Saturday, March 6, 2010

Natural Communities

Ed Schwartzman has an enviable job. He is conducting an inventory of the natural heritage areas of Macon County. A biologist with the state Natural Heritage Program (NCNHP), Schwartzman is examining and cataloging significant natural communities* throughout the county. He talked about the project at the recent native plants symposium at the NC Aboretum.

I’ve been familiar with this program for several years. An inventory for Jackson County was published in the 1990s and I always thought it provided a fresh perspective on special places. From that report, I learned that the boulderfields of Steestachee Bald are home to rare animals like the Appalachian Bewick’s Wren and the Long-Tailed Shrew. I also learned that Dulany Bog is a rare example of the Southern Appalachian bog and that the threatened species Helonias bullata or swamp pink grows there.

In his presentation on Macon County, Schwartzman began by describing the geologic zones of the county. The varied geology influences the development of varied plant communities. The granite dome outcrops on the Highlands Plateau host many endemic plant species such as the Blue Ridge St. John’s Wort. On the opposite end of the county, an entirely different mix of plants is found in the White Oak Bottoms near the headwaters of the Nantahala. The Bottoms is one of the largest bogs in the area and dated at 13,000 years old.

Central to the inventory process is classifying sites by natural community categories. This was a stumbling block to my comprehension of the Jackson County inventory when I picked it up several years ago. Montane Oak-Hickory Forest? High Elevation Red Oak Forest? Rich Cove Forest?

Fortunately, a helpful reference is available online from the NCNHP, “The Natural Communities of North Carolina.” Studying this document, I recognize a key to looking at wildflowers as part of a larger whole.

Another book that will likely be more practical for my own outdoor rambles is L. L. Gaddy’s, “A Naturalist’s Guide to the Southern Blue Front.” This guide identifies the natural communities, and some of the characteristic or notable plants found therein, along the Blue Ridge Escarpment from Linville Gorge, NC to Tallulah Gorge, GA. In his discussion of the East Fork of the Chattooga, for instance, Gaddy alerts the reader to the presence of these natural communities:

Acidic Cliff
Canada Hemlock Forest
Rich Cove Forest
Spray Cliff
White Pine Forest

Investing some time in the study of natural communities might help me see things I would otherwise overlook. If so, it'll be well worth it.

For starters, I wish I could identify the natural community outside my window, but I can’t…yet.

I still have a lot to learn.

Ed Schwartzman 's inventory of Macon County's natural heritage is expected to take two years and when his report is finished it will be incorporated into a national database of natural heritage information at

*Natural Community = A distinct and reoccurring assemblage of populations of plants, animals, bacteria, fungi, and viruses naturally associated with each other and their physical environment.

Spring 2009 wildflower photos (from top):
Dicentra cucullaria
Viola pedata
Uvularia sessilifolia

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It was interesting to read the PDF on Natural Communities. I saw with pleasure that my old ecology prof, Dr. Bob Peet was cited several times.

I had an interest in serpentine barrens (Ultramafic outcrops, in this document) and their rare flora.

Thanks for this