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A Hostile Place 

Twisted live oak (Quercus virginiana) trees are common in maritime forests.

Photo courtesy of the Bald Head Island Conservancy

The live oak trees found on Bald Head Island are some of the oldest in the state.

Young cabbage palmettos (Sabal palmetto) line a dry interdune swamp in the maritime forest.  Interdune swamps occur in the low spots between sand dunes.  The groundwater is close to the surface, so these areas stay wet most of the year. 

Looking up at the forest canopy

The entrance to the Bald Head Woods Coastal Reserve


On barrier islands, trees can only grow away from the beach.  There, they are sheltered from wind and waves by the sand dunes.  Even with the protection of the dunes, life is hard for trees in the marine environment.  They are sprayed with salt from the ocean every day.  From time to time, storms bring flooding from the ocean or the sound and strong winds.  The trees that survive on islands are short and twisted - a sign of the harsh conditions they live in.

These coastal forests are called maritime forests.  Trees in maritime forests survive the strong winds by growing close together.  They form a tight, smooth canopy with their branches.   This lets the wind blow over the trees without blowing them down.  It also protects the trees from salt spray.  The tight canopy provides shade.  This helps the trees conserve water by reducing evaporation and transpiration.  In this way, the trees in the maritime forest need each other.  If the rest of the forest were cut down and a lone tree was left behind, it would die.  There would be nothing to protect it from the wind, the sun, and especially the salt spray.

Why would a tree grow in such a place?  There are many good things that trees get in return for living on the island.  They get a constant supply of nutrients from the salt spray.  The warm winters and long growing season make it easier for the trees to grow.

Maritime forests are an important part of the barrier island. The trees have large roots that anchor the sand.  This helps to keep the sand in place instead of blowing away.

Some of the most pristine maritime forests in the state are protected on Bald Head Island, as part of the Bald Head Woods Coastal Reserve.

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