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A Bit of Canada Stranded in the Smokies

Vegetation to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is what granite domes and waterfalls are to Yosemite, geysers are to Yellowstone, and sculptured pinnacles are to Bryce Canyon National Park. There being no timberline in the southern Appalachian Mountains plants are practically everywhere; in this regard the Great Smokies have an appearance quite unlike the higher ranges of the Far West where great expanses of barren, or mostly barren, rock are characteristic. The low-altitude clearings made by white man during the 19th and early 20th centuries are rapidly reverting to forest. For this reason, more than 95 percent of the park's 800 square miles is now dominated by forests. Since almost 40 percent of the forests is essentially unaltered, this represents probably the finest wilderness area in the eastern half of the United States. More than 1,300 kinds of flowering plants, almost 350 mosses and liverworts, 230 lichens, and more than 2,000 fungi have been found here.

At high altitudes, forests of red spruce represent the Canadian zone at its southernmost limit in the Eastern United States.

Geologists tell us that the Great Smokies remained above the influence of ancient inland seas which covered vast areas of our country hundreds of millions of years ago. Neither were they directly affected by the Pleistocene icefields which extended southward to southern Ohio. While the continental glaciers made life intolerable wherever they penetrated, the Great Smoky Mountains served as a haven for Canadian-zone flora and fauna. In a sense these plants and animals waited out the great freeze for generation after generation until, finally, the climate began to moderate, the glaciers began to melt, and living things began to repopulate what had been an ice-fettered land. But while some migrated north in the wake of the retreating ice, others were left stranded in these higher ranges of the southern Appalachians, inching their way to higher and higher ground as the warming cycle continued. And such is the trend which has continued down to our time. Present-day man is living out his time in a warming interval which appears destined to continue its inroads upon the icefields of northern North America while it shrinks the glaciers remaining in the highest Sierras and in the Rockies and while it whittles away at the lower fringes of the dwindling spruce-fir forests in the Smokies. Essentially the uplands of the Great Smokies are a kind of Canadian island left stranded in the sky by climatic changes.

Cones of the Fraser fir disintegrate on the branches when mature. However, they are frequently harvested, when green, by the red squirrels. No other tree in the park has upright cones.

A warming cycle tends to reduce slowly the extent of the Canadian-zone forests of the southern Appalachian Mountains. But mankind has accelerated the pace a thousandfold so that now only about one-tenth of the original stand of spruce remains. (See "Selected Bibliography," Korstian, 1937.) Fortunately, an excellent representation crowns the highest peaks of the park, where it has permanent sanctuary. Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Cherokee, N.C., are communities located on the north-central and south-central boundaries of the park, respectively. A motorist starting at either of these communities can be in a Canadian environment in 30 minutes, not only as far as the vegetation is concerned but also from the standpoint of the dominant birds and mammals. Even many of the insects are identical with, or closely related to, northern forms.

The Fraser fir, or "balsam," which comprises the bulk of the Great Smokies' forests on mountains exceeding 6,000 feet, appears very similar to the balsam fir of northern New England and Canada. Botanically, the two species are distinct. The Fraser fir is readily distinguished from the red spruce, which often grows associated with it, by its upright cones and by the blunt aromatic needles which are green above and lined with gray below. A scattering of blisters is evident in the bark of many of these trees. The red spruce grows to greater height and diameter; its cones are pendant, the sharp-pointed needles are the same shade of green above and below, and bark blisters are never present.

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Last Modified: Sat, Nov 4 2006 10:00:00 pm PST

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