Some Major Plant Communities of the Blue Ridge

adapted from Woody Plants of the Blue Ridge by Ron Lance. Used by permission.

To see photographic examples of a term, click the camera next to it in the list of botanical terms.


Forested Communities:

Oak-dominated forests: Northern red oak forest: Middle to high elevation exposed sites; canopy mostly of northern red oak.

Chestnut oak forest: On ridge tops and steep, rocky, acidic slopes up to about 4000'; canopy mostly of chestnut oak or scarlet oak. White oak forest: On broad ridges or flats over 3500', or lower areas of similar topography; canopy dominated by white oak.

Mixed oak forest: Low and middle elevations; also called montane oak-hickory, but hickory component not reliably dominant. A common forest type of white and red oaks, frequently with maple, hickory, blackgum, pine, and sourwood associated.

Pine-oak-heath forest: On low peaks, knobs, steep, exposed slopes; xeric sites susceptible to fire; canopy of yellow pines and oak, especially scarlet oak; understory of acid-loving heath shrubs.

Mixed hardwood forests:

Northern hardwood forest: On high elevation slopes and coves; canopy of birch, beech, buckeye, basswood, maple, cherry, ash, spruce; soils acidic but moist.

Rich cove forest: On sheltered slopes and coves of lower to middle elevations; soils deep and higher in pH; canopy diverse, with ash, basswood. sugar maple, buckeye, magnolia, tuliptree, hickory, oak, beech, cherry; understory shrub and herb layer diverse, devoid of large quantities of ericads.

Acidic cove forest: On sheltered slopes and coves, gorges and ravines; canopy heavy in oak, tuliptree, birch, red maple, hemlock, silverbell, or Fraser magnolia; less diversity of mesophytic trees; shrub layer often dense, of rhododendron and dog-hobble; herbaceous layer not as diverse as in rich coves.

Alluvial forest: On low elevation bottomlands subject to occasional flooding; canopy often with some mesophytic trees typical of cove forests, but also containing sycamore, river birch, boxelder, willow; shrub layer often with hazelnut, cane.

Basic mesic forest: On low elevation slopes and coves over limestone, dolomite, or marble; a high pH favors canopy species such as chinkapin oak, ash, sugar maple, hackberry, elm, walnut. This forest is not common in the Blue Ridge. It is characteristic of much of the Ridge and Valley and Cumberland Plateau provinces.

Conifer-dominated forests:

Spruce-fir forest: Generally over 5500' elevation; canopy dominated by red spruce, with some northern hardwood species present; shrubby layer of mountain-ash, mountain maple, serviceberry, yellow birch; now generally replacing former Fraser fir forests of highest elevations, due to elimination of much of the fir.

Hemlock forest: On slopes and coves where soils are acidic; canopy mostly of grove-like stands of hemlock. Carolina hemlock usually occurs on steep slopes, bluffs, and gorges where soils tend to be drier than with Eastern hemlock forests.

White pine forest: Mostly caused by man's activities; purely natural stands associated with very steep slopes and gorges.

Pine-oak-heath forest: As mentioned above as to species; more pine is seen in canopy when recent fires have killed back the oak and hardwood component, favoring seedling regeneration of pitch, shortleaf, table mountain, or Virginia pines.

Thinly-forested or Shrub-dominated Communities:

Swamp forest/bog complex: On poorly drained bottoms; canopy fairly open, with hemlock, red maple as most dominant members. Higher elevation sites may show red spruce as canopy member. Boggy vegetation occurs below canopy and in openings within this predominantly forested community.

Southern Appalachian bog: Sphagnum-dominated boggy areas generally over 1 acre in size; more open and with only a few small trees.

Shrub bald: On exposed slopes, ridges, and peaks of middle to higher elevations: rhododendron and/or kalmia may form dense thickets called "laurel slicks" or "rhododendron hells," or sites may be more open, composed of other shrubby species. Such open stands are often successional stages of former grassy balds or of former forested areas.

Grassy bald: On high slopes, ridgetops and domes; dominant vegetation of herbaceous nature, mostly grasses and sedges. Woody plants encroach if this community is protected from fire and grazing.

Boulderfields: On high, steep, north-facing coves; angular boulders and rockpiles covered by little soil, thought to be relicts of periglacial action; mountain maple, yellow birch, basswood, buckeye, and gooseberry are the woody species commonly present, though usually dwarfed.

Rock outcrops: At all elevations, though most frequent at higher elevations; the species of plants present on each outcrop varies with the type of rock substrate and condition of its surface, as well as elevation. Some outcrops are the chief habitat for many rare species of herbaceous plants.


Ref: Schafale, M., and A. Weakley. 1990. Classification of the Natural Communities of North Carolina; Third Approximation. Natural Heritage Program, Division of Parks and Recreation, NC Dept. of Environment, Health, and Natural Resources.