Forest / Big Thicket

WG Jones State Forest


Pitcher plant, courtesy of NPS.
Pitcher plant, courtesy of NPS.

According to Houston Wilderness, the Piney Woods is the southwestern-most remnant of what was once a huge contiguous pine forest that ran from East Texas through the southeast all the way to the Appalachian Mountains. They are some of the wettest areas of the state, with up to 50 inches of rainfall (on average). Soils are deep and fertile, due to a high amount of organic material. In addition to shortleaf, longleaf and loblolly pines, forests include oaks, elms, hickories, pecan, black walnut, tupelo, sweetgum and other trees. Much of the understory, or shrubbery, includes yaupon and waxmyrtle bushes.

According to the National Park Service, “the Big Thicket is the biological crossroads of North America. It has one of the most biologically diverse assemblages of species in the world. It is a transition zone where southeastern swamps, central plains, eastern deciduous forests, pine savannas, and dry sandhills meet. This diverse habitat allows an impressive array of species to coexist. In 1981, Big Thicket National Preserve was also designated as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, thereby demonstrating its international importance.” It’s called the Big Thicket because plant growth is abundant, making passage often impossible.

According to Texas A&M Agrilife, the Bottomland Hardwood Forests are dominated by trees that can survive in water, because the nearby rivers often flood. They are not as wet as a swamp (which only dry out occasionally). Expect to find bald cypress trees and water tupelo trees; Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge is a great place to see a protected forest.

HoustonUrbanTNC · East Texas Pineywoods - Martin Dies State Park, November 28, 2019


Atakapas, Caddos, and the Alabama-Coushattas inhabited the area, until Anglo-Americans set up sawmills in the late 1800s. Sawmills began dotting the landscape as settlers took advantage of the timber resources. Today, the timber industry is still the largest source of income in the region. Urban sprawl and development have severely diminished our native forests.

According to the Texas Coastal Exchange, forests absorb rainwater, thus decreasing severity of heavy rainstorms and increasing groundwater capacity. As water is absorbed, forests filter nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, among other pollutants. Trees provide habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, and increase shade coverage which decreases the heat island effect. Many organizations are protecting and restoring forests across the region.

If you teach History, look at the Forest History Society resources for educators.


Fire is necessary in the pine forests, as long as it remains in the understory. Fire controls hardwood species and opens sealed pine cones (releasing pine seeds). Canopy fires are dangerous, spread quickly, and destroy pines.

Invasive plants like Chinese tallow trees and Japanese climbing ferns threaten the forest. They change how fire and nutrients cycle through the forest, and they can hybridize with native plants.

Bastrop State Park, and the surrounding area in Central Texas, is recovering from a massive wildfire in 2011. The park is a living laboratory for what happens following an uncontrolled wildfire, and reminds us to take care of the Piney Woods. Prescribed burns can help by reducing fuel loads and recycling nutrients back into the soil. Learn more about Wildland Fire Management.


The endangered Red-cockaded woodpecker is a classy bird of the pines. His red cockade, or ribbon, is on the side of his head and difficult to see. They dig insects out of trees. Bald eagles are a familiar sight, too. Blackberries and wild plums provide food for songbirds, too. Pocket gophers and Louisiana pine snakes hide in the underbrush, as do Eastern wild turkey. White-tailed deer are prevalent across Texas, including within the forest.

Louisiana black bear were historically in the area, however, no known permanent populations exist in Texas today. Beavers, squirrels, eleven species of bats, foxes, skunks, raccoons… the list of mammals goes on.

According to the National Park Service, “four of the five types of carnivorous plants found in North America can be found in Big Thicket, including pitcher plants, sundews, bladderworts, and butterworts. The most well-known carnivorous plant, the Venus flytrap, is not found here.”