Vegetation Types in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park's natural features and gradients provide a vast array of living conditions for thousands of organisms to thrive, including hundreds of native plant species.

Plants that require similar living conditions form vegetation communities with certain species dominating the overstory, understory, and forest floor. These unique communities provide critical habitat for other organisms with specific food and shelter requirements. Insects, birds, mammals, and fungi have evolved to use different plant parts such as leaves, roots, bark, wood, nectar, fruit, and seeds.

Other forest ecosystem functions include storing carbon, nutrient cycling, purifying air and water, mitigating floods and erosion, and cultivating biodiversity. Visitors may experience these benefits in addition to the aesthetic, educational, and recreational aspects of the Smokies' forests.
 
Distribution of vegetation communities across aspect and elevation in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
This infographic illustrates the distribution of ten major plant communities in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The location of plant communities are driven in large part by elevation (feet above sea-level) and aspect (north- or south-facing). NPS image.
Eight major forest types cover 96% of the park's area:
  • Spruce-fir forest
  • Northern hardwood forest
  • Cove hardwood forest
  • Hemlock forest
  • Oak-hickory forest
  • Pine-oak forest
  • Montane alluvial forest
  • Successional forest

The remaining 4% largely consists of historically cultivated meadows, exposed rock outcrops, and two unique communities: heath balds (shrublands) and grassy balds.
 
Vegetation communities are characterized in terms of geographic distribution and plant species composition. Park scientists have mapped these communities, assessed their biodiversity, and set up long-term forest monitoring plots to study changes over time. Forest research helps inform park management decisions as forests continue to evolve.

Use the interactive story map below to explore Smokies' vegetation types and learn more about their distributions, common species, descriptions, stressors, and park efforts to maintain these valuable plant communities.
 

Last updated: May 18, 2021

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