A trip through Big South Fork country reveals a rich landscape of plants of all imaginable colors, textures, form, and function. The area’s woodlands, cliff lines, stream sides, and other habitats harbor a tremendous richness of plant species. The Big South Fork area is part of the greater southern Appalachian region, which is widely known as one of the most biologically diverse temperate forest regions in the world. While plants in Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area bear many similarities to other parts of the southern Appalachians, such as the Great Smoky Mountains, the combination of habitats and plants that occur at Big South Fork distinguish it as a special place to explore and protect. At the heart of this landscape lies the Big South Fork gorge; a forty-mile rift through the northern Cumberland Plateau. It is this gorge and the processes that helped form it over thousands of years that are, in part, responsible for the area’s unique plant assemblage.
Despite its diversity and beauty, the forests in Big South Fork differ strongly in appearance from those that existed prior to European colonization. There are few examples of forest or other plant communities that have not been, in some way, modified by humans. Timber harvesting, agriculture, coal mining, oil and gas extraction, fire, grazing, exotic forest diseases, recreational activities, and invasive non-native plants have all shaped or continue to shape the plant communities within Big South Fork. Many forests in the park are still young and recovering from heavy timber harvesting and other disturbances. Few examples of old-growth trees are evident.
Big South Fork can be divided into two broad vegetation zones: (1) the area within the gorge and (2) the upland area that surrounds the gorge. Both of these zones are almost entirely forested, but each zone also includes smaller areas of non-forested habitats.