Globetrotting in a Forest By: Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

The mountains of our area contain one of the most diverse forests in the world.  Over 170 tree species grow here, second only to tropical rain forests in variety.  If you hunt around you can find forest settings here that are the same as forests hundreds of miles away.

For a feel of Georgia, climb up on a dry mountain ridge where only pine trees grow.  Smell the rosin, and listen to the soft sighing of the needles in the wind.  How about a trip north? Walk into a deep hollow with a mountain stream, and here you will find hemlock, sugar maple, and rhododendron growing so thick you can hardly walk.  You could just as well be in Canada, which has similar forests.  It’s cool and damp here, with musty smells and noisy water.  One more trip: In the fall find a pawpaw growing in a low, moist spot.  Take a bite of its fruit and enjoy the banana-like flavor.  The folks of South America enjoy the same thing.

 

The reason our forests are so diverse is a combination of climate, terrain, and pre-historic happenings.  One of our forest types is called mixed mesophytic, meaning a place that is neither very wet or very dry, and not very warm or very cold.  This in-between situation allows trees to survive here that are native to areas with more extreme weather conditions.  But how did northern and southern trees get here? According to scientists, our area used to have a tropical climate, with trees and plants that like it warm and moist.  But along came the Ice Age, and the climate became cooler and stayed that way for eons.  The tropical plants (like the pawpaw) died out except in low, sheltered places.  Along with the cooler climate came trees that migrated down from the north like the hemlock, spruce, and fir.  Eventually our climate warmed up slowly to its present condition, and some of the tropic trees made a come-back.  The northern trees receded back north, except for cool places in deep mountain drains and high mountains.

 

So the upshot of all this is we have very diverse forests to enjoy, from huge trees to delicate wildflowers. These mesophytic forests are delicate and need protection from disturbance, especially around stream sides where they act as a buffer to protect the water from soil erosion.  The Hemlock wooly adelgid is a bug that’s hammering our hemlocks, and emerald ash borer is decimating our ash species, so there is trouble in paradise.  For forest health concerns contact your local state forestry service

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