Plants and Wildlife of the Smoky Mountains

The amazing diversity of plant growth and wildlife in the Great Smoky Mountains is higher than almost any other place in the world.  Plant and wildlife diversity is one of the most important aspects of the Smoky Mountains National Park.  There are over eight hundred square miles in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, and other area of similar size with comparable weather patterns cannot come close to matching the park’s astounding variety of plants and animals.  There are over twelve thousand species that have been found to be living in the park.  Scientists believe there could be an additional ninety thousand species living there!  


The primary reasons for the National Park’s amazing diversity are the mountains, glaciers, and weather patterns.  Elevations within the park go from just around 875 feet to 6,643 feet!  This is similar to the horizontal distance you’d experience if you drove across the north or south of the eastern United States:  all the way from Georgia to Canada, in other words.  This means that plants and animals that live in the southern United States can therefore live fruitfully in the lower elevations of the Smokies, while animals and plants that live in the northern United States can thrive in the higher areas.  This makes for quite a lot of different plant and animal species because of the habitat changes you find when you go up or down these great mountains.


Black Cherry BlossomsThe Great Smoky Mountains are some of the oldest mountains in the entire world, formed somewhere between two hundred and three hundred million years ago!  They especially individual in their southwest to northeast direction, which allowed different animal species to travel along the slopes during different climatic changes.  One example of this is the last ice age, which occurred around ten thousand years ago.  A little known fact is that during the last ice age, the glaciers affected the Smoky Mountains while not invading them.  It was during that time that glaciers covered most of North America, however they did not reach quite as far south as the Smoky Mountains.  Because of this, the mountains became a safe habitat for many of the different plants and animals who had lost their northern homes to the ice.  The Smokies have not been bothered by glaciers for over a million years.  This has allowed species a lot of time to become diversified!


The Smoky Mountains National Park has an abundance of rainfall, close to fifty five inches in the valleys and near eighty five inches on some of the peaks.  This means that the summertime humidity in the high areas allows for excellent growing conditions for the different plants that grow there.  During the years where the weather is wetter, over eight feet of rain can fall in the higher parts of the mountains.  During the growing season, this relative humidity found in the national park is just about twice that of the rocky mountain region.


There are over one hundred different species of trees that can be found in the Smokies; more than any other northern national park.  Over ninety five percent of the park is covered in forests, and twenty five percent of that area is old-growth forest.  This means it is one of the largest blocks of old-growth forests that exists in North America.  Over fifteen hundred additional plant species have been recognized in the national park.  The park is home to a diverse group of lungless salamanders, and home to over two hundred species of birds, sixty six types of mammals, fifty native fish species, thirty nine varieties of reptiles, and forty three species of amphibians.  Mushrooms, mollusks, and millipedes are the highest record diverse species here.


In honor of the park’s unique habitat resources, the United Nations has awarded the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with being an International Biosphere Reserve.
Plant Life:


The Great Smoky Mountain’s variety of flowering plants and trees makes this a beautiful, and very colorful spring, summer, and autumn.  The springs colorful start begins in the low valleys in the middle or end of March and slowly makes it’s way up to the peaks throughout July.  In mid-September, the leaves on the peaks begin to change, slowly working back down to the valleys.  This makes autumn an especially beautiful time of year as the lush greens begin to change their colors, becoming a myriad of red, golds, and yellows.  Plenty of people decide to have their weddings in the Great Smoky Mountains during the fall because of just this.  It makes for amazing photographs, a beautiful backdrop, and memories that you’ll never forget.  


Flowers:
The bloodroot plant (Sanguinaria canadensis) gets it’s name from it’s stem. This is because the Native Americans used it to make red dye.  It is a member of the poppy family.  The bloodroot’s flowers are white with a gold center.  You can find it growing along streams in heavily wooded areas.


The plant Bluet (Houstonia caerulea) blooms from April to June in the meadows and on the grassy slopes in the national park.  It’s blossom has a yellow center and is a pale blue. It is about a half inch in diameter.


The dutchman’s britches white flower shape reminds a lot of people of a pair of pants that are hung out on a line to dry.  The leafless stalk comes over the bluish, distinctly dissected leaves.  The leaves stand up right.


Trees:
The black cherry (Prunus serotina) is the largest local cherry.  It grows up to sixty feet tall! In the spring time, it has white blossoms.   In the fall, the leaves turn red and yellow.
Black locusts (Robinia pseudo acacia) are known to grow mostly in the southern Appalachian Mountains.  They have irregular, forking trunks that make them quite a sight to behold.  Their white flowers have a pleasant aroma and typically bloom late in the spring time.  The fruit is brown, flat pods.  This fruit appears first in the fall, and then splits open when wintertime comes.

 

The mountain laurel (kalmia latinfolia) is a fairly normal evergreen shrub which grows along the East Coast from Maine to Florida.  It then goes west towards Louisiana.  It has small, pink and white flowers that bloom in the spring in groups of pointed buds.  It’s leaves are narrow and long.


Umbrella magnolias (Magnolia tripetala) mostly grow within the restricted areas, and are usually seen in the mountainous valleys of the Great Smoky Mountains.  Botanists have a theory that the magnolias were the first plants to produce seeds within a ovary that is protected – more than seventy million years ago!

 

Wildlife:

Of all the different animals that live within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most popular amongst wildlife enthusiasts are the glorious black bears that live within the park.  There are approximately 1600 of these majestic creatures that are known to reside within the park’s boundaries.  They range anywhere from two hundred pounds to four hundred pounds in weight.  The black bears within the park are all black in color, though in the rest of the United States, you can find some that are brown and cinnamon colored.


Interestingly enough, bears are actually not real hibernators, despite what most people believe.  This is because they are not completely dormant in the winter and they can be woken up.  Usually sometime in November or December, depending on the weather, they will enter a deep sleep.  They usually find a boulder cave or a tree hollow to make their home for these cold months. In January or February, a mother black bear will give birth to her cubs.  She can give birth to anywhere from one to four cubs, all while staying asleep.  These tiny cubs are only seven to twelve ounces in weight! Quite small compared to their dozing mothers! They are born with their eyes closed and must rely on their sense of smell to find their mother’s milk.  Sometime during March, a mother bear will awaken to find spring and her new babes.
Black bears are very powerful creatures because of their size, and they are also highly intelligent creatures. They tend to feed on berries, seeds, acorns, nuts, and insects.  One of their strongest senses is that of smell.  They are also good at recognizing colors and different shapes.  Unfortunately, their keen sense of smell can often lead them into trouble when they begin searching out unnatural foods in the developed areas.  They are trying to find the human food they can smell so well.  Black bears have been known to attempt to open car doors in attempt to get things they believe are food. It often isn’t.  For example, a tube of tennis balls might be mistaken for a tube of chips. Suntan lotion might smell like some kind of coconut crème pie.  It is very important to be careful when you bring in your canned food and objects that are shaped like ice chests.  Bears cannot read the label on a can of food, but they know that food often comes in cans.


It is very important that you do not leave human food laying around for black bears to find.  While they are intelligent, they are also highly curious and will go to great lengths to find human food.  Unfortunately, black bears are not meant to eat human food, and this can greatly shorten their lifespan.  A normal black bear will live about fifteen years.  However, once they have been ‘touched by human hand’, their life expectancy drops down to seven years.  Bear safety is also an important thing to learn about.  You can look up tips on the Internet to find out what you should do if you run into one of these creatures, and you can also ask a park ranger or any other employee for information.
The red fox is another popular animal within the Great Smoky Mountains.  They are about as big as a dog, and almost always reddish in color (though they do have white under parts, chin, and throats).  They are very shy creatures and will tend to avoid human contact.  On top of this, they are usually nocturnal.  These two combined things make the red fox an exceptionally difficult animal to find in the park, despite how many of them there are.  A fox will eat almost anything it comes across, including birds, crickets, corn, and apples.  It usually picks a den that is in high areas so it can have a good view of it’s surroundings.


White tailed deer are very common in the national park.  There is an estimated six thousand that reside in the park at any given time, though the population can change very quickly.  They are present in most of the United States as well, but are extremely popular within the national park.  They are usually spotted in areas where there is open fields such as Cades Cove.  In the summer, they are typically tan and reddish-brown.  In the winter, they change to a grayish-brown.  Over-population in local areas can cause widespread starvation and disease.  Fortunately, their predators, such as bears, coyotes, and bobcats are very helpful in keeping the population under control, preventing a lot of the issues that arise from overpopulation.


Muskrats are usually active during the night hours.  They live along the park’s streams in huge dens.  These are constructed of plants, mud, and roots.  They also build their own dining platforms on an assortment of vegetation, including but not limited to cattails and water lilies.


The Southern Flying Squirrel is the smallest of all tree squirrels.  Like the muskrats, they are most commonly nocturnal animals.  Spotting one is a challenge that not many people can say that they’ve completed.  The tree squirrel does not actually fly, but it does glide. It has wide sections of skin on it’s side, which is used to float down, similar to how a parachute works.  It has a white belly and grayish-brown fur.  

 

There are many more plants, and wildlife located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  This includes several types of birds, including the northern flicker, and the red-eyed vireo.  There are amphibians as well:  Jordan’s Salamander, and the Northern Spring Peeper are amongst the most popular.  


Come to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to observe this bountiful nature and gorgeous creatures for yourself.  Just make sure you bring a camera so you can capture any rare moments you might have.