Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is located within a dense evergreen maritime forest on the north end of Roanoke Island in North Carolina. These forests are so named because they are located near the coast and are dominated by tree species that stay green all year. Maritime forests range from very tall trees to small ground cover. Their canopy and undergrowth supports a wide variety of animals.
The tallest trees of this forest are live oak (Quercus Virginiana), laurel oak (Quercus laurifolia), and loblolly pine (Pinus taeda).
Live oaks reach a height of 30-50 feet, with a crown up to 100 feet wide. They are native to the area and can live for over 250 years. Spanish moss and other plants such as ferns use live oak branches as their homes. The leaves of these trees remain green most of the year, giving them their name “live”.
Laurel oaks reach a height of 40-60 feet and have a medium crown. They are native to the area and can live for over 100 years. Their leaves stay green most of the year until new spring growth occurs. Their leaves also look like Grecian laurel, giving them their name “laurel”.
Live oaks and laurel oaks look somewhat similar; the main difference is the color and shape of their leaves. Laurel oak leaves are generally longer and thinner than live oak leaves, and the underside of laurel oak leaves are light green in color as compared to the greyish underside of live oak leaves.
Loblolly pines reach a height of 80-100 feet and have a broad crown. They are native to the area, fast growing, and can live over 150 years. With a slender, straight trunk, these trees have historically been a good source for lumber. Loblolly means “mudpuddle” as this tree likes to grow in wet soil. These trees are sometimes called rosemary pines because they smell like rosemary, bull pines because of the large size of the trunk, or oldfield pines because they grow in old fields.
Also located throughout Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and the surrounding area are beautiful crepe myrtle trees (Lagerstroemia indica). These trees are in full bloom for 100 days during the summer in a variety of pinks and purples and are a favorite of our visitors.
Other trees you may see in the park include dogwoods (Cornaceae), black cherry (Prunus Serotina), magnolia (Magnolieae), and wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera).
The soil on Roanoke Island is sandy and prone to erosion if there is not sufficient root growth to stabilize the soil. Look at the ground where a tree or plant is not growing and you can see the sand. Many of the following plants help in soil stabilization. They also help protect the more delicate plants from the salt spray in the air.
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is prolific in this area. This is a vining plant often confused with poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac. The easiest way to tell the species apart is by counting the leaves. Poison ivy and oak have leaf groupings of 3, Virginia creeper has 5, and poison sumac has 9-11. Virginia creeper is generally harmless, although—like all plants—some people do have a skin irritation from touching it. When in doubt, just don’t touch!
Grapevines are prevalent at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. While most are wild grapes, some are scuppernong grapes. Scuppernong grapes are a variety of muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia) and are very large—usually about the size of a cherry tomato. True wild grapes are much smaller. One of the oldest cultivated grapevines in the world is located on Roanoke Island and grows scuppernong grapes.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) grows here on Roanoke Island. This plant was very valuable as a medicinal cure during the colonist’s time.
Moundlily yucca (Yucca gloriosa) is found in the park. This mounding plant has leaves like other yucca plants, but slightly less sharp and pointy. It blooms in spring and summer with tall, white flowers. Moundlily yucca is threatened in some southeastern states.
Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is often found along the paths in Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. While yaupon leaves are serrated like other holly leaves, they are much smaller and lack the sharp edges. Yaupon also produce red berries in winter. The Carolina Algonquian used the leaves to prepare a drink.
You may also see the more easily identifiable American holly (Ilex opaca), which have grown quite tall here in the park. The Carolina Algonquin used this plant as a food source.
English ivy (Hedera helix) was originally planted as a ground cover but spreads prolifically both over the ground and vines up native tree species. Gardeners easily recognize this species. Here in the park it is regarded as an invasive species.
And of course, how could we forget the Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) that drapes itself on the live oaks and creates a mysterious atmosphere here at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. Spanish moss is not a parasite, instead using the branches of large trees only for support (as it has no roots), and receives all its nutrients and moisture from the air. Believe it or not, Spanish moss is a member of the pineapple family!
Last updated: September 20, 2016