Rich cove forest

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Distinguishing Features

You can recognize rich cove forest by its diverse mixture of moisture-loving trees and lush, species-rich herbaceous layer. Acidic cove forest, which occurs on similar sites, but with more acidic soils, has fewer tree species, a dense heath shrub layer, and a relatively sparse herbaceous layer.


In narrow valleys, broad ravines, and concave slopes where the soil is rich, the climate mild, and rainfall abundant, one of the most species-rich communities in eastern North America occurs. Rich cove forest occurs at low to moderate elevations where adjacent slopes and a dense canopy of tall, mostly deciduous trees moderate temperature and wind and intercept the sun so that deep shade is present much of the year. The terrain is often rugged with steep slopes, fallen logs, and scattered boulders. The deep, dark soils of this forest are generally more nutrient-rich and less acidic than surrounding areas, due to the presence of base-rich rocks (such as amphibolite, marble, and limestone) that release calcium (or magnesium) into the soil as they weather. A fertile, generally circumneutral (less acidic) soil, coupled with a favorable climate, results in conditions that favor an unusually rich diversity of plants. Within a single stride, one can encounter a dozen dif ferent species of spring wildflowers, while thousands of herbaceous plants may occupy a single two-acre patch of forest. No other community in eastern North America has so many kinds of trees coupled with such a lush and species-rich herbaceous layer.


A variety of trees form a dense canopy of overlapping crowns that deeply shade the forest floor, much like a dense tropical forest. Rooted in moist, fertile soils, the canopy trees grow faster, taller, and wider than in most other forests. Among the most common canopy species are tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), white basswood (Tilia americana), yellow buckeye (Aesculusflava), and sugar maple (Acer saccharum). Other canopy species include white ash (Fraxinus americana), sweet birch (Betula lenta), cucumber tree (Magnolia acuminata), and yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea). The usually open understory consists of smaller individuals of the canopy species as well as typical subcanopy trees such as Carolina silverbell (Halesia tetraptera), Fraser magnolia (Magnolia fraseri), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana), striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum), and pawpaw (Asimina triloba). A generally sparse shrub layer includes species such as sweet shrub (Calycanthus floridus), spicebush (Lindera benzoin), and wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens). The herbaceous layer is particularly striking in that it's both species-rich and dense, often forming a continuous carpet of lush vegetation on the forest floor. Among the many conspicuous species are black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), acute-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), mayapple (Podophyllumpeltatum), Solomon's seal (Polygonatum biflorum), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), meadowrue (Thalictrum thalictroi-des), and various trilliums (Trillium spp.). By midsummer, wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) is readily apparent both visually and to the touch (due to its stinging hairs). The abundance and diversity of herbaceous plants is often greatest on lower slopes, benches, and coves where soil nutrients, organic matter, and moisture accumulate in a downslope movement to form a rich, compost-like soil.

Seasonal Aspects

Among the many trees found in rich cove forests are spring-flowering species such as yellow buckeye, tulip tree, cucumber tree, Carolina silverbell, white basswood, and yellowwood. Yellow buckeye is one of the first trees to leaf out and flower in early spring—its clusters of yellow tubular flowers are frequently visited by bumblebees, but hummingbirds also occasionally visit and pollinate the nectar-rich flowers. The greenish yellow tulip-shaped flowers of tulip tree, as well as the fragrant greenish yellow cup-shaped flowers of cucumber tree, often go unnoticed, as they blend in with the foliage up in the canopy. Carolina silverbell is a common understory tree whose nodding white bell-shaped flowers hang in conspicuous clusters from leafless branches in early spring. Yellowwood, a relatively rare small to medium-sized tree produces hanging clusters of white pea-like flowers in spring that develop into flat seedpods in summer. Day-flying bees and night-flying moths pollinate white basswood's yellowish green flowers, which hang from distinctive leaf-like bracts in late spring.

Three common spring-flowering shrubs are spicebush, pawpaw, and sweet shrub. Spicebush produces round clusters of tiny yellow flowers on leafless plants in late winter and early spring. The nodding purple flowers of pawpaw also emerge before the leaves in early spring. Sweet shrub's upright maroon flowers occur on leafy stems through much of spring, producing a spicy fragrance that attracts small beetles.

An amazing diversity of spring-flowering herbaceous plants covers the forest floor early in the growing season. Bloodroot's large white solitary flower with numerous golden anthers emerges above a single large leaf in early spring, whereas the solitary white flower of mayapple lies partially hidden beneath its paired umbrella-like leaves. Various trilliums bloom in early spring, including the large, white, funnel-shaped flowers of large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), which turn pink with age. Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) produces a dense raceme of white flowers with abundant orange (rather than yellow) pollen held well above its maple-like basal leaves. Blue cohosh, a smooth upright plant with large compound leaves, produces clusters of small yellowish green to purple-green flowers that form dark blue berry-like seeds. Showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis) has 2 large, fleshy basal leaves and a single stout flower stalk with showy pink to lavender flowers. In late spring, the creamy white bell-shaped flowers of Solomon's seal hang below its leaves on long, arching stems. The most common violet in cove forests is probably Canada violet (Viola canadensis)—its upright leafy stems produce white flowers with a yellow center from spring through early summer (and sporadically in the fall). From late spring through summer, black cohosh produces tassel-like flowers on tall stalks whose fetid odor attracts carrion flies and beetles that function as pollinators. The small white flowers of ramps (Allium tricoccum) bloom in round clusters early in the summer, long after its large flat leaves, with a strong onion odor, have withered away.

The high diversity of plants that characterize this community provides a rich palette of leaf colors in autumn. A rich array of fleshy fruits appearing from summer through fall adds additional color and provides an important food source for numerous birds and mammals. Examples include the bright red fruits of flowering dogwood, spicebush, and jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum); the dark blue to black fruits of Solomon's seal, speckled wood lily (Clintonia umbellulata), and black cherry (Prunus serotina); the white waxy berries of doll's eyes (Actaea pachypoda); and the large green to brown pod-like fruits of sweet shrub, Carolina silverbell, and yellow buckeye.


Rich cove forest is fairly widespread in the mountains at low to middle elevations and occurs sporadically in the upper piedmont.


Small openings in the canopy of rich cove forest play an important role in forest regeneration and maintaining diversity, particularly in the tree and herbaceous layers. These canopy gaps are primarily due to high winds, the frailty of trees in old age, and other natural causes toppling individual trees. Though common in forests on upper slopes and ridges, fires occur infrequently in cove forests, due to moist conditions. Areas that have been logged tend to have a greater abundance of shade-intolerant trees (such as tulip tree and black locust), a higher density of shrubs, and a less abundant and diverse herbaceous layer.

American ginseng. The roots of American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) have been dug up and exported to Asia for nearly 300 years. In the nineteenth century, an average of 381,000 lbs. of wild ginseng roots were exported each year from the United States. By the late twentieth century, exports dropped to an average of 121,000 lbs. per year. In 2003, about 75,000 lbs. of ginseng roots were harvested from wild populations and exported to Asia. Based on an average of 330 field-collected plants per pound of ginseng roots (dry weight), it can be estimated that almost 25 million plants were harvested in 2003 alone. With wild plants becoming scarce, less than 4 percent of exported American ginseng currently comes from wild-collected roots. Demand for wild roots remains high, however, as Asians prefer wild roots over cultivated ones. This preference is reflected in ginseng prices: $250-$500 per lb. for wild roots versus less than $20 per lb. for cultivated roots. At the time of this writing, collecting wild American ginseng in National Forests of Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Georgia was legal (in designated areas, with a permit). This could change if ginseng populations continue to decline. Within the National Park System, harvesting of all native plants is prohibited, but poaching of ginseng and other medicinal plants continues to be a serious problem.

Conservation Aspects

Rich cove forest can be thought of as a living museum of an extremely old association of plants, animals, and microbes. Sheltered from winds, temperature extremes, and major environmental changes (such as glaciation and ocean inundation), cove forests have persisted for millions of years in the southern Appalachians. This antiquity, along with moist, fertile soils and a favorable climate, has resulted in tremendous plant diversity.

Rich cove forest includes some of the best examples of old-growth deciduous forest in eastern North America. Here one encounters unusually large trees with wide trunks, some of which are more than 500 years old, an exceptional age for species in eastern North American forests. The largest tracts of old-growth cove forest occur in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where trees such as white basswood, tulip tree, yellow buckeye, Carolina silverbell, and American beech reach or approach record heights. Some of the best spots for viewing spring wild-flowers also occur in old-growth rich cove forests.

Current threats to the forest include the clearing of adjoining slopes for residential development, invasive species such as Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense) and autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), and the overharvesting of medicinal plants, including goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), black cohosh, bloodroot, and American ginseng.


Busing, R. T. 1998. Structure and Dynamics of Cove Forests in the Great Smoky Mountains. Castanea 63:361-71.

Clebsch, E. E. C., and R. T. Busing. 1989. Secondary Succession, Gap Dynamics and

Community Structure in a Southern Appalachian Cove Forest. Ecology 70:728-35. Ford, W. M., R. H. Odom, P. E. Hale, and B. R. Chapman. 2000. Stand-Age, Stand

Characteristics, and Landform Effects on Understory Herbaceous Communities in Southern Appalachian Cove-Hardwoods. Biological Conservation 2000:237-46.





Acer pensylvanicum

Striped maple

p. 221

Acer saccharum

Sugar maple

pp. 222-23

Aesculus flava

Yellow buckeye

pp. 224-25

Betula lenta

Sweet birch, Cherry birch

p. 227

Carpinus caroliniana

Ironwood, Musclewood

pp. 228-29

Cladrastis kentukea


pp. 234-35

Cornus florida

Flowering dogwood

pp. 235-36

Fagus grandifolia

American beech

pp. 237-38

Fraxinus americana

White ash

pp. 238-39

Halesia tetraptera

Carolina silverbell

p. 239

Liriodendron tulipifera

Tulip tree, Yellow poplar

pp. 242-43

Magnolia acuminata

Cucumber tree

pp. 243-44

Magnolia fraseri

Fraser magnolia

pp. 244-45

Ostrya virginiana

Hop hornbeam

pp. 246-47

Prunus serotina

Black cherry

pp. 254-55

Tilia americana

White basswood

pp. 263-64

Shrubs and Woody Vines


Aristolochia macrophylla

Pipevine, Dutchman's pipe

pp. 271-72

Asimina triloba


p. 274

Calycanthus floridus

Sweet shrub

pp. 275-76

Hydrangea arborescens

Wild hydrangea

p. 287

Lindera benzoin


pp. 293-94




Actaea pachypoda

Doll's eyes, White baneberry

pp. 325-


Actaea racemosa

Black cohosh, Bugbane

pp. 326-


Adiantum pedatum

Maidenhair fern

p. 327

Allium tricoccum

Ramps, Wild leek

pp. 329


Anemone quinquefolia

Wood anemone

p. 333

Arisaema triphyllum


p. 335

Asarum canadense

Wild ginger

pp. 336


Caulophyllum thalictroides

Blue cohosh

pp. 345-


Claytonia caroliniana

Carolina spring beauty

pp. 350-


Clintonia umbellulata

Speckled wood lily

pp. 353-


Dicentra cucullaria

Dutchman's britches

pp. 362-


Galearis spectabilis

Showy orchis

p. 375


Geranium maculatum

Wild geranium

P- 378


Hepatica acutiloba

Acute-lobed hepatica

pp. 384-85


Impatiens capensis

Orange jewelweed

PP- 390-91


Laportea canadensis

Wood nettle


Maianthemum racemosum

False Solomon's seal

P. 401


Podophyllum peltatum


p. 426


Polygonatum biflorum

Solomon's seal

pp. 428-29

Sanguinaria canadensis


P. 435


Thalictrum thalictroides

Meadowrue, Windflower

p. 451


Tiarella cordifolia


pp. 452-53

< 1—

Trillium grandiflorum

Large-flowered trillium

pp. 457-58


Trillium vaseyi

Vasey's trillium

pp. 460-61


Viola canadensis

Canada violet

pp. 465-66


Invasive Exotic Plants

I 1-

1Alliaria petiolata

Garlic mustard

\A m

Microstegium vimineum

Japanese stilt grass

pp. 403-4


Rare Plants


fCollinsonia verticillata

Whorled horse balm

> |—

Cypripedium parviflorum

Yellow lady's slipper

pp. 358-59


'Hybanthus concolor

Green violet


Hydrastis canadensis


pp. 388-89


Panax quinquefolius

American ginseng, Sang


f = plant not included in the species profiles (Part IV)

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