10/3/21 Piece of Appalachia

Like a guilty lover I must confess – there is another forest fragment. My heart is now divided between the urban forest of some 70 acres I that grew up with and work in, and eleven acres of Appalachian Southwest Virginia. The towering Chestnut oaks, Red oaks, Red maples, Hemlocks, Tulip trees and magnolias of this new forest stand 3000 feet higher and 360 miles by road from the little fragment in the Ohio River Valley. And unlike the urban forest surrounded by city, the eleven acres adjoin hundreds more, and are close to thousands of National Forest acres.

A tiny cabin sets at this edge of this Appalachian forest.

While the extent of this Appalachian forest alone suggests a more pristine condition, it is fragmented too, with a gravel road and open meadow abutting on one side. And first looks can be deceiving, it’s only by close attention to small details – which plants grow here, which do not – that the story gradually unfolds. It’s the story of repeated plagues and disturbances; the Chestnut blight, the Hemlock woolly adelgid, timber removal, a cattle and deer grazed understory that lost much of its native richness. Even the loss of disturbance in the form of fire has been shaping the tree canopy for almost a hundred years.

The stump of an Eastern hemlock logged before it succumbed to the Hemlock woolly adelgid, surrounded by a young stump-sprouting hemlock and Eastern white pine.
The surrounding patchwork of forest, pasture, and christmas tree farms

All forests in the eastern US regardless of how large, are still fragments surrounded by agriculture, pastureland and cities, and criss-crossed with roads. Even a gravel back road breaks a continuous block of forest into a fragment – introducing erosion, stream scouring and siltation, and invasive plant seeds carried on the muddy tires of vehicles.

This lush stream bottom on the edge of the forest fills up with invasive weeds like Burdock and Japanese stiltgrass, as water drains from a gravel road above
It’s not hard to guess which side of this barbed wire fence the cattle are on. Cattle grazed forest understories are mostly barren except for Japanese stiltgrass, which thrives on the disturbance and lack of competition.

The Ohio River Valley forest fragment has been teaching me to see a forest as a community in transition, and to recognize it’s strengths and challenges. Now I’ll get to hone my restoration skills on a very different forest, but one with familiar problems. Admittedly, it seems at times a hubris-fueled venture to believe I know what’s best for such a complex ecosystem.

Though grazing by cattle (and a horse) ended over a decade ago, recovery will be slow in this shady, cool, deer-heavy forest with acidic soils. An understory of mostly ferns is a telltale sign of heavy deer browsing.

But some of the most visible issues, such as deer over-browsing, can be remedied at least to some degree by simply sheltering vulnerable plants. “Hinge cutting” is a technique I learned from people who manage their land for deer hunting. Smaller trees are sawed through partially at a height of 3 or 4 feet until they fall. The arching downed branches create nice shelter for tree seedlings and herbaceous plants, and the still living tree resprouts new foliage that helps take deer pressure off other plants.

Hinge cutting has commenced in this rather bare shady portion of the forest. Orange flagging shows which young trees will be cut next.

This forest like many others is heavy with Red maple, one of the most abundant trees in Eastern forests due to the last 100 years of fire suppression. Unlike oaks, thin barked maples are easily killed by fire. The shade of so many large Red maples in our Appalachian forest is suppressing and slowing tree seedling growth – to the point where deer are easily able prevent the few that emerge from attaining much height. So another restoration strategy will be girdling select older red maples (particularly the ones that don’t present a risk of falling on us when we’re in the woods!)

Lovely Rosebay rhododendron blooms in July in this forest, attracting bumblebees and butterflies. Who knew this abundant Appalachian shrub could also be a problem? Rhododendron thickets thrive in the same moist, cool forests that harbored Eastern hemlock, but with the loss of the great hemlock groves rhododendron is filling the void at great speed. Land managers and forest researchers are trying to understand the shift that is taking place, since rhodie thickets cast heavy shade, and acidify the soil to the point where almost nothing grows under them. I am pruning many of our forest’s extensive thickets to let in more light, with the extra benefit that the cut branches on the ground provide some protection from deer browsing.

Painted trillium, a high elevation species that is relatively abundant in this forest

You have stuck with me this far as I detail the many problems, but it’s finally time to share what is so glorious about Appalachian forests – their amazing diversity and beauty. The images below were gathered from our own little forest and the surrounding neighborhood. On our 12 acres I have identified 23 species of trees and 7 species of shrubs, a remarkable number considering this forest is nothing exceptional; a rich cove forest would contain up to 30 tree species, and the Appalachians as a whole support more than 150.

A northeast slope with declining hemlocks has the potential to support a currently absent flora of spring ephemerals and other herbaceous plants.
A handful of trees in the forest, like this bent Chestnut oak, approach old growth size. Trees of this age class lose their species-specific bark patterns and develop a thick chunky, often moss covered look on the lower trunk.
One of two Fraser magnolias with wide spreading crowns suggest there were were more openings in this forest fifty plus years ago.
Ruffed Grouse standing lookout for his family, spotted from the car.
White-pored chicken of the woods
American giant millipedes can be found under the dense leaf litter

Salamander diversity is higher in these mountains than anywhere else on earth. With 77 species known from the Appalachian region, it takes an expert to identify many of them.

Wild strawberries, though tiny, are easy picking in mowed fields and pastures.
Moccasin flower occurs in scattered colonies on relatively dry, acidic soils in high quality woods that haven’t been cattle grazed. These blooms escaped deer browsing, another common impact.
American chestnut still lingers, mostly as young trees resprouting from stumps. Occasionally a tree survives to maturity and bears chestnuts.
Pipevine swallowtail nectaring on Common milkweed. In the area of our forest, the caterpillar’s host plant is one species of Pipevine, Aristolochia macrophylla
American teaberry is common in our acidic forest, the leaves have a pleasant wintergreen flavor
Bottle gentian, species unknown as there are a number of closely related ones. This fall bloomer appeals to bumblebees, who are drawn to blue flowers in particular
The scat of a very large dark-furred omnivore. This early summer pic shows it’s been filling up on berries. We were clued in to its presence in the forest by not only scat, but torn up rotten logs.
“Plateful of pyramids lepidella”. This species is yet another example of the whimsical but descriptive names assigned by mushroom enthusiasts and mycologists. Most every week in spring, summer and fall there is a new array of fungi.
The somewhat whiny calls of abundant Blue-headed vireos can be heard all spring and summer. A typically more northern bird, this vireo breeds throughout the southern Appalachians.
The headwaters of Guffy creek drain off the slopes of this forest, coalescing in a cold-at-any-season torrent that dashes down a rocky ravine

One of the oddest images is from the slopes of an extensive christmas tree farm above the forest. Increasingly, these farms cover former pastureland at high elevations, growing the same native Fraser firs that once covered the highlands with old growth forest. The feral corn? I guess it just snuck in with a multitude of other agricultural weeds. It kind of sums up the complexity of the southern Appalachian landscape, where rich cove forests, tree farms, rushing trout streams and cow pastures are all stitched together into one quilt-like mosaic.

8 thoughts on “10/3/21 Piece of Appalachia

  1. shoreacres

    There’s a phrase I never thought I’d hear: feral corn. When I was growing up in Iowa, corn was well-behaved and kept to its rows!

    The bottle gentian is amazing, but not nearly so amazing as that millipede. I have a horror of those things that goes back to the first time I turned a log and found a huge, black one. But yours is rather attractive; it reminded me of diagrams of the Golden Ratio.

    I’ve never heard of hinge cutting, but it makes perfect sense. I suspect it might be practiced in east Texas, where the forests outnumber the prairies and grasslands.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Katie Miller

    Rosemary, it’s so exciting to see your beautiful patch of VA upland. You deserve it so much, and it deserves you. I’m glad you are together. I’m dying over those orchids…

    Liked by 2 people

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