Understanding The Appalachian Mountains

Ecosystems and Plant Communities

Due to their unique structure, old age, climate patterns and other factors, the Appalachian mountains are one of the most biologically and ecologically diverse places anywhere in the temperate climate world. They have several ecosystems that are partitioned by elevation and temperature, and an amazing assortment of micro-climates dictated by directional orientation, hydro-geology and local climate phenomena.

Tributary to Shaver’s Fork, Cheat Mountain, WV

The mountains boast exceptional tree, shrub and herbaceous perennial diversity, as well as an outstanding variety of fungi and lichen. The animal kingdom is no less impressive. From migratory song birds and birds of prey, to endemic amphibians and mammal diversity, the Appalachians are famous for their abundant faunal life. One of the basic essentials to understanding the richness and complexity of mountain life is recognizing the many types of forest systems and ecological communities that weave throughout the bioregion.  Below is a brief description of each community, where you will find them, and what is unique to each place, including the food, medicine and other gifts of each habitat.

1. Spruce-Fir Forest
Once covering more than double the space of its current range (before logging and serious fires), this forest is the coldest and highest in elevation of all the ecological communities in the Appalachian mountains. Called “Islands in the Sky,” because of their geographical location on higher elevation ridges, this ecosystem is the most endangered due to climate change. Higher temperatures coupled with drought, fire, increased vegetative competition, and the upward movement of invasive pests like the Balsam Woolly Adelgid (Adelges piceae), could make the southern range of this ecosystem extinct in a few human generations.  Several high elevation salamanders, the Northern Flying Squirrel, the Red Crossbill and endemic moss spiders are all dependent upon this forest community.

The Spruce-Fir ecosystem on the Shaver’s Fork, Cheat Mountain, WV.

General Botanical Composition:
The two trees that define this ecosystem are the Spruce (Picea spp.) and Fir (Abies spp.). Red Spruce (P. rubens) and Fraser Fir (A. fraseri) are dominate in the Southern Appalachians, while the Black Spruce (P. mariana) and Balsam Fir (A. balsamea) are dominate at higher latitudes. Some other trees that are abundant in this community are Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum), Mountain Maple (A. spicatum), Smooth Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis), Yellow Birch (Betula allegheniensis), Fire Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica), and Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana).
Some of the common shrubs and brambles that can be found there are Blackberries (Rubus spp.), Appalachian Gooseberry (Ribes rotundifolium), Red Elberberry (Sambucus racemosa), Witch Hobble (Viburnum lantanoides),  and Catawba Rhododendron (R. catawbiense).
Some of the common herbaceous perennials that can be found there are Mountain Wood Aster (Eurybia chlorolepis), Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), Painted Trillium (T. undulatum), Skunk Goldenrod (Solidago glomerata), False Hellebore (Veratrum viride), and Whorled Aster (Oclemena acuminata).

Where To Find It:
In the Southern Appalachians this ecosystem is confined to a few places like the Black Mountains, Roan Mountain, The Great Smoky Mountains NP, Mount Rogers, the Great Balsam Mountains, and Grandfather Mountain. In the Allegheny Highlands of West Virginia, one can also find the Spruce-Fir ecosystem in several places, including the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Cranberry Wilderness, Spruce Knob, Cheat Mountain, and other ridges along the Allegheny Front.

Gifts from the Mountains:
Fresh Spruce and Fir tips collected in spring/summer can be used in making tea, and brewing mead or beer.  Spruce root bark can make good cordage, that was traditionally used as fiber for birch bark canoes or baskets. Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) is an amazing adaptogen that has active components for antioxidant, antitumoral, and antiviral activities and for improving human immunity against infection of pathogenic microbes. It is found on Yellow Birch trees. There are several edible berries on trees and shrubs in this ecosystem, including those of serviceberry, blackberry and gooseberry, which are excellent in jams, pies, chutneys, or in mead-making. The Hemlock Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma Tsugae) is another excellent adaptogen tonic with many health benefits that can be wild-crafted occasionally on Yellow Birch trees in this ecosystem.

Other Appalachian Ecosystem Communities
2. High Elevation Red Oak Forest
3. Northern Hardwoods Forest
4. Mixed Mesophytic  (Rich Cove) Forest
5. Acidic Cove Forest
6. Chestnut Oak Forest
7. Pine-Oak-Heath Forest
8. Oak-Hickory Forest

Map of Appalachia, Wikipedia. 

Physiography and Geography
1. Blue Ridge Mountains
2. Piedmont
3. Ridge & Valley (Including Great Valley)
4. Allegheny Mountains
5. Appalachian Plateau (Cumberland & Allegheny Plateaus)
6. Cumberland Mountains

Geology and History

USDA Zones 

Soil Types


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