Great Smoky Mountains National Park harbors and protects a collection of forest ecosystems whose bio-diversity is unmatched by any national park in America.
Over 100 tree species and 100 shrub species grow in these magnificent forests, providing habitat for literally thousands of other plants and animals, many of which are found only here.
Each forest type displays a mix of trees and shrubs adapted to a specific set of environmental factors, including elevation, land form, protection, soil PH and more.
On this this site you will find specific forest types highlighted, along with descriptions and photos of favorite smoky mountain forest places.
Your comments are welcomed!
The major Southern trees with opposite leaves are:
Maples, Ashes, Dogwoods, Buckeyes, Catalpa, Paulownia
The following ‘acromonic’ may help you remember this group:
“MAD Dogs and Buckeyed Cats named Paul”
Silver Maple: Silver maple leaves have teeth and are whitish below.
Boxelder: The only maple with compound leaves. Leaves have 3 leafleats, and look like poison ivy leaves.
Striped Maple: An understory maple of the southern Appalachian mountains. Prefers middle elevations. Leaves are shaped like goose feet. Bark has conspicuous stripes.
Mountain Maple: Another understory maple of the southern Appalachians. This maple prefers the highest mountain elevations. Its flower and seed stalks always point up (toward the mountains).
Green Ash: The most common Southern ash. One of the few trees (boxelder also) with leaves that are both opposite and compound. Twig buds are brown fuzzy, bark is spongy.
White Ash: The most common ash of the Appalachian mountains. Also has opposite, compound leaves. Twig buds are not fuzzy, bark is spongy.
Flowering Dogwood: The familiar dogwood of spring with showy white flowers that develop into bright red berries. Mature bark breaks into small square black plates some folks call alligator bark.
Alternate-leaf dogwood: This is the only dogwood with alternate leaves, but since it is a dogwood, we put it here. More common in the mountains than in the Piedmont, this tree has very green trunks and limbs.
Yellow Buckeye: A large canopy tree of the southern Appalachians. Has palmately compound leaves with leaflets radiating from a palm-like center.
Painted Buckeye: A small understory tree of rich mature Piedmont forests. Leaves (like all buckeyes) are palmately compound.
Red Buckeye: Has showy red flowers that humming birds love. A small tree found mostly in the Southern coastal Plain.
Southern Catalpa: A fairly uncommon native tree. Has heart-shaped leaves and very long slender bean-like seed pods. Catalpa worms, a kind of caterpillar, regularly defoliate this tree. Fishermen use the worms for bait.
Royal Paulownia (Princess Tree): An Asian exotic escaped from cultivation, this tree also has heart-shaped leaves. Flowers are purple and showy, and fruit is a roundish capsule. The wood is as excellent for woodworking as that of black walnut.
The tree ID method presented here uses simple leaf and twig characteristics (tree tools) to separate trees into a few major groups.
An ‘acromonic’ (part acronym, part mnemonic) is provided to help you remember the main trees in each group.
Once you narrow a tree down to its group, you use more detailed characteristics to pick your tree from the group.
Trees can be classified based on the arrangement of the leaves on the twig. Leaves may be arranged in pairs opposite each other on the twig. This is called opposite leaf arrangement. Leaves may also be arranged one after the other along the twig. This is called alternate leaf arrangement.
Some trees have leaves composed of many small leaflets arranged along a slender green leaf stem. This kind of leaf is called a compound leaf.
Other trees have leaves composed of just one leaflet (the leaf). This kind of leaf is called a simple leaf. It is what we think of when we think of a typical tree leaf.
Some trees have leaves with teeth. Other trees have toothless leaves.
How to tell the difference between a leaf and a leaflet
1. Grab the possible leaf between your fingers.
2. Follow it back to where it attaches.
3. If it attaches to a woody or semi-woody twig, then it really is a leaf.
4. If it attaches to a slender, green, flexible, non-woody structure, then it is really a leaflet that is part of a compound leaf.
How To Identify An Unknown SouthernTree
Does the tree have opposite leaves? Go here.
Does the tree have compound leaves? Go here.
Does the tree have toothless leaves? Go here.
Does the tree have toothed leaves? Go here.
When you hike trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, topographic terrain maps (topo terrain maps) can enhance your hiking experience. Topo terrain maps allow you to preview important terrain features like trail head location, overall elevation change, trail ups and downs, stream crossings and more. Topo maps are also the key to understanding and identifying the incredibly diverse forests you encounter on every hike through the Smokys, the world’s stellar example of southern Appalachian forests. This article shows you how to download topographic terrain maps and get useful information from them to make your hiking adventures more efficient and interesting.
What is a topo terrain map? It is a map that shows the shape of the land in two ways. First, it displays elevation contour lines that show the elevation above sea level of any point on the ground. Second, these maps use 3-D terrain rendering. This feature allows you to easily see land shape the same way an eagle does when soaring high over the land.
Here is a topo terrain map of part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, downloaded as a Google Maps screen-shot. We’ll show you how to get them soon, but first let’s have a look at the map.
The compass direction ‘North’ is always at the top of topo terrain maps. The map scale that shows horizontal distance is usually located in the lower left corner of the map, and serves as a measuring tool for distances along the ground. You can see Highway 441 (main road through the Park) as a labeled gray line on the map. All streams are marked in blue on topo terrain maps. For example, the Oconaluftee River parallels 441 as a curving blue ribbon. The intersection of Oconaluftee River and Bradley Fork is shown in the lower right corner of the screen shot.
Those familiar with the Park know Smokemont campground is located on the east side of Bradley Fork, just above its intersection with Oconaluftee River. The purple lines represent trails associated with Smokemont (Smokemont Loop Trail and Bradley fork Trail). Google Maps screenshots don’t usually show trails, but we’ll show you how easy it is to insert them a little later in this article.
The 3-D terrain rendering of the map makes it very easy to see the shape of mountain slopes, stream channels and river bottoms. Contour lines, the undulating brown lines on the map also show land shape. Elevation in feet above sea level is marked on each dark brown contour line, and every point on the line is located at its labeled elevation. The vertical height between each of these labeled contour lines is 200 feet. Notice the lighter brown lines between the dark ones. They are not labeled, but the vertical distance between each of these lines is 40 feet.
Contour lines enable you to determine the elevation of the terrain you will hike. They also give you additional clues about the shape of the land. For example, contour lines show mountain peaks by forming undulating concentric circles. Contour lines form “V” shapes where streams and valleys occur. The V always points up hill. Closely spaced contour lines indicate steep terrain like the steep slope just to the right of the word ‘Mountains’ on the map. Widely space lines like those farther to the right indicate more gently sloping terrain. Contour lines are important because many topo maps don’t show 3-D rendering. You must interpret land shape using contour lines alone.
Let’s say you want to hike part of the Smokemont Loop Trail. On the map, this is the trail (purple line) beginning where Oconaluftee River and Bradley Fork meet. Let’s say you are hiking from the trail head to the point on the trail where it reaches the 3600-foot peak on the map. Looks like you will ascend from about 2200 feet at the valley floor to 3600 feet at the peak. That’s an elevation change of 1400 vertical feet. The trail distance to the peak is about 1.7 miles. You can see from the terrain that the tail is a continuous up hill climb. How hard will this hike be?
Use the trail difficulty formula from the Hiking The Smokys web site (http://www.hikinginthesmokys.com/blog18.htm) to figure out the difficulty level of this hike. Here’s how. Multiply the change in elevation (1400 feet) by .002, then add the number of round-trip miles (1.7). For this example, the difficulty level calculation wound be, 1400 times .002 plus 1.7 = 4.5. A difficulty level of 5 or below indicates a fairly easy hike. A number between 5 and 10 indicates moderate difficulty, and anything over 10 is considered strenuous.
Topo terrain maps tell you more than the hiking conditions of the trail. They provide keys to understanding what forest types you will encounter on your hike. This information will enhance your appreciation of this botanical Eden, making your hikes much more interesting and informative. Elevation is one of the keys. Landform is the other. Landform just means the shape of the land. River coves, creek flats, protected slopes and exposed slopes are all examples of landforms found on our sample map. As a brief example, consider Smokemont campground on the map. This is a river cove environment located at around 2200′ elevation. This combination of elevation and landform provides ideal habitat for the River Cove forest. American sycamore and American Hornbeam are trees always present in this forest along with Rosebay rhododendron. Each combination of elevation and landform supports a specific forest type. Visit this site’s main page for more information about the forest types of Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
Now, for the maps! The web site, Google Maps allows you to download and print screenshots of any part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and many other places on the planet! Go to Google Maps.
Type GSMNP in the search maps text box and hit enter. Mouseover the MoreTerrain check box. Drag the map around with your mouse to find the location you seek. Use the zoom slider to zoom in close on the terrain. tab and click on the
As mentioned earlier, Great Smoky Mountains National Park trails are not shown on Google Maps. This brings us to another fantastic web site hosted by the University of Tennessee and powered by Google. It is called Great Smoky Mountains Land Forms, and here is the url:
When you arrive, click on the Map tab and then click on Terrain. Now the fun begins! Scroll down and you will see a Select A Trail text box with a blue background. Use it to select any trail in the Park. Now drag the map to the trail location and the trail will be shown on the map as a purple line. There is a distance measuring tool there too. You’ll figure out how to use it fairly easily.
To grab the screenshot just hit the Print Screen button on your computer. Now open your favorite graphics program and paste the screenshot into an image file. Print it out and head for the woods!
Tilia americana L. var. heterophylla
Shade Tolerance = Tolerant
Soil Moisture Niche = Moist Sites
Vertical Preference = Canopy
Basswood has large heart-shaped leaves. So do red mulberry and Eastern redbud, but they are uncommon in the Park, occurring mainly in the low elevation zone. Basswood leaves have uneven leaf bases unlike either of the other two trees. The flower/fruit stalks of this tree arise from the surface of a long narrow leaf-shaped bract. This unusual habit immediately distinguishes basswood from all other trees. In late June, the small, round fruits of basswood literally cover the ground in places. Basswood is a very prolific sprouter, and can often be identified by numerous basal sprouts surrounding the main trunk. This is especially evident with older trees.
Basswood trees have stumped (pun intended) plant taxonomists for years in their efforts to classify its several variations into a logical body of tree names. A half-century ago, more than 16 different species were recognized in the Southeast alone. More recently, all but one (white basswood) were tossed into the taxonomic waste bin pending further study. Meanwhile basswood trees continue to grow unruffled by intellectual storms raging in the minds of men!
The straight, even grain, consistent density and light weight of basswood make it outstanding for wood carving, and it is in high demand and expensive for this reason. It’s nice to know the Park’s trees are forever exempted from this fate.
White basswood is a diagnostic member of the classic cove hardwood forest. It flourishes there, never growing very far from flowing water. It follows the cove upstream higher than yellow poplar and cucumbertree into the cool cove forest, but it is usually not abundant there. Basswood usually drops out by the time elevations have reached the northern hardwood forest (about 4500 feet). Unlike buckeye and yellow birch, this tree does not thrive in the frosty air of the high country.
- Found along streams and on north-facing, low protected slopes in the middle elevation zone.
- Canopy dominated by a large number of tree species including some mix of the following: yellow poplar, mountain silverbell, white basswood, white ash, red maple, sugar maple, yellow buckeye, black birch, Eastern hemlock.
- Yellow birch is absent or rarely dominant.
- Subcanopy and understory are usually thin.
- Herbaceous layer is usually very rich and diverse.
We apply the term “classic” in this article to the middle elevation cove hardwood forest to emphasize the outstanding character of this forest found only in the southern Appalachian Mountains and to distinguish it from the less unique low elevation river cove forest. Classic Cove hardwood forests are found between 2500 feet and 4000 feet elevation in coves along most of the Park’s less acidic streams. Often the coves are narrow, rocky and steep. Middle elevation gaps like Cucumber Gap and flats also support classic cove hardwood forests.
There are pockets of virgin classic cove hardwood forest in many parts of the Park. Most occur in the northeastern section where the largest tracts of virgin forest of any kind in eastern America exist. The Greenbriar and upper Cosby Coves are access points for many of these magnificent forests. Also called the southern Appalachian cove forest, or simply the cove hardwood forest, the classic cove hardwood forest is the botanical wonderland of our Eastern forests. Nowhere else in eastern America exists a forest with such plant riches. Several reasons account for much of this diversity. During the last ice age plants and animals retreating from northern ice sheets found refuge in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Here trees from the north crowded in with trees from the south eventually forming new forest associations, some unique to these mountains.
Another reason for the richness of the classic cove hardwood forest is lack of disturbance. Though many of these higher coves were completely logged, most were not subjected to the intensive grazing and crop raising that occurred along lower elevation coves. As a result the rich herbaceous plant layer is fairly intact.
A third reason for the plant riches found here relates to ideal growing conditions. The combination of cooler summertime temperatures, ample rain, rich moist soil and protection from extremes of heat and cold by adjacent mountain slopes provides a made-to-order growing environment. Given enough time trees here can reach enormous proportions, and fortunately, the inaccessibility of these mountains has in many cases afforded the time.
The canopy of the classic cove hardwood forest is characteristically dominated by a large number of tree species sharing the canopy. The species mix can vary depending on site characteristics and history, but usually consists of some mix of the trees listed in the table above. An abundance of pioneer trees like yellow poplar, cucumbertree and black cherry usually indicates a younger forest than one where these three species are fewer in number, larger in size and accompanied by medium-size shade tolerant trees like basswood, hemlock and buckeye. Indeed, it may not be possible to account for all the different combinations of tree dominants these forests exhibit. Part of the excitement and wonder of entering the classic cove hardwood forest is discovering what mix of trees awaits the tree enthusiast. Few can emerge from such a forest without a sense of enrichment and a feeling of reverent awe.
Another characteristic aspect of the classic cove hardwood forest is its rich herbaceous plant layer. Subcanopy and understory trees are usually sparse allowing enough sunlight and moisture for a lush carpet of colorful wildflowers, grasses, sedges and ferns to flourish. Visualize yourself wandering through such a forest on a warm, sunny April afternoon with shafts of sunshine highlighting these forest beauties. Your dreams await you in GSMNP!
As you ascend toward 4000 feet especially on the North Carolina side of the main divide, cool cove forest trees begin to dominate the classic cove forest mix while lower elevation trees drop out. Yellow poplar, bitternut hickory and cucumbertree disappear. Basswood thins out while yellow birch and buckeye increase. Flowering dogwood, spicebush and sweetshrub drop out of the understory. Striped maple and alternate-leaf dogwood increase.
Author Dan Williams discusses exotic tree pests in the Park and Smoky Mountain forests for US-Parks.com:
Man’s activities have brought about profound changes in the forests of Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP.) Beginning around the turn of the 20th century, a series of devastating exotic tree diseases accidentally entered North America. These diseases existed in ecological balance in their native lands where host trees they attacked had enough resistance to ensure recovery. North American forests provided tree types suitable as hosts to the diseases, but with little or no inbred resistance to their onslaught. Consequently, the exotic diseases virtually wiped out their North American host species creating irrevocable rents in the forest. Here is the story of the first and possibly most devastating of these exotic pests, the chestnut blight.
Read the full story at US-Parks.com.
- Found on acidic sites.
- Found on creek flats and protected (often steep) slopes in the low (1500-2500′) and middle (2500-4500′) elevation zones.
- Hemlock dominates the canopy along with three or fewer associates.
- Acid-loving species like Heath family members common.
- Rosebay rhododendron frequently dominates the understory.
- At successional maturity, hemlock dominates exclusively.
- The hemlock wooly adelgid is presently decimating this forest type.
Acid cove forests are distinguished from hemlock forests in the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory that describes the Park’s forests in detail. Acid cove forests are abundant in the Park, occurring along many streams as they tumble down the mountain through rocks like those of the Anakeesta Formation where acidic compounds leach into the surrounding soil. Hemlock forests also grow on moist acidic sites, but hemlock dominates the canopy exclusively, refusing to share with the hardwoods.
In reality, the difference between these two forest types may be a matter of successional stage, with acid cove forests representing the intermediate stage of forest succession in what will eventually become a mature hemlock forest. Most of the Park’s designated hemlock forests are very old forests (either virgin forests or disturbed old-growth forests) located on the same kinds of sites that acid cove forests occupy in more recently disturbed (younger) sections of the Park.
Cataloochee provides a good example. Its middle elevation streams support the largest chunk of hemlock forest in the Park. These are virgin forests, and they grow on sites where acid cove forests occur elsewhere. This book combines the two forest types into one; the acid cove-hemlock forest to indicate their successional relationship, and to anticipate the reduced presence of hemlock in the future.
In the low elevation zone (1500-2500′), acid cove-hemlock forests grow on acidic sites along streams, especially creek flats. In the middle elevation zone they are found on creek flats and protected slopes, especially steep protected slopes. During early stages of succession, hemlock shares the dominant canopy with poplar, black birch and red maple on more moist sites, and with white pine and oaks on dryer sites. American sycamore and American hornbeam, trees diagnostic of the river cove forest are usually absent from the acid cove-hemlock forest.
The subcanopy of acid cove-hemlock forests is usually dominated by acid-loving plants like sourwood and American holly. Rhododendron is almost always present in the understory, and often dominant there. Mountain laurel and doghobble characteristically share the understory with rhododendron as well as its acid-loving tendency. Unlike classic cove hardwood forests, acid cove-hemlock forests usually lack a rich herbaceous layer.
As the acid cove-hemlock forest matures, hemlock assumes exclusive canopy dominance simply by virtue of its great size and age. It just outlasts everything else. At this late stage of succession, its dispersed canopy cohorts are likely to be other shade tolerant trees like buckeye, basswood and beech along with just a few huge poplars and white pines, both long-lived trees from earlier successional stages.
It is not uncommon to find examples of both river cove forest and acid cove-hemlock forest growing in the low elevation zone along the same stream as conditions of soil acidity vary with location. In fact, nature regularly refuses to be pinned down to a strict regimen of classification, changing along with the environmental conditions that sustain her. But she does exhibit elevational continuity.
As we follow a mountain river upstream we expect first to encounter river cove forest where sycamore and hornbeam are characteristic along with a variety of lowland and mountain trees. With increasing elevation, the river becomes a prong loosing much of its bottomland, becoming narrower, steeper and more musical. We walk through acid pockets lacking sycamore and hornbeam where hemlock is prominent in the canopy with much rhododendron and mountain laurel below.
As we ascend into the middle elevation zone at around 2500′, the dominant canopy trees of the acid cove-hemlock forest change. Yellow poplar and white pine drop out. Mountain silverbell becomes more common along with sugar maple in places. The acid-loving rhododendron remains as a prominent understory component.
On less acidic stream sites, the classic cove hardwood forest appears above 2500 feet elevation. Basswood, white ash and sugar maple become more abundant along with yellow poplar and some hemlock. Still higher up, we realize yellow poplar, cucumber tree and others have dropped out of the classic cove hardwood mix. Basswood remains and buckeye and yellow birch are now more abundant as we transition to the cool cove forest, especially on the south-facing North Carolina side of the main divide. By now our prong is a creek and is growing smaller. Above around 4500′ elevation the creek may become a waterless ravine. Only a few hardwood trees remain. Yellow birch, yellow buckeye and American beech dominate, often with red spruce, especially on the north-facing Tennessee side of the main divide. We have entered the northern hardwood forest.
Yellow poplar is the prominent pioneer tree in low elevation acid cove-hemlock forests on moist acidic sites. It would dominate the site during the pioneer stage of forest succession (50-100 years) as forest succession advanced on abandoned fields or cut-over land. At age 80 years (time elapsed since the Park’s establishment) we would expect dominant canopy poplars to be in the 19-20 inch diameter range. We would look for intermediates like red maple, blackgum and black birch in the dispersed canopy and subcanopy ready to steal dominance from the poplars in a few years. Hemlocks, the future inheritors of the site would fill the subcanopy. By the mature stage of succession (200-250 years) they will dominate the canopy as the forest approaches climax.
Eastern hemlock is disappearing from southern Appalachian forests along with other beautiful, valuable, seemingly indispensable tree species. The potential for more species devastation is firmly on the horizon as the world continues to share pathogens at an alarming rate. Mass extinctions have been common in earth’s history, from the trilobite die-offs of the late Cambrian Period to the more recent disappearance of Pleistocene mega-fauna. It is hoped that there will be people around in the future to read about this potential latest episode!
Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)
Shade Tolerance = Very Tolerant
Soil Moisture Niche = Moist Acidic Sites
Vertical Preference = Canopy
Evergreen boughs and pine-like bark make this conifer easy to identify. Large hemlocks with high foliage can sometimes be confused with white pine. Look on the ground beneath the tree. Hemlock needles are short, flat and blunt-tipped. White pine needles are long, needle-like and come in bundles of five. At higher elevations, where they occasionally occur together, hemlock and red spruce may be confused. Hemlock needles are short, flat and blunt-tipped. Red spruce needles are round or angle-sided and sharp pointed. Hemlock and Fraser fir rarely coincide, but just in case; Fraser fir twigs are tan colored with globe-shaped resinous terminal buds. Scratch Fraser fir twigs; you will smell Christmas! Hemlock twigs are dark colored without obvious terminal buds.
Eastern hemlock is a tree of poetry and legend, or so Longfellow thought when he wrote of the forest primeval in Evangeline. Huge trunks rising one hundred and fifty feet above a bubbling prong supporting a mantle of evergreen boughs sparkling in summer sunlight, create an impression of wild power and beauty well deserving of poetic expression. A century ago, visitors to these mountains routinely slept on beds of fragrant hemlock boughs, a practice today’s environmentally conscious campers no longer subscribe to. It is also against Park regulations!
The Park harbors at least 3000 acres of virgin hemlock forest. Sadly, the hemlock wooly adelgid is rapidly decimating these magnificent trees.
Hemlock thrives in deep shade and on acidic soils. Though indifferent to soil nutrients, it must not venture far from the water of streams or the ample soil moisture found on cool moist protected slopes.
In low elevation river cove forests it shares the canopy with a variety of trees including American sycamore, the diagnostic tree for this forest type.
In mid-succession (intermediate stage) acid cove-hemlock forests, it shares the canopy with poplar, red maple and black birch. As the acid cove-hemlock forest matures, hemlock assumes exclusive dominance by virtue of its extreme shade tolerance and longevity. Rosebay rhododendron often forms the understory in these forests, giving them what Whittaker called, “a somber aspect unrelieved by the verdant green of the deciduous forest.” Hemlocks can live on in the climax forest for centuries. Trees exceeding 500 years in age have been documented in Eastern North America, including GSMNP.
Hemlock often shares the canopy with a large mix of trees including white basswood, mountain silverbell, yellow poplar, yellow buckeye, white ash and sugar maple in the classic cove hardwood forest of middle elevations, and it follows the streams up into the cool cove forest on the North Carolina side, where it grows more sparingly with yellow birch, yellow buckeye and basswood. On upper slopes around 4500 feet elevation hemlock mingles with red spruce and the northern hardwood forest.
The Park has been renowned for giant hemlocks, but the story is almost too sad to tell. The tallest recorded Eastern Hemlock on earth planet was the Usis hemlock located in the Cataloochee District. At 173.1 feet Usis was the tallest of a select group of hemlocks exceeding 170 feet in height. Usis is dead now and only one of the select group, the Noland Mountain Hemlock, survives as of July, 2009. At 171.5 feet tall and 4 feet 4 inches dbh it is the tallest known living Eastern hemlock. The largest hemlock (by wood volume) ever recorded also lived in the Cataloochee District and is also dead.
Both trees were located along Caldwell Creek in Cataloochee where one of the oldest and most magnificent hemlock forests in existence once flourished. Thanks to Will Blozen and the Eastern Native Tree Society we have documented information on these incredible trees, alive now only in Blozen’s photographs and memory.