The Diversity of Plant and Animal life in the Smokies
The Smokies’ wide diversity of flowering plants and trees makes for a colorful spring, summer, and fall. The spring bloom starts in the valleys around April and works upward to the peaks through July, while the changing colors of the foliage start on the peaks as early as mid-August and work downward to the valley into October.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest protected areas of land east of the Rocky Mountains. Due to the many climates found in the Smokies, the park is home of 1,500 species of vascular plants, 2,000 species of mushrooms, 125 different species of trees, 10 percent of which are considered rare. There are over 4,000 non-flowering plant species in the park. With abundant sunshine and frequent rainfall it is no surprise that about 200 species of showy wildflowers bloom in the Smokies. They begin in March and last until late November. One forth of the park’s 500,000 acres is undisturbed old growth forest. More tree species than in all of northern Europe live in this small area of Tennessee and North Carolina. The list is long of the 60 native mammals and over 200 species of birds that live in the park. In addition, the park is haven for 27 species of salamanders, making it the most diverse salamander population in the world.
The Smoky Mountains are known for springtime flowers, including the trillium, phacelia, violets, lady’s slippers, jack in the pulpits, and snowy orchids. The dogwoods bloom in late April; spring flowers late March to Mid May; mountain laurel and flame azalea, May and June; the Catawaba rhododendron blooms in Mid June; and the rosebay rhododendron in June and July. In August, you may see wild clematis, yellow fringed orchids, bee balm, cardinal flower, monkshood, and blue gentian. The goldenrod, ironweed, and asters bloom in late September to early October. Many flowers grow along park roadsides. Other good locations to see them are along quiet walkways and designated nature trails throughout the parkway.
The Smokies’ various ecological communities are most often identified by forest types called life zones. Elevation, soil conditions, moisture or dryness, and exposure to wind and sun all play roles in determining the location of life zones. Botanists usually identify the forests by the kinds of trees that predominate.
Cove Hardwood Forest
Below 4,500 feet, deciduous trees cover sheltered slopes and extend into low-elevation coves and valleys. Trees of record or near record size are common. Typical trees include yellow buckeye, basswood, yellow poplar, mountain silverbell, white ash, sugar maple, yellow birch, and black cherry. Rhododendrons and lady’s slippers are common flowering plants. You can see cove hardwood forests on the Cove Hardwood Nature Trail at the Chimney Tops picnic area, Alright Grove near the Cosby entrance, and along the Ramsay Cascades and Porters Flat trails near the Greenbrier entrance.
Pine and Oak Forest
Oak and pine trees predominate to about 3,000 feet on slopes and ridges that are dry, compared to other parts of the park. Other trees include hickories, yellow poplar, and flowering dogwood. This kind of forest also contains thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendrons. You will find pine and oak forests around Cades Cove and the Laurel Falls Nature Trail.
Eastern hemlock forests grow along streams and on slopes and ridges up to about 5,000 feet. Maple, birch, cherry, and yellow poplar trees are also found here. Rosebay rhododendrons proliferate along streams, while Catawba rhododendrons survive in heath balds and on exposed ridge tops. Hemlock forests are located along trails from Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail toward Grotto Falls, and Newfound Gap Road to Alum Cave Bluffs.
Northern Hardwood Forest
Yellow birch and American beech dominate this forest, occurring mostly above 4,500 feet. Maple, buckeye, and cherry trees are also in the mix. Shrubs include Catawba and rosebay rhododendrons, hydrangea, thornless blackberry, and hobblebush. Many flowering plants grow here: creeping bluets, trilliums, long-spurred violets, and trout lily. You can see northern hardwood forests at Newfound Gap and along Clingmans Dome Road.
Above 4,500 feet, you’ll find red spruce and the few remaining Fraser firs (90 percent succumbed to an insect infestation). The many coniferous trees may remind hikers of Maine or Quebec. Above 6,000 feet, yellow birch, pin cherry, American mountain ash, and mountain maple occasionally appear. Plants here include dingleberry, blackberries, blueberries, Carolina and Catawba rhododendrons, and ferns such as hay-scented, lady, and common polypody. Spruce-fir forests grow along the Appalachian Trail and the Spruce-Fir Nature Trail along Clingmans Dome Road.
A total of 65 mammals live in the Park. Some, such as the coyote and bobcat are reclusive while deer are very common and obvious. Besides deer, people most often see black bears, red and gray squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks, raccoons, opossums, red and gray foxes, skunks, and bats.
The wild European Boar causes widespread damage. Like other intrusive exotic species, the park seeks means to control the boar population. Mammals native to the area, but no longer living here, include bison, elk, gray wolves, and fishers. Reintroduction efforts brought back the red wolf and river otter.
A favorite resident of the Smokies is the black bear. Presently over 700 black bears live in the Smokies. These wild creatures feast on the many berries, nuts, insect larvae and animal carrion in the mountains. The park is actually one of the few remaining areas in the eastern United States where black bears can live in wild, natural surroundings. The Smokies Mountains are famous for the black bear population. Bear sightings usually begin in early March, but weather conditions can delay this. Newborns and mothers remain denned until May. Cubs remain with their mothers for a year and a half. Park officials warn visitors that tamed bears lose their natural fear of people, and that violent bears must be destroyed. Also, bears that become overly aggressive are moved into the backcountry, which is open to hunting. Tame bears make easy targets for hunters.
Although there is no one best place to see bears in the park, Cades Cove and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail are among the best spots to look. Bears are most active early in the morning and late in the evening. On the small chance of encountering an aggressive black bear, the best action is to make a lot of noise (a whistle works well) and slowly retreat. Only when between a mother and her cubs, or when dealing with hungry, human-fed bears, are they dangerous. Bears are excellent climbers, so climbing a tree is ineffective. Playing dead does not work either, since dead animals are part of the black bear’s diet. However, few dangerous bear situations occur.
Reptiles and Amphibians
The Park has been designated as an International Biosphere Reserve and has an international reputation for its variety and number of salamanders. The Smokies’ 27 species of salamanders make them the salamander capital of the world. Notable species include Jordan’s Salamander, one subspecies of which is found only in the Smokies, and the Hellbender, which can grow up to a whopping two and one-half feet long. Other amphibians such as frogs and toads thrive in the Great Smokies.
Reptiles include snakes, turtles and lizards. The only two poisonous species are the timber rattlesnake and northern copperhead. Neither have a lethal poison, and death from snakebite in the Smokies is extremely rare. Other common reptiles include the eastern box turtle, common snapping turtle, and southeastern five-lined skink.