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A pine seed is a delicious nut trailing a long comet-like tail. (Beth Maynor Young)

Longleaf seeds have a long way to fall, and they don't seem in a hurry.

I saw the young ones fledge this past weekend, like young birds pushed out of their nest. They spin down like a top, like a helicopter in slow motion, their long tails beating through the air in a long spiral, guided here and there by puffs of wind.

From the moment it launches from the cone to the instant it sticks a landing in bare soil, you can almost see its long life unraveling.

Not a lot were falling, but that's the way of longleaf pine. Longleaf is a proud tree, a tree confident of its dominance and its years. What's the hurry in making a new generation of trees when an old tree can master the landscape for five centuries or more?

That's why showers of longleaf seeds are few and far between, the most holy of feast days that come round only once every 7 to 15 years.

In these lean years, we hang on every longleaf seed that falls. Longleaf's confidence, you have to worry, could be its undoing. America's once most common tree, the tree that shelters still North America's richest forest system, is now almost lost.

Yes there are pines, hundreds of millions of pines -- loblolly pines, slash pines, Virginia pines, shortleaf pines, Ponderosa pines. But none of those pines are like longleaf.

Where other pines live lives short and fast, longleaf lives for the longhaul. Where other pines are soft and weak, longleaf wood is dense and hard, so strong it was the wooden steel that built the early high-rises of New York and London. Where other forests smothered flowers and grasses and wildlife with their own darkness, longleaf created a forest of light, with the richest assortment of wildflowers and wildlife of any forest system in North America.

It is certainly one of the South's most brilliant creations, though it is nearly forgotten by the people who occupy its original landscape. Longleaf pines were the original canopy of Mobile, and they made our gardens great. But we long ago traded that in on weedy oaks and the misery and bare dirt that comes with their dense shade.

Longleaf is why they came to found an economic utopia on Mobile Bay, in Fairhope. The bay was cheap: This was a country surrounded by ocean. It was the healing power of the longleaf forest that drew them here, just as it drew rich settlers from Boston to Citronelle, and Mobile's elite to Spring Hill, the upper crust of New Orleans to Abita Springs, the Duponts to Union Springs in Central Alabama. It's why Thomasville, Ga., and Southern Pines, N.C., and Aiken and Augusta, Ga., became destinations for the nation's richest families.

Now every seed that falls is precious. Longleaf, which once covered more than 90 million acres, now stands on less than 3 percent of its original range. That's right, 3 percent.

Mobile and Baldwin counties, just a couple of decades ago, were among the few remaining bright spots in the story of longleaf.

Now, longleaf forests below Interstate 10 in Baldwin County -- once among the most famous and photographed longleaf forests in the country -- are virtually gone, restricted to a few isolated parks. Each year, the few remaining specimens in Fairhope have to be zealously protected from those who forgot, or never learned, that longleaf is the symbol of Fairhope's founding and existence.

In just the last decade, many of the very best remaining stands of longleaf in north Baldwin County have been wiped out, along with the rich system of animals and plants that lived underneath them. Every year, I watch thousands of additional acres chopped, plowed and seeded with thickets of loblolly or flattened into driveways. Yes, some may keep a few trees as mementoes. But so what. The longleaf pine lives for the forest it nourishes. And a tree without a forest, it's like a lake without water.

The pine tree has many species -- loblolly pines, slash pines, Virginia pines, shortleaf pines, Ponderosa pines and more. (File photo)

In these lean years, every seed that falls is a target. They don't last long. Some animal will find them. I found a few and animal that I am, sampled them, just to remember. Break away the wing, pinch through the husk, and out pops the pine nut, nearly as big as the giant pine nuts you buy in the store, and just as sweet, with a hint of the resinous spice of Retsina wine.

It makes me wish for more. Showers of longleaf seeds, one of those holy day feasts of longleaf, where every creature of the forest can get its fill. It makes me wish for seed crops so spectacular that even those of us who pulled the land right our from under longleaf will stop to wonder at the seeds making their long fall for a new generation.

Bill Finch is chief science and horticultural advisor for Mobile Botanical Gardens, where he teaches his popular Gulf Coast Gardening classes. Email questions to . Speak to him directly on the Gulf Coast Sunday Morning radio show, from 9 until 11 on 106.5 FM. Watch him cutting up with weatherman John Nodar on the Plain Gardening segment on News at Noon, every Friday on WKRG.

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