Tips & Facts
"Here in the forests of the Blue Ridge, where well over a hundred kinds of native
deciduous trees ar to be found, the spectacle challenges descritpion; the
writer feels humbled and g ropes for words." Naturalist Arthur Stupka in
"The Great Smokies and the Blue Ridge" (1943)
American Beech: Occurs at all elevations. Enter an
extended beech and you immediately sense that
you've penetrated a special zone. It's a world of lover's initials carved into thin
gray bark and dangling wind chimes.
The tree is easily identified in winter due to its tendency to retain dried leaves
instead of immediately dropping them in the fall. Oak trees, which are in the
same family, also maintain their leaves. but whereas oaks usually display thick
brown leaves that rustle dully in the wind, beech leaves form thin, almost
translucent tan curls. When these catch a breeze it seems as if the woods are
hung with tiny wind chimes.
Blackgum: A common tree of low and middle
elevations. Its fall foliage
displays an eye-catching blood-red hue that can be spotted from great
The species was never used as a timber tree by early white settlers since its
fibers are both inter-braided and cross-woven; however, it did produce
wonderful shock-absorbing maul handles.
Sugar Maple: A common forest tree in rich soils at low and middle
elevations. In fall the exuberant red, orange and yellow hues of this species at
once outdo and unify the colors produced by all the other trees.
The Sugarlands Visitor Center on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky
Mountains National Park is so-named because of the large sugar maples that
grew in that vicinity during pre-park days. These trees and others throughout
the southern mountains were tapped for their sweet sap in late winter. A
single tree could yield 20 gallons of sap per year, enough to produce a
half-gallon or more of maple syrup.
Red Maple: An abundant tree throughout the lower and middle elevations
and fairly common up to 6,000 feet. Early white settlers made spinning wheels
from the wood and obtained a black dye from the rootstock.
Red and sugar maples can be easily distinguished by their leaves. Red maple
leaves have V-shaped notches between their upper lobes, and leaf edges that
have coarse teeth. Sugar maple leaves have U-shaped notches and smooth
Sweetgum: Fairly common along streams and in moist areas in the lower
elevations. The branches of mature sweetgum trees often display prominent
The star-shaped leaves of this species are among the last to display their
lovely fall colors, which can range from purple to red to yellow on the same
tree. the Cherokees once manufactured a sort of chewing gum from the sap.
Sourwood: Abundant in the lower and middle elevations. Its showy flower
tassels decorate mountainsides from late June through July, at which time they
attract bees that produce the famous honey named for this tree. For this
reason the early white settlers avoided cutting the tree.
Most mature sourwood trees have a natural bend in their trunks about
two-thirds of the way above ground level. Noting this characteristic, settlers
sectioned the trees to make ready-made runners for their sleds.
Tulip Poplar: One of the most abundant trees at elevations below 4,000 feet.
Anyone observing the shape of its showy green and orange flowers would
properly conclude that the common name is misleading - this tree is a member
of the magnolia family.
Like tallow flowing down the sides of a candle, the yellow leaf colors of this
species can inundate entire mountain slopes in autumn. The tall arrow-straight
trunks were easily converted into cabins, barns and outbuildings by the early
Flowering Dogwood: Called "America's best-loved flowering tree," it is
of the most abundant small trees below 3,000 feet. The fall leaf colors usually
range from red to maroon, but yellow pigments will also be observed on
The exceptionally hard wood was used by the early white settlers for cogs,
shuttles, hubs, hoops and horse collars. Unfortunately, a recently-introduced
fungus (dogwood anthracnose) has spread throughout the southern mountains
and is killing numerous trees. Check with your local agricultural extension
service agent for possible remedies.
Black Cherry: A large forest tree that is fairly common up to about 5,300
feet. Leaf colors range from yellow to red. The species has traditionally been
one of the most valuable to loggers. The black fruits that appear in late
summer are favored by various birds.
Sassafras: Very common in the lower and middle elevations, especially in
disturbed areas like old fields. The leaves are usually yellowish or sometimes
Sassafras tea can be made from the bark or rootstock. The leaves of this
species are among the most distinctive in our region. A single branch can
display four leaf patterns: un-lobed, three-lobed and lobes that resemble
right-handed and left-handed mittens.
Slippery Elm: An uncommon tree found mostly in the lower elevations. Along
with American elm and winged elm, it is one of the elm species found in the
southern mountains. Winged and slippery elms are only infrequently killed by
the Dutch elm disease that felled so many American elms earlier in this
century. The leaves are usually pale yellow. The inner bark contains large quantities of
a sticky slime once used for fevers and inflammations.
Chestnut Oak: Common in rocky soils in the lower and middle elevations.
Pure stands are sometimes encountered on dry ridges.
The leaves are usually yellowish but can sometimes be reddish before turning
brown due to tannins. The tree is so-named because its scalloped-edged
leaves superficially resemble the sharp-pointed leaves of the unrelated
Scarlet Oak: Common below 3,500 feet. It is one of about 12 oak species
found in our immediate region. The brilliant glossy-red leaves of this species
make this the most attractive oak species in autumn.
The acorns of this species (favored by deer, squirrels, turkeys, grouse, black
bears and numerous bird species, especially blue jays) do not mature until the
end of the second growing season. A year of heavy acorn production usually
is followed by several years of light production.