by Susi Clontz
The vegetation along the lower Cape Fear coastline has always been a part of its beauty, but it has also played a major role in the livelihood and survival of the coastal people. Behind the dunes we find a unique habitat called maritime forest.
Maritime means “near water.” This forest is unlike any other because the trees and shrubs that grow there must be tolerant of the sandy, dry soil plus the wind and salt spray the ocean.
Some of the trees and shrubs found in the maritime forest are Live Oak, Wax Myrtle, Red Cedar, Sable Palmetto, Sassafras, and Loblolly Pine.
Wedged together and pruned by the wind and salt, these trees take on a sheered look slanting away from the ocean. This unusual formation is a protective barrier for the salt-sensitive trees growing behind the maritime forest.
For a period between the Revolutionary War and the War Between the States, Southern Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) came into great demand for ship building. Its dense hardwood proved ideal for the hulls and frames of wooden ships.
In colonial times the leaves from the Yaupon Holly (Ilex opaca Ait) were toasted and brewed into a pleasing tea. Yaupon was also shipped north to supply the American colonists defying the British tea tax.
During the War Between the States, the United States naval blockade of southern ports forced the Confederates to turn once again to the brew used by the colonist and Indians of the southern Atlantic states.
Yaupon was the most commonly used tea substitute during the war. Oddly enough, the leaves were also used as a coffee substitute.
Candles were scarce in the Confederacy during the war. To make do, the southern people followed a practice used by the early colonist. The berries and leaves the Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera) were boiled in water. A translucent and very aromatic floating wax would then be skimmed from the top and used to make candles. This process required a great deal of work considering it took several pounds of berries to make one pound of wax.
Sassafras (Sasafias albidum) was used by the Indians for a variety of cures and as a medicinal tea by the early settlers. The roots of the Sassafras became the first cash crop exported back to Great Britain from the new colonies. It later became the main ingredient in the beverage we call root beer. Sassafras was believed to be a cure all by the colonists and early explorers.
In 1963 the North Carolina General Assembly named the pine as the official state tree. The Loblolly (Pinus taeda) is one of three species of pine found in our coastal area.
Starting in colonial times and continuing for almost two hundred years, the residents of the lower Cape Fear processed and exported naval stores. The resin from the pine trees was refined to make tar, pitch, turpentine, or resin. These products were used in the building and maintaining of the ships by caulking seams and waterproofing wood giving it the name naval store.
Nature Guide to the Carolina Coast – Peter Meyer
Civil War Plants & Herbs – Patricia B. Mitchell
“Making Do” During the Civil War – Virginia Mescher
Living the Land – Dr. Thomas K. Squier, M.D., M.H.
[Text was originally published in the November 1996 FPHPS Newsletter (pdf)]