

Or spots like Candlewood Mountain in New Milford. Which, Gluck said is covered with thousands of white pines, but, today, only has about 2 pitch pines left.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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