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The Forests of East Texas

photo of pine forest
Dense pine forests—chiefly second growth—extend over vast areas of East Texas today. Although thousands of acres of timber have been harvested, the replanting and conservation practices initiated by lumber companies and the Forest Service have brought back a semblance of the old forests. Photo by Jack Lewis, courtesy Texas Department of Transportation (#17B-13).
photo of sweetgum
Trees such as the sweetgum, above, and southern red oak provide a brilliant flash of fall color in contrast to the dark evergreen pines in East Texas forests. Photo by Benny J. Simpson, courtesy of Texas A&M University at Dallas.
photo of ferns
Lacy green ferns dance above the pine-needle covered forest floor in the Angelina National Forest. Photo by Richard Reynolds, courtesy Texas Department of Transportation. Click to enlarge.
map of pineywoods counties
The 44 Texas counties included in the Pineywoods region, all of which produce timber commercially. Map courtesy of USDA Forest Service. Click to enlarge.
photo of an acorn
The large, rough cap on acorns of the swamp post oak are a distinctive feature on this common East Texas tree, also known as water white oak and overcup oak. Photo by Benny J. Simpson, courtesy of Texas A&M University at Dallas.
photo of longleaf pine
A stand of second-growth longleaf pine. Photo courtesy USDA Forest Service.

The pine forest lands or "Pineywoods" of East Texas extend from the Red River in the northeast corner of the state, southward to the region bordering Galveston Bay, and from the Louisiana border on the east to the Black Prairie region on the west. As shown in the maps below, this area includes all or portions of 44 Texas counties.

Although there are a few isolated pockets in other parts of the state (the woods at Bastrop State Park in Central Texas and in the far western Trans-Pecos regions being notable examples), Texas pine forests are contained in the eastern part of the state because of favorable soil conditions. Bordering the Pineywoods on the west is a band of hardwood forest commonly referred to as the Post Oak Belt. Outside this belt is the first true grassland, known as the Black Prairie, characterized by a deep black lime-rich soil over limestone and marl, a combination of soil and substrate that deters the encroachment of pine into the area.

The Pineywoods region encompasses the four National Forests in Texas: the Angelina, Davy Crockett, Sabine, and Sam Houston. Together these four forests cover a total of 637,386 acres in south and central East Texas, and include portions of Angelina, Houston, Jasper, Montgomery, Nacogdoches, Newton, Sabine, San Augustine, San Jacinto, Shelby, Trinity, and Walker counties.

The topography in East Texas is gently rolling to hilly in the north and central areas, becoming flatter near the Gulf of Mexico. It is a well-watered area and contains the Angelina, Neches, Sabine, and Trinity rivers as well as many creeks and bayous. This varied terrain—from dry to moist uplands, to creek and riverbottoms, to swamp forest communities—produces quite different groupings of vegetation. In their illustrated 1985 volume, Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of East Texas, Elray Nixon and Bruce Cunningham organize the vegetation of East Texas into plant communities based on terrain, soil, and moisture conditions. These are described below.

Hardwoods tend to be dominant in the dry upland areas, where the soil is sandy and well drained. Post oak (Quercus stellata), black hickory (Carya texana), blackjack oak (Q. marilandica), sandjack oak (Q. incana), and black oak (Q. velutina) are among the most common species. Pines also grow with some frequency in this area, with shortleaf (Pinus echinata) found in the north and central areas and longleaf (P. palustris) in the southeast. Other trees are sweetgum (Liquidamber styraciflua), red mulberry (Morus rubra), woollybucket bumelia (Bumelia lanuginosa), southern red oak (Q.falcata), sassafras (Sassafras albidum), winged elm (Ulmus alata), and rusty blackhaw (Viburnum rujidulum).

Loblolly pines (Pinus taeda) are found in the more moist upland areas where the soil retains more water throughout the year. Other trees growing in this area are southern red oak, sweetgum, winged elm, water oak (Q. nigra), black cherry (Prunus serotina), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa), sassafrass, fringetree (Chionanthus virginica), black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), and American elm (Ulmus americana). The understory growth in the mesic uplands includes dwarf pawpaw (Asimina parviflora), red buckeye (Aesculus pavia), American beautyberry, poison ivy, bristleleaf blueberry (Vaccinium amoenum), southern wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera), farkleberry, Carolina holly (flex ambigua), common witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana), yaupon, and arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum).

The well-drained, fertile soils of the creek and river bottoms, (the mesic bottomlands) produce dense stands of trees and shrubs. Overstory vegetation (taller trees growing above smaller varieties, shrubs, and vines) includes red maple (Acer rubrum), white oak (Quercus alba), swamp post oak (Quercus lyrata), American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), river birch (Betula nigra), bitternut hickory (carya cordiformis), American beech (Fagus grandiflora), American holly, sweetgum, black gum, sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), water oak, and prickly ash. In the understory are a variety of shrubs and vines including American beautyberry, deciduous holly (Ilex decidua), common pawpaw (Asimina triloba), giant cane (Arundinaria gigantea), farkelberry, poison ivy, Virginia creeper, muscadine grape, laurel greenbrier (Smilex laurifolia), and Carolina snailseed.

map of East Texas National Forests
East Texas encompasses four national forests, covering a total of 637,386 acres. Map courtesy of USDA Forest Service.
photo of a dogwood tree
Like a bright beacon in the deep woods, the white flowers of the dogwood tree are a familiar sight during early spring in East Texas. Photo by Greg White, courtesy Texas Department of Transportation.
photo of longleaf pine
Long silky needles are the dominant feature of young longleaf pine plants. In this "grassy" stage, seedlings produce thick clusters of long needles but remain only a few inches high for up to 25 years while they develop a deep taproot. Photo by Benny J. Simpson, courtesy of Texas A&M University at Dallas.
photo of a bald cypress tree
A bald cypress towers over a river bank in East Texas. Cypress trees were an important resource in the logging trade; the wood was used to make lumber as well as roofing shingles. Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service.
photo of grapes
Muscadine grapes are a common understory vine in forested areas and bottomlands of East Texas. Photo courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
photo of a pine forest
A rich tapestry of hardwood and softwood trees thrive in the varied East Texas terrain, including the three pine species that were commercially harvested during the "bonanza" period of timber production. Here, a scenic pine and hardwood forest—largely second growth—embraces the old mill pond at the Aldridge Sawmill site. Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service.
map of East Texas pine timber resources
Pine timber resources of East Texas, showing areas of shortleaf, longleaf, and loblolly pine. Map courtesy of USDA Forest Service. Click to enlarge.
photo of deer
White-tail deer are common in the forests of East Texas. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Four species of pine timber found in East Texas are harvested commercially: longleaf pine, shortleaf pine, loblolly pine, and slash pine. Of these, the first three are native species, and the fourth, slash pine, is an exotic (non-native) type. Slash pine is a southeastern species, found primarily east of the Mississippi River. It was planted in East Texas in the 1930's by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as part of a large forest regeneration effort. Although it is harvested commercially today, slash pine was not present during the Bonanza period of the East Texas logging industry.

Longleaf pine has commonly been referred to as longstraw, yellow, southern yellow, swamp, hard or heart, pitch, and Georgia pine. It is estimated that longleaf pine once covered as much as 5,000 square miles in Texas. The species develops best in association with periodic surface fires which result in open parklike stands. Although longleaf will thrive under a wide variety of conditions, in East Texas this species was primarily located on well-drained sandy ridges of the south-central part of the region. Mature longleaf pine trees produce a large amount of high quality resin which made them an important resource for the naval stores (turpentine and resin) industry. Their lumber is of a high quality and is well suited for a variety of uses, including poles, posts, sawlogs, plywood, and pulpwood.

Shortleaf pine is also referred to as shortleaf yellow, southern yellow, oldfield, shortstraw, or Arkansas soft pine. It grows well under a variety of soil and site conditions, and has the widest range of any pine species in the southern United States. In Texas, its range is primarily in the northern part of the timber region, and covers approximately 30,000 square miles extending from the Red River in the north to the edge of the longleaf range in the south-central part of the region. Shortleaf pine was the first of the Texas pines to be exploited commercially due to the early expansion of the railroads into its range. It is most commonly used for the production of lumber, plywood, and other structural materials. It is also used for pulpwood, and in some cases even the taproot may be used for pulp.

Loblolly pine, sometimes referred to as Arkansas, Carolina, or oldfield pine, originally covered an estimated area of about 7,000 square miles in Texas. Its range was originally south and west of the longleaf area, and included all or parts of San Jacinto, Walker, Montgomery, Harris, Jefferson, Liberty, Orange, Harden, Grimes, Newton, Jasper, and Chambers counties. Because it has excellent reproductive characteristics including rapid juvenile growth, much of the current "second-growth" pine forest of southern and central East Texas is loblolly. Loblolly is used for lumber, and makes excellent habitat for both game and non-game species.


photo of loblolly trees
Dappled sunlight filters through a mixed forest of loblolly pine and sweetgum trees, a common plant community in moist upland areas of East Texas. In the past, loblolly pine may have covered as much as 5,000 square acres of the region. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife.
photo of lookout tower
A 100-foot forest service fire-lookout tower, on display at the Texas Forestry Museum in Lufkin. Across the region, towers such as these have enabled forest service watchers to spot and track forest fires. (Due to safety concerns, the museum no longer allows visitors to climb the tower.) Photo by Jack Lewis, courtesy Texas Department of Transportation.