Great Smoky Mountains National Park, River Cove Forest

River Cove Forest

River cove forests grow in the low elevation zone (1500-2500′) on bottoms along the Park’s river-size streams:

Oconaluftee River (Smokemont)

Little River (Elkmont)

West Prong Little Pigeon River (Sugarlands)

Little Pigeon River (Greenbriar)

Cataloochee Creek (Cataloochee)

lower Abrams Creek (Cades Cove)

and along low elevation prongs:

Middle Prong of Little River (Tremont)

Big Creek

Bradley Fork (Smokemont)

(Park Map).

For the most part, river cove forests occupy the Park’s boundary. This is not surprising since the towering Unaka Range of the southern Appalachian Mountains forms the high central backbone of the Park, relegating the low elevation zone to the Park’s outer perimeter. All of the Park’s visitor centers and developed campgrounds except Balsam campground are in the low elevation zone along streams that support river cove forest.

American sycamore is nearly always a canopy tree in river cove forests and is diagnostic of this forest type. Its stark white upper trunk visibly proclaims its presence. American hornbeam, also known as muscle-wood for its muscular gray trunk, is another tree indicative of the river cove forest, where it makes its permanent home in the understory. Both trees are also characteristic of lowland river forests in the Piedmont Province to the south and east, and both drop out of the cove forest mix around 2500 feet elevation.

On rich river bottom sites where moisture and nutrients are abundant, trees of the classic cove hardwood forest found higher up the cove join sycamore and hornbeam.  Basswood, hemlock, mountain silverbell, sugar maple and white ash often add to the diversity of species.

Conversely, on dryer, less fertile and more acidic sites, especially along prong-size streams with less bottomland; white pine, Virginia pine and the oaks can be more abundant in the low elevation river cove canopy. White pine and the oaks are intermediate in shade tolerance and long lived, persisting where they occur into the mature forest stage of succession and beyond. Sourwood, an acid-loving species often appears in the subcanopy on these sites, and rhododendron may dominate the understory.

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About Dan Williams

Forest manager & environmental educator with the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. I have spent 26 years interpreting forest research for non-scientists interested in learning more about the forests of the Southeastern United States.
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