Getting the Drop on Pitch Pine

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.
(Our apologies for the delayed publication.)

Photos and text by Erik Baard

Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) is a hardy little tree that’s native to the eastern US and coastal from the Chesapeake Bay to Acadia National Park, Maine. They thrive in a variety of harsh conditions from poor alpine scratch to low swamps. They protect dunes, stabilize shores, and feed birds and insects. These crooked and twisted trees are rarely used for lumber, but as you can imagine, they were in great demand for the resin pitch.

Physicists are fascinated by how a drop of room temperature pitch can be shattered by a hammer blow yet is experimentally shown to be a liquid (unlike ice, which is a true crystalline solid). The hardness and consistency of pitch, which is also malleable when heated, makes it extremely useful for preserving and waterproofing ships, railroad ties, and mine shaft supports. It’s also used to flavor wine, and sometimes medicinally. Outdoor enthusiasts often use pitch for lamps and torches, glue and wound binding, or even to make natural plastic widgets! Now research labs are following suit.

These trees are very well protected against fire by their specialized bark. In a worst case scenario, even a stump can spring to life with new branches. Their cones also pop open when exposed to intense heat, so they not only endure the flames but help regenerate the ecosystem.

In our region, you can enjoy pitch pine forests in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, Fire Island, and Long Island’s East End. But NYC parks have stands of them too,  including Hunters Point South Park just blocks away from HarborLAB. We’ll grow seeds gathered there at the HarborLAB GreenLaunch!

HarborLAB makes pitch pine seedballs to benefit our entire harbor. We’ve gathered cones with students and volunteers with Baruch College, New Jersey Institute of Technology, National Iranian-American Council, and Hunters Point Parks Conservancy. We learned our seed ball making technique from Seedball NYC, and how to get seeds from pine cones (by baking them) from the Greenbelt Native Plant Center of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation’s Natural Resources Group.

Pine seed. Photo and labeling by University of Miami: http://www.bio.miami.edu/dana/dox/altgen.html

Pine seed. Photo and labeling by University of Miami: http://www.bio.miami.edu/dana/dox/altgen.html

Seedball Making at LaGuardia Community College!

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Seedballs. Photo by Maureen Regan, president and founder of Green Earth Urban Gardens.

Hurricane Sandy, pollution, and development have stripped away much of our dune and coastal meadow habitats, so HarborLAB is joining the effort to restore them! To this end, HarborLAB and other conservationists are following Permaculture farmers in adopting an ancient Japanese and North American no-till agriculture tool that mimics the natural dung distribution of seeds (called endozoochory). It’s simple: make a ball of clay, compost, and seeds and toss them over the area to be revived. The warmth and rains of spring and summer then signal the seeds to germinate. Before long we’ll green the shores of NYC by bombarding them with seed love from our armada of kayaks and canoes!  😉

HarborLAB volunteers learned the art from SeedBall NYC‘s Co-founder and President Anne Apparu in a room made available to us by Dr. Sarah Durand of the Natural Sciences department at CUNY LaGuardia Community College. We made several hundred seed balls, and will make thousands more! The trick is to get the proportions right so that the balls hold together firmly but dry out before the seeds germinate. In terms of consistency, think cookie dough.

Another great instruction resource comes from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

HarborLAB used seeds we gathered with Hunters Point Community Middle School and Dr. Stephen Grosnell‘s Baruch College conservation biology students from Gantry Plaza State Park, Hunters Point Park, and our own GreenLaunch, along with seeds provided by SeedBall NYC and Briermere Farms. Hunters Point Parks Conservancy Vice President Mark Christie kindly help guide us in our seed gathering. Species included aster, milkweed, beach plum, beach pea, goldenrod, viburnum, pine, switchgrass, pokeberry, and the humorously named panicgrass (gallery below). These salt-tolerant species support endangered monarch butterflies and other pollinators, and feed birds. They also stabilize the shoreline, allowing complex ecosystems to develop while also protecting property from surges and erosion. We also gathered beach rose from Hunters Point South Park but must be very careful about where to use them, if at all, for biological productivity without enabling invasion.

See Newtown Creek Alliance historian Mitch Waxman‘s great write up of one of our outings at Queens Brownstoner.

We’re also grateful to Maureen Regan, president and founder of Green Earth Urban Gardens for participating and to Gil Lopez, president and co-founder of Smiling Hogshead Ranch Urban Farm, for inviting a naturalist to join us. We also thank the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation for permission to gather seeds. An especially welcome newcomer was Philip Anthony Borbon, a sailor who moors on the Queens waterfront of the Newtown Creek.

Our next step is to go into classrooms to make seedballs with kids, and to then bring the balls with us when we paddle to areas in need of habitat restoration! If you’d like a classroom talk and seedball making activity with HarborLAB, please email us at edu@harborlab.org!