05, 2007 18:50 PST
In trip reports and rankings of sites, the Smokies are often
to as a single distinct entity. However, that view reflects
realities more than ecological realities, provides an uneven
comparisons between sites, and overlooks the great variety of
different regions of the park. At 520,000 acres, the Smokies are
lager than most areas ENTS refer to as "sites", and
consequently has a
more heterogeneous disturbance history and geology than other
In an attempt to alleviate some of those issues and provide a
context for trip descriptions from the Smokies, I am planning to
a serious of descriptions on distinct regions of the park, of
this is the first. Of course, even within restricted regions,
conditions are not uniform, and the national park does include
a discrete mountain range with some consistent patterns of
other factors. Still, to people familiar with the park, simply
knowing what section a stream is in can provide a great deal of
information about forest conditions within the watershed.
These descriptions derive from my observations on repeated hikes
through the areas rather than any systematic or formal samples
vegetation. Consequently, they may be biased by selective
distortions of imperfect memory, or the sites I happen to have
being atypical. They also differ from the actual forests by
on only the most common woody species from mixtures that are
frequently diverse, and by lumping varied communities in broad,
discrete categories. I encourage any other ents familiar with
areas to correct or add to these descriptions.
Once a small farming community, Greenbrier now refers to the
of Great Smoky Mountains National Park drained by the Middle
Little Pigeon River, which lies between Gatlinburg, TN and
Although a few streams flow out of the park before merging with
Middle Prong, most of the watershed lies within a broadly forked
valley surrounded by steep, spruce-topped ridges. Those
ridges include not only the main divide of the Great Smoky
range but also the prominent spurs of Greenbrier Pinnacle and
Boulevard. Along the boarder with Greenbrier, the divide, which
serves as the TN/NC state line, dips only as low as 5233'
and rises as high as 6621' on top of Mount Guyot, the second
peak in the Smokies. Three miles from the divide and at The
Boulevard's terminus, the Smokies third highest peak, Mount Le
(6593'), overlooks the western side of Greenbrier. On the other
of the valley, Greenbrier Pinnacle juts out five miles from the
before dropping below 4500' and reaching an abrupt end, the
site of a fire tower.
Steep slopes descend from all of those major ridges into the
especially along The Boulevard and the western end of the
Anakeesta slate supports that stretch, and typically weathers
dramatic landscape of narrow ridges and precipitous slopes. That
topography combines with the thin soils and wet climate to make
area prone to landslides, which have produced the large scars on
landscape seen at Charlies Bunion and Eagle Rocks. The
Sandstone that underlies the mid-elevations and eastern parts of
valley produces more rounded peaks and more stable, but still
Those slopes channeled most historical human activity in the
to the lower elevations. Extensive farming occurred on the
terrain watered by many small streams at the foot of Greenbrier
Pinnacle and at the base of Mount Le Conte, areas now just
northern boarder of the national park. Farming also occurred
the main valley, but was primarily restricted to the flats along
larger streams' lower ends. Adjacent to the farms and along low
elevation streams, commercial logging operations cleared the
and sometimes ventured farther upstream for large tuliptrees and
cherries. However, that disturbance pattern has left large
of the watershed completely untouched by logging operations.
modern human activity in the area focuses on either those least
disturbed sections or the historically most altered ones. The
of trails in Greenbrier, relatively few compared to some other
of the park, lead through old fields to stone walls,
buildings, or cemeteries; or follow streams to waterfalls in
with many large trees.
The former fields now stand out from the surrounding forest by
structural simplicity and lack of diversity. Arrow straight
tuliptrees have replaced straight rows of corn or potatoes.
only scattered red maples, black locusts and near the larger
sweetgum, and sycamore compete with the tuliptrees in the
the understory displays a patchier structure with thickets of
hemlocks, and striped maples in addition to more scattered
dogwoods, and near streams hornbeam and umbrella magnolia. In
areas, the naturalization of black walnut has supplemented that
diversity, and spicebush often occupies the understory in those
Settlers typically bypassed drier, less fertile, or steeper
surrounding slopes, but those areas were still cleared for
The richest of them, typically steep and north facing, also
tuliptree dominated canopies, but the tuliptrees are typically
than those in farmed areas and the understory includes saplings
rich site species such as silverbell and yellow buckeye. On
moist sites hemlock can dominate and permit either a sparse
or a dense rhododendron dominated understory. Drier slopes
more mixed canopies that usually include chestnut oak and red
over understories of mountain laurel.
Those same species also dominate the dry ridges in the unlogged
portions of the area. On the most exposed and driest ridges, the
and maples yield canopy space to table mountain pine, and
(Gaultheria procumbens) may form an evergreen ground cover. On
moister ridges that retain their original forest cover, eastern
hemlock becomes a major canopy constituent. On level or north
ridges, the cool, wet climate between 4000 and 4500' elevation
hemlock to exclude all other species from the overstory, but
rhododendron thrives in the understory. At slightly lower
north facing ridges and adjacent slopes with deep soils support
another hemlock dominated community that The Nature Conservancy
as globally rare. Those conditions allow silverbell, but few
species, to compete effectively with the hemlocks. Since
is limited in extant in the community, a fairly continuous and
evergreen herbaceous layer develops dominated by intermediate
fern, partridgeberry, Indian cucumber and occasionally Frasers
Curiously, hemlock does not appear as longed lived in this
and does not obtain as large of diameters as on the higher
Along the streams and lower slopes at mid elevations in the
forest, hemlock is even more ubiquitous and becomes the most
overstory species. The conifer shares space with red maple,
birch, yellow birch, and tuliptrees over a typically thick shrub
of rosebay rhododendron, which precludes most herbaceous growth.
These forests are typically large statured with uneven canopies
usually around 120' high and trees frequently exceeding three
diameter. On gentle topography along streams and in north facing
coves, these acidic cove forests occasionally give way to more
hardwood dominated rich cove forests, the botanical stars of the
Smokies and the Appalachian Mountains. These forests have gained
their notoriety by supporting spectacular displays of spring
wildflowers and massive trees. The overstory is mixed, but
includes many sugar maples, yellow buckeyes, white basswoods,
silverbells. Tuliptree and hemlock may also form substantial
the canopy, and tuliptrees reach their largest sizes in this
community. Below the large hardwoods, the sparse understory
includes striped maple or mountain maple, but is composed
saplings of shade tolerant overstory species: yellow buckeye,
silverbell, and sugar maple. The rich soils support even greater
diversity in the thick herbaceous layer that often includes
flowered trillium, spring beauties, squirrel corn, Dutchman's
britches, foam flower, black cohosh, yellow mandarin and blue
among others. In narrower coves, which often feature
the composition usually shifts to include more squirrel corn and
Dutchman's britches in the herbaceous layer, more mountain maple
the understory, and more yellow buckeye and Dutchman's pipe vine
In the rainforest conditions that occur at higher elevations,
forests vary much less with topography. The broad domes of
birch crowns and narrow cones of red spruce crowns form a
tiered canopy that stretches from the streams to the ridge
the high peaks and ridges, that community extends from about
elevation down to around 4500'; in highly sheltered north facing
drainages that begin at high elevations, spruce and birch may
dominance down to around 4000' elevation. The overstory often
includes many large gaps that allow substantial light to reach
highly variable understory. Mountain maple frequently thrives in
those gaps along with witch-hobble, saplings of larger tree
and a dense herb layer that may include umbrella leaf, Rugel's
ragwort, heartleaf aster, and an abundance of ferns and mosses.
However, the understory more commonly consists of an interwoven
of rhododendron, more often rosebay than catawba, that grows
horizontally than vertically, and can exclude all other vascular
plants. In those areas, tree regeneration occurs primarily on
Above that forest, on top of Mount Le Conte and Mount Guyot and
the ridge connecting them, Fraser fir becomes a successful
At the highest elevations, the fir grows in extremely dense
interrupted only by scattered red spruce and mountain ash. Going
slope, spruce gradually replaces fir, although Fraser fir may
form dense stands in the understory. The shade in the fir stands
be dense enough to preclude any vascular plants from growing
underneath them. However, the balsam woolly adelgid has made
stands far scarcer than they were a few decades ago by killing
vast majority of mature fraser fir, and in places leaving behind
forests of standing, bleached trunks that rot slowly in the
waterlogged, cool climate. Yet, some of the dense fir groves
have grown back since the first wave of adelgid induced
already maturing since Fraser fir grows relatively quickly, only
reaches about 40' tall on most sites, and the adelgid does not
until after the trees mature.
The extensive tract of uncut, high diversity, high productivity
spanning Greenbrier's middle elevations has made the area a
ENTS in the south for the organization's entire history. Before
visitors, the park naturalist, and others were nominating
trees from Greenbrier. Hence, the plethora of record trees known
the area reflects not only the high productivity and history of
protection of the forests, but also extensive active searching.
However, exploration of other sections of the southern
has revealed no other area with the abundance of massive
that Greenbrier boasts. The 2006-2007 National Register of Big
lists six national champions in Greenbrier; three of those have
fallen, but a larger tree has been found in Greenbrier for one
fallen trees and two additional potential champions have been
Greenbrier also ranks high by the method ENTS often uses to
sites, the Rucker Index.
Rucker Height Index: 150.9'
Eastern Hemlock 165.3'
Yellow Buckeye 157.3'
Black Locust 151.3'
White Ash 149.0'
Bitternut Hickory 146'
Red Maple 142.6'
Northern Red Oak 141.8'
Black Cherry 140.7'
The Rucker Index includes: eight trees in old-growth forests and
in second growth forests; three eastern height records (buckeye,
maple, and black cherry); and seven state height records. The
value ranks fifth in the eastern US behind two other sections of
Smokies, Savage Gulf, and Congaree NP. The index is the second
highest in TN behind Savage Gulf. The two tallest trees in the
were both located in 2006, so the index continues to change.
Rucker Girth Index: 17.7'
Eastern Hemlock 18.4'
Northern Red Oak 18.4'
Black Cherry 17.9'
Red Maple 16.9'
Yellow Buckeye 16.7'
White Ash 15.9'
Chestnut Oak 14.85'
All ten of the trees in the girth index grow in old-growth
The hemlock, northern red oak, and red maple are each likely the
or second largest known in volume for their species. The red
and white ash were both found in 2006.
Most areas in Greenbrier below 4000' and known to have uncut
on gentle topography have been visited to look for large trees.
However, much less attention has been paid to slopes and
stream corridors. Those sites can also support highly productive
forest, but harbor record size trees much less frequently. The
shrouded high elevation forests maintain the greatest air of
in Greenbrier. In streamside areas, only one short section of
extends above 4000' elevation, so the forests have received
little visitation. Remoteness, boulder filled stream channels,
extensive rhododendron thickets may hide other exemplary forests
the area's upper reaches.
06, 2007 07:09 PST
The rich site with Trillium and spring ephemerals sounds great.
not be a high deer population there, and the European/Asian
invasion being tracked by Paul Hendrix and coworkers at U
Georgia must not
have reached the area yet. Such areas are slowly disappearing
the eastern U.S. Chris Webster at Michigan Tech University has
studying deer in the Smokies and has found a similar damage
native understory flora in certain areas with high deer
populations to that
we find up here. You should look up some of his recent
13, 2007 19:35 PST
Thanks for letting me know who's leading the research on deer
earthworm impacts on the Smokies. I will look up their current
From what I've seen, largely intact herbaceous layers are still
more common in the park's old-growth forests than heavily
herb layers. I would guess that most of the deer damage is
around Cades Cove, which has by far the largest fields in the
smaller mountains in the immediate vicinity. I've always had the
impression that, on a park-wide basis, feral hogs are much more
destructive than deer to the native flora.
15, 2007 16:20 PST
I spoke to a ranger in Cades Cove a few years ago (a park
She was very happy over the fact that coyotes were so well
in the park. They had, she said, filled in the niche formerly
by wolves and were serving pretty much the same function. It was
belief that the coyotes were having a positive role in
populations of both deer and feral hogs. She told me that
taking quite a lot of young hogs.