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Posts Tagged ‘red spruce’

Morning view form the Pisgah Inn

This past weekend, Eric and I took a few days off and drove down the Blue Ridge Parkway all the way to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’ve always wanted to do this because I’d never been to the Smokies, well at least not to the national park. It was spectacular, to say the least.

The observation tower on top of Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The observation tower on top of Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

On Saturday, we drove up Clingmans Dome (6,643 ft), the 3rd highest mountain east of the Mississippi River, surpassed only by Mount Mitchell (the highest at 6,684 ft) and Mount Craig (6,647 ft). There is a parking lot 300 ft from the summit of the mountain and from there you can hike to the top of the mountain where there is an observation tower that gets you even higher and provides a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. Wow!

As is typical, our view from the top was partially obscured by the haze that plagues the mountaintops of the Smokies. This is not the mist that originally gave the Smoky Mountains their name. According to a sign at the Clingmans Dome Information Center, visibility at the park has decreased 60% over the past 40 years and 90% of the decease is due to air pollution, mainly from sulfates given off by the burning of coal for heating and electricity. But that’s another story …

A hazy view from the top of Clingmans Dome

A hazy view from the top of Clingmans Dome

At this elevation, the forest is composed mostly of short-needled evergreens. This unique ecosystem, the Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest, is now limited to the highest mountaintops (above 5,500 ft) of the Southern Appalachian range. The forest, a relict of the last Ice Age, is dominated by red spruce and Fraser fir. During the Pleistocene when much of North America was covered by ice, this spruce-fir forest was widespread in the Southeastern United States. As temperatures warmed, these trees disappeared from the lower elevations and the high mountaintops of the Southern Appalachian chain became refugia for this forest ecosystem where small island populations of the spruce-fir forest have survived.

Dead Fraser firs stand amongst healthy young fir trees not yet attacked by the balsam woolly adelgid.

Dead Fraser firs stand among healthy young fir trees not yet attacked by the balsam woolly adelgid.

Unfortunately, over the last 50 years about 95% of the mature Fraser firs in the southern spruce-fir forest have been killed by the balsam woolly adelgid (Adelges piceae), a small insect that was accidentally introduced from Europe in the early 1900’s. This pest initially decimated populations of balsam fir in the Northern Appalachians and has since moved south to the Smokies. As we drove down the parkway, we had noticed lots of dead fir trees scattered along the ridges but up on Clingmans Dome, the devastation was extensive. Because the adelgids don’t usually attack the trees until they are about 15-20 years old, there are many young firs growing below the dead trees. Sadly, these will undoubtedly become infested once they get older.

Woolly adelgids on the branch of a young hemlock.

Hemlock woolly adelgids on a hemlock branch.

The balsam woolly adelgid is related to the hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae) which has been devastating populations of hemlocks throughout much of eastern North America including the northern part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The hemlock woolly adelgid has recently been discovered in the Smoky Mountains and now the beautiful hemlocks which grow at the lower elevations in the park are threatened.

A fir graveyard

A “fir graveyard” on Clingmans Dome

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The problem with these and other non-native pests is that the trees and plants that they attack have no natural defenses against them. The balsam woolly adelgid has attacked and killed the majority of the mature Fraser firs in the Southern Appalachians and most of those that remain are infested and will soon succumb to this pest. It’s very sad. Clingmans Dome looks like a Fraser fir graveyard with just the graying skeletons of these once magnificent firs still standing.

The beautiful red spruce trees which grow along side the Fraser firs in this forest ecosystem, though not attacked by the balsam woolly adelgid, are indirectly affected by the loss of these trees. Without the protection of the sturdier firs, the red spruce are more prone to wind damage and blowdowns.

An nearby mountaintop is covered with dead Fraser firs

An nearby mountaintop is covered with dead Fraser firs

On top of all this, air pollution in the Southern Appalachians which leads to the formation of acid rain and acid mist is thought to be slowing the growth rate and weakening the red spruce and remaining Fraser firs leaving them more susceptible to disease and insect damage.

Research is ongoing to try to determine ways to save these last remaining populations of the southern spruce-fir forest and perhaps over time, the trees will develop their own defenses against the adelgids and the effects of pollution.

For now, it’s nice to be able to enjoy these beautiful mountains and we plan to return in the late spring when the rhododendrons are in bloom. That should be spectacular!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

Morning view from the balcony of our room at the Pisgah Inn. Heavenly!

Morning mist over the Blue Ridge from our balcony at the Pisgah Inn. Heavenly!

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