Bluestone National Scenic River, New River Gorge National River, and Gauley River National Recreation Area lie at the core of the globally significant Appalachian forest, and New River Gorge contains the most diverse flora of any river gorge in central and southern Appalachia. Besides providing essential habitat for endangered mammals, rare birds and amphibians, these river gorges support a tremendous diversity of plant species.
The reason for this great diversity of plants stems from the varied topography of the gorges, the northeasterly flow of the Bluestone River that provides a pathway for southern plants to migrate and grow on the lower elevation riverbanks, and the fact that West Virginia was spared from glacial activity, thereby providing a refuge for more northern plant species in the areas higher elevations.
Biologists classify the forest of the gorge as mixed mesophytic, a forest that generally receives a moderate amount of moisture. This classification can also be broken down into types of forest communities.
All plant and animal species coexist and interact in communities. The communities in the gorge are divided by differences in moisture levels and types of soil, the effects of elevation and direction of slope, and the presence of certain indicator species that are usually common to a specific community.
Of the six forest communities commonly found in the southern Appalachians, five can be found in our three parks. Sunny, dryer, southern facing slopes support a mainly oak-hickory forest. Cool, damp northern exposures are home to hardwood forests of beech and maple, with an abundance of eastern hemlock. River bottoms and flood plains support a northern riverine type forest of sycamore and river birch. Fire prone areas and ridgelines with thin rocky soil are usually covered with scrub pine and oak forests. Appalachian cove forests in sheltered valleys with rich, thick soils and tall tulip poplars and basswoods, are exceptionally rich in plant and animal diversity. The only southern Appalachian forest community you won’t find in our parks is the boreal forest of spruce and fir, which is found only at elevations above 5000 feet.
These forest communities seldom have distinct boundaries and they are not limited to the indicator species, but the general habitat patterns they describe are very helpful in the study of not only the plants but all the life of the forest.