The Succession of Trees
The Tennessee/North Carolina Appalachians are renowned for their diverse tree population, and our trek took us from 4470 feet at Unicoi Gap to the Citico Creek Campground #14 elevation of 1720, providing an altitude-inflected arboretum. Different areas were logged off over the years, so at the higher elevations most were younger than in the lower areas, but of course we benefitted from hiking on old logging roads and a rapidly disappearing railroad grade.
There were the constants– rhododendron forming the familiar Appalachian green tunnel and, at least in these forests, a preponderance of maples. Early we hiked amongst those maples, a few poplars, several species of birch, and what looked like a buckeye tree (though I could only find one rotten buckeye on the ground). What stopped everyone in their tracks were the monumental dead hemlocks. The Wooly Adelgid is rapidly decimating the hemlock population in the area, leaving behind standing dead trunks that still loom ghostly over the surrounding forest.
Descending further down were fewer dead hemlocks, along with a number of smaller live ones, the occasional hickory, very large maples, and finally a few oaks (they were noticeably absent higher up). Soon the tulip poplars started to dominate, and around the base camp were the largest in the forest. Turning from the largest to the smallest, there were a variety of club mosses including one which was nearly six inches high, and a lot of stubby Sassafras trees. Located only in our camp was a specimen of the nearly extinct Owl tree (see picture), and just down from the base was another campsite located in a grove of mature beeches–the light, filtered through the leaves, was the greenest of green.