Friday, April 3, 2020

Three Trees Every Self-respecting North Carolinian Should Know

      Spring has arrived!  The forests of the Southern Appalachians and North Carolina are waking up from their winter slumber.  The birds are singing, pollinators are buzzing around, and spring ephemerals are popping up, taking advantage of the warm sunlight hitting the ground in advance of the shade that will come as canopy trees bring on their leaves.

     Spring marks the time of year when three interesting tree species make their floral appearance.  Not only are they ecologically important, but their symbolism of spring is rooted deeply in Southern Appalachian tradition and folklore; tradition that in some cases extends back to the Old World before white settlers came to America.  For early settlers, these trees held significant religious connections that would be passed down for generations.  Something I find interesting is how these three species, while coming from different plant families, could be so closely related in historical folklore.  So let's find out a little more about these interesting trees.

     Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.), also known as shadbush, is a small tree or shrub that generally grows only about 15 to 20 feet in height.  It is one of the first things to bloom in the understory of the forest, taking advantage of the lack of leaf canopy in the first couple of weeks of Spring.  It's five-petaled, white flowers easily stand out against the dark gray backdrop of the surrounding forests.  Serviceberry is notable for its edible fruits which can be used in jellies, jams, and pies.  It provides a fantastic food source for birds, and browsers such as deer and bear.  Serviceberry is a member of the Rose Family and from a distance might look similar to Bradford pear to the untrained eye.  Of course Bradford pear is an ornamental relative, also in the Rose Family, but certainly less desirable due to its invasive nature.

     Serviceberry gets this popular common name from a time that dates back to circuit-riding preachers.  It would start to bloom, usually after the last snows had fallen in the Southern Appalachians, making travel easy for the circuit-riders as they would pass through mountain communities, preparing for the seasonal community church services.  Those early settlers called it the "sarvis tree" as it bloomed just in time for the "sarvis."  Some less knowledgeable folks might say that these were ignorant hillbillies who didn't know how to properly say "service," but if you have studied the Southern Appalachian dialect, you would know that this pronunciation is more in line with pure Elizabethan English, brought over from the Old World by the Scots-Irish and English settlers.  This dialect is still prevalent in the Southern Appalachians today, thankfully, due in large part to the continued isolation of mountain communities from the rest of the less-accented world.  This slight digression aside, it's important to point out that even today, old folks still refer to serviceberry as "sarvis" or "sarvis tree," so its really interesting how this historic common name has managed to persist.

     Now these church services would have started occurring around the time that Easter was celebrated, so once you got to church to hear the circuit-riding preacher bring the "sarvis," it would have been very likely that the preacher's first sermon may have pertained to the subject of Easter (interestingly enough, Easter is a pagan holiday that found its way into Christianity and became incorporated into Christian tradition).  Quite possibly the preacher would have talked about the hours leading up to the crucifixion of Christ and the betrayal of Jesus into the hands of the Pharisees.  That brings us to the next species, the eastern redbud, a.k.a. the Judas Tree.

     Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is a member of the Pea Family.  This small tree is often spindly and seldom grows taller than around 30 feet.  Redbud's five-petaled, pea-like, pink and magenta flowers offer a stark color contrast to the gray and light green of the forest as leaves begin to break through their buds.  Redbud favors sunny areas on hillsides and forest edges.  More recently, redbud has become appreciated for its strong tolerance to air pollution and is often used as a streetscape plant.  Redbud produces pea-like fruit similar to those of black locust, but rather than a compound leaf, as seen with most members of the Pea Family, redbud has a simple, heart-shaped leaf, giving it an attractive look even after the flowers are gone.  The flowers lack fragrance, but are attractive to pollinators, specifically certain types of bumblebees.

     Eastern redbud is also called Judas tree.  This is due to its similarity to its Eurasian counterpart, Cercis siliquastrum, which looks very similar and shares the same common name.  Cercis siliquastrum occurs quite frequently throughout Israel and the Holy Land, and according to tradition, is the tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself after his betrayal of Jesus.  Oral tradition has it that this tree was as mighty as an oak and originally bloomed white, but because Judas had the "blood of Christ" on his hands due to his betrayal of God's son, the tree's flowers turned red as blood.  Many versions of the myth state that the tree was so embarrassed by Judas' heinous act that it blushed, it's flowers turning from white to pink.  The myth goes on to further state that God, because of Judas' traitorous act and his compassion for the tree, changed the stature of the once mighty tree so that it would no longer be suitable for hanging another human being.

     Coincidentally (or not), eastern redbud blooms around the time Christians typically celebrate Easter (mid-March to mid-April).  Certainly, those circuit-riders would have been familiar with this oral tradition and would likely have had plenty to say about Judas' role in the crucifixion of Jesus and the part that this tree played.  This would have then allowed the preacher to segue into another lesson on the crucifixion and Christ's redemption of mankind by using yet another tree as an example: the flowering dogwood.

     Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), or dogwood for short, is one of three Cornus species found in the Southern Appalachians, the other two being alternate-leaf dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) and silky dogwood (Cornus amomum), neither of which comes close to being as beautiful as flowering dogwood.  The distinctive feature of this diminutive tree is the four showy bracts that subtend the actual inflorescence and are often mistaken for petals.  Flowering dogwood is the North Carolina state flower due to its wide distribution throughout the state and popularity as an ornamental.  It's occurrence throughout the Southern Appalachians makes it a favorite springtime species.  Flowering dogwood typically reaches an average height of around 30 feet in ideal growing conditions.  It can be found in varied forest communities, but is particularly prolific near forest margins where it also seems to put on the best show as far as the flowers are concerned.  The showy bracts encircle a cluster of approximately 20 small flowers, each with its own male and female floral parts.  The fruits develop in late summer and turn red in the fall, attracting various birds that feed on the fleshy fruit and distribute the seeds.

     In recent years, flowering dogwood has shown significant susceptibility to the fungus Discula destructiva which causes dogwood anthracnose.  This non-native fungus has significantly diminished dogwood populations across the extent of its range, particularly in higher elevations where forests tend to have higher humidity and are more conducive to fungal growth. 

     The Legend of the Dogwood follows a parallel story line to that of the redbud, and it may be that the legend was derived from the mythology surrounding the redbud, given the very similar details.  The authorship of this Southern Appalachian legend is unknown, but the story basically says that, like redbud, the dogwood was once a mighty tree; strong, and used for producing building materials.  According to the legend, the Romans used the wood of the dogwood tree to make the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.  As such, God extended both a blessing and a curse upon the tree to serve as a reminder of the deed that had been committed against His Son.  God cursed the dogwood to forever grow small, removing its former strength so that it could no longer be used for crucifixion.  At the same time he blessed the dogwood with beautiful flowers that would serve as a reminder of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross for all of humankind.  The four white bracts are in the shape of the cross.  The notches at the tips of the bracts are dipped in the blood of Christ and represent where Jesus' hands and feet were nailed to the cross and where his head, adorned with a crown of thorns, rested against the top of the cross.  The flower cluster in the center of the inflorescence represents the crown of thorns and Jesus' standing as the King of Kings.  Lastly, the tree was made to bloom at Easter, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ.

     It should be noted that Cornus florida is not a native species to the Middle East, but rather is a North American species.  Neither the Bible or any other historical writings from that time period make any mention of the type of wood that the Romans used to make the crosses used for crucifixion, so this leads us to believe that this legend is purely American in origin.  It's certainly a possibility that one of those circuit-riding preachers is responsible for the development of this legend, seeking an easy comparison and parallel to that of the redbud.  A preacher who had any knowledge of this legend would have certainly taken the opportunity to re-tell this story, in hopes that the local congregants would come to salvation.

     To say that these tree species' traditions relate only to Christianity would be an incorrect assumption.  Before white man settlement in the New World, native Americans used all three of these species medicinally for various ailments.  Some of those traditional uses would be picked up by Southern Appalachian "granny" women as part of what some would deem as mountain witchcraft.  Such was the way of the residents of the Southern Appalachians as they held tightly to both Christian beliefs and Old World pagan traditions.  Such beliefs were crucial to survival in a land that could be inhospitable in the worst of times and bountiful in the best of times; when oft-times it was necessary to rely on both faith and traditional knowledge and ways.  Being isolated meant that there were seldom doctors very close by, so reliance on potions, charms, and Old World medicine were as important as the spiritual healing and hope of salvation that circuit-riding preachers brought to the people of the Southern Appalachians.

     While COVID-19 may be stifling much of our normal activity, it shouldn't prevent us from going outside and getting some fresh air, provided that we maintain safe personal distancing protocols and avoid areas where large numbers of people could congregate.  If you get the opportunity, look for these three tree species.  Aside from their seasonal beauty, hopefully you will have a new perspective and appreciation for these fascinating native trees.  I hope you enjoyed this exploratory journey, blending science, history and a little bit of spirituality.

Until Next Time!

Monday, July 8, 2019

A Narrow Fellow in the Grass

     I am ashamed to say that it has been a while since I've posted anything on this blog.  Since my last post, I have had a career change, moving from the local government/code enforcement world into the educational realm, a move that I am finding to be very fulfilling and purposeful.  I am hoping this career change will open up many more opportunities for adventure and give me subject matter that I can share with a faithful audience, as my readers have proven to be.  Now that apologies are out of the way, the following is an article that I wrote for the June/July issue of The Mountain Breeze that I hope you will enjoy.  I am also including some additional photos that you won't see in the Breeze article.      

     It’s likely that many of you would remember the poem by Emily Dickinson, A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.; a poem about the poet’s encounter with a snake.  The poem itself has come to represent various symbolic aspects that are often elements of Dickinson’s poetry.  If I’m honest, I can say that I never cared much for symbolic poetry or Emily Dickinson for that matter.  There are some poets that I just don’t get and I tend to like more literal things (maybe that’s why I like field biology).  I will say though that I always appreciated this particular poem if for no other reason that it’s about a snake.

     Over spring break, I took the family for a visit to Catawba Falls over in Old Fort.  I was there specifically to see what was blooming and to get some nice waterfall shots without having to fight crowds and wait for people to move out of the way to get decent shots.  We love hiking as a family as it gives us a great way to spend time together and slow our fast-paced lives down to a crawl (you might appreciate this play on words in a second).

     On this particular beautiful spring morning, we were hiking up to the falls.  I was focusing my attention on the plethora of wildflowers blooming along the trail edge when my eagle-eyed wife spied a snake.  A beautiful black rat snake was sunning along the trail edge.  It was bright and shiny, its scales almost iridescent, most likely having just shed its skin only a few hours before.  It realized that it had suddenly become the center of attention, an unintended consequence of basking on the side of a trail, and decided that perhaps it would be safer a little farther down the hill.  It climbed up on a fallen log and crawled about halfway down its length where there was a small hole that this snake somehow hoped to be able to crawl into.

    All stretched out now, this snake was quite large.  If I were to estimate, I’d say it was close to five feet long, perhaps a little longer.  Me being me, I abandoned my pursuit of wildflower photos and went into snake mode.  I have a long-held affinity for black rat snakes and will interact with them any chance I get.  I stepped off the trail edge towards the river in the direction the snake was travelling and “headed it off at the pass.”  I gently squatted down beside the log the snake was making its way down.  Undeterred by my presence it kept coming in my direction, allowing me to take pictures, coming to a rest right in front of me.  Its tongue flicked in and out as it sniffed the air, trying to figure out what this large, strange-looking thing was.  Not feeling threatened, it lay there for a few minutes as if waiting for me to get finished so it could go on about its business.

     By this time my youngest son, whose curiosity meter is always in the red, was needing to scratch his own itch.  He said, “Daddy, can I touch it?”  He is my son after all!  What could I say but, “Of course you can touch it!  Come here.”  So, Colby climbed down the bank to where I was squatted by the snake.  I carefully instructed him as to how and where to touch him and he did exactly what I told him.  The snake of course reacted to being touched, but not in the way that many readers might expect.  The snake arched its spine in response to the gentle touch of my son; it then slightly opened its mouth, but never turned its head in the direction of the stimulus. I had not seen this type of body language from a black rat snake before but the message I got from it was this, “Hey man! I know you’re curious and all, but I really am not in the mood for you to mess with me right now, so if you would kindly remove your hand from touching me, I will reciprocate by not biting you.”  No problem!

 Of course, this interaction provided a perfect teaching opportunity for my kids about how to appreciate nature without having to be exploitive.  We talked about why the snake reacted the way that it did and proper ways to handle snakes.  We talked about why its critically important to leave snakes alone and that if we do have a reason to pick one up, that we must always know what kind of snake it is, but that it’s best to let snakes do what they do and leave the handling to the experts.

    Because Colby loves nature, he asked me why people want to kill snakes.  I told him that it’s because people are afraid of things they don’t understand.  I am always amazed how, despite the access to information and knowledge that we have in the age of the internet, that there is still such a deep-seated hatred for our legless friends.  The news media does very little to help ease the tensions as they sensationalize stories about snake bites and never do anything when it comes to talking about the benefits of snakes and their ecological roles.    It’s really quite sad, especially given the fact that many snake species are declining, especially as the human population continues to increase.

    This is not my first snake story, nor will it be my last, but I hope this writing provides some food for thought.  Snakes are important too!  They have been a part of human culture throughout history.  They have served as a symbol of early America.  Benjamin Franklin had high regard for the timber rattlesnake.  Here is a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin from “An American Guesser” published in the Pennsylvania Journal on December 27, 1775.

     “I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids. She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance. She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those    weapons are shown and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal. Conscious of this, she never wounds 'till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.”

Couldn't have said it better myself!

Until Next Time!

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Fire Effects: Party Rock Fire Aftermath, Part 4 (The Final Chapter)

November 5th, 2017 marks the one -year anniversary of the Party Rock Fire, the largest and most expensive natural disaster to impact Hickory Nut Gorge since the 1916 Flood.  I write this post to bring closure to a series of posts that have hopefully been educational and insightful and to maybe not celebrate but to reflect on the significance of the fire and what we have hopefully learned from it.  I will try not to make it too long.

When the Party Rock Fire started on November 5, 2016, I was on my way home from a conference.  I landed in Chicago and was getting ready for the final leg of the journey back to the Asheville Regional Airport.  I called my wife to tell her that we were getting ready to leave and she told me that the mountain near Party Rock was on fire.  Knowing how dry things were at the time, my initial thought was, "That can't be good!"  Of course the more I thought about it, the more I thought well it's been a while since we've had a good burn up there.  It could be a good thing.  Little did I know that what started out as a small fire would turn into a raging inferno that would last for nearly one month.
The first puffs of smoke. (Photo courtesy of Esther Lusk)
As we helplessly watched the mountain burn, the communities of Hickory Nut Gorge banded together to confront the disaster they were faced with, working together, providing comfort and encouragement to those who were risking their lives to fight the fire, as well as those who found themselves homeless in the wake of unexpected evacuation orders.  Amidst the immediate feeling that all was lost, especially given that the fire hit at the peak of leaf season, there were rays of hope that everything would be okay come spring once we had a better understanding of how the impacted forests would recover.  I'm happy to say, we were not disappointed.  With no lives lost, no major injuries, and no loss to homes and businesses, things very quickly bounced back as visitors returned to Hickory Nut Gorge, many to see what things looked like in the aftermath.

As a biologist, it's easy to speculate as to what the natural responses to fire might be, based on research and history, but until you see those natural processes begin to play out, there's a lot of second guessing and uncertainty.  I have tried really hard in my prior posts to point out the benefits of fire in the natural landscape, yet at the same time recognize that there are some not so beneficial aspects as well.  Only time will truly tell us how those things balance out.

Back in September, my son and I, hiked with Ranger Tyson Phillips up on Roundtop Mountain.  Roundtop was the only place that I had not had a chance to visit post-fire and it was a very important stop.  As most people will remember, things went from bad to worse on November 11, 2016, when the fire turned west and was burning on three sides of Rumbling Bald and heading towards Chimney Rock Village.  Everyone remembers the huge plumes of black smoke as the fire started racing up the steep ravines on the north side of Roundtop, and it was shortly thereafter that mandatory evacuation began, as well as what we will call the fight for Chimney Rock Village.  Fortunately, through the actions of the heroic firefighters, the village was spared, but the carnage on the north side of Roundtop was astounding.
The black skeletons of trees, burned during the fire.
Dead table mountain pines along the ridge at Roundtop.
The fire moved with amazing speed and intensity up the slopes of Roundtop, fueled by deep thickets of rhododendron and mountain laurel that had grown way larger than they naturally should have, as well as the dead remains of large hemlock trees killed by hemlock woolly adelgid.  Flames probably extended 20 to 50 feet in the air at times as entire trees caught on fire.  Roundtop was the place where the fire burned the most intense over the entire burn area.  There was intense crown fire here, destroying large numbers of trees.  The ground burned below the surface, consuming stumps and burning the duff, heating and fracturing large rocks.  Roundtop Mountain would not have been a desirable place to be on November 11, 2016.

Of course as we hiked along this ridge, despite the intensity and destruction of the fire, signs of life abounded and reminded us of the resilience of nature.  All around, sprouting and regeneration was occurring as new life came from the roots of the mortally damaged trees.  Table mountain pine seedlings were everywhere, replacing their parent trees which were mostly destroyed.
Table mountain pine seedlings.
A table mountain pine seedling beside an open cone.
Sassafras seedlings were everywhere in the wake of the fire.
As we walked towards the summit of Roundtop, much of the fire seemed to have abated as it got closer to the actual top of the mountain (the fire crossed the mountain at a place known as Haircomb Gap, which lies between Cedar Knob and Roundtop).  Perhaps this was due to some old road beds up there that may have acted as fire breaks, or perhaps the fire just ran out of consumable fuel, or some combination of factors.  Either way, the summit was spared.  We ate lunch at the top, enjoyed the view and headed back down the mountain.
The view from Roundtop Mountain.
Of course I couldn't end the report without giving a final update on Party Rock, the place where all this started.  Other than dead trees, Party Rock looks very much like it did before the fire.  So much has returned to normal there.  On November 3, 2017, I led the Lake Lure Classical Academy Horticulture Class on a field trip to Party Rock, giving the students an introduction to fire ecology and an understanding of how fire affects the landscape.  I thought it would be appropriate to show the comparison from immediately after the fire to now.
Party Rock, November 25, 2016
Party Rock, April 14, 2017
Party Rock, June 6, 2017
Party Rock, July 5, 2017
Party Rock, Nov 3, 2017
Now of course these pictures weren't taken from exactly the same spot, as you can tell from the photo, but I think it's pretty obvious from the photos that Party Rock is a vibrant thriving site.  For other photos of what it looked like earlier in the year when everything was green, check out my previous posts.  Here are some other shots:
Heavy clumps of broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) dominate many of the soil mats.
LLCA students eating lunch and taking in the view from Party Rock.
Grasses and sumac cover what was once a blackened soil mat.
Almost 4 months of growth for these invasive princesstree seedlings.
The upper area of the dome where most of the Virginia pines have died, replaced by princesstree.
One of the things that was quite astounding to see was the unbelievable growth of the princesstree (Paulownia tomentosa) seedlings.  In early July, these seedlings were very small, most with only two leaves.  Now these seedlings are anywhere from 1 to 3 feet in height and there are thousands of them.  This is one of the greatest challenges in dealing with a large scale fire.  Invasive species quickly take advantage of the open soil and diminished canopy coverage, asserting themselves over the native species.  If these trees aren't eliminated, they will dominate the area, reducing native biodiversity.

Now that we have had a year to truly ponder the Party Rock Fire, my hope is that we now have a different perspective on fire.  Fire is a natural component in the landscape of Hickory Nut Gorge.  Its occurrence predated man and it will continue as long as this Earth does.  Fires will continue to be a challenge into the future.  Our landscape has changed as well as the land use and such use has removed fire as a variable, changing the way we view fire and the way we respond to it.  The possibilities of more fires will persist in this area for a long time to come due to the amount of tree damage that occurred with this fire.  As more people use the Rumbling Bald side of Chimney Rock State Park and Buffalo Creek Park, the possibilities of accidental fires increase.  That is a harsh reality that we must face.  That's not saying that we will have significant large-scale fires all the time, but the frequency will increase, and as a result, we need to understand how we contribute to the frequency and severity of fire.  Properly managing forest land is the key to preventing catastophic fire.

Hopefully, as a faithful reader of my pontification, you may have been able to get an appreciation of the natural way of things and how fire affects natural landscapes.  My hope is that we won't forget.  That we will continue to study, learn, and understand that our role is to be stewards of the earth.  To know that every action we take has an impact.  I'm not saying that to preach, but rather to encourage everyone to understand what our role is on this planet and that our connection is deeper than being the primary consumer of its resources.  I hope everyone has enjoyed the series on Fire Effects, as well as the pictures.  I look forward to the next source of inspiration.  Check out the Flickr page for more pics and insight.

Until Next Time!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Fire Effects: Party Rock Fire Aftermath, Part 3

Almost eight months have passed (as I write this) since the Party Rock Fire.  As time has passed, we saw the mountain turn green again as spring came.  Now summer is here and fire scars are apparent around outcroppings and along ridges where flames ran high and hot, driven by upslope breezes.  As the fire burned, many worried that the beauty of Rumbling Bald and connecting mountaintops would be permanently devastated and that the impacts to the community would be long-lasting, but those concerns were quickly allayed as we saw the wildflowers bloom in the spring and the tourists returned en masse, many interested in seeing the aftermath of the most devastating natural disaster to hit Hickory Nut Gorge since the 1916 Flood.

Since the fire, I have taken it upon myself to photo document as many post-fire effects as possible, in order to learn as much as I can about fire behavior and forest response in an area that has been largely un-impacted by catastrophic fire over the last century.  That’s not to say that we haven’t had fire in the Gorge before, but in terms of any sort of regularity, fire has been largely suppressed in the overall landscape of Hickory Nut Gorge.  This is partly due to the fact that the topography and forest makeup of the Gorge does not often lend itself to frequent fires and prescribed fires are very difficult to control in an area that has so many steep cliffs, outcroppings, and ravines.  Additionally, as the land has become more and more developed, the opportunities for conducting prescribed burns have decreased.  This does not mean that our forests won’t burn, as we well know they will, but conditions have to be just right to get the right kind of fire to be effective and landowners have to be open to fire in their backyard.

As I visit different areas where fire burned, I see varying effects.  The brown areas on the mountain that you see from down in the valley are dead, burned trees.  Underneath those brown patches, you can start to see green as regeneration is occurring, with seemingly dead trees producing sucker sprouts from root crowns (a process known as coppicing) and numerous herbaceous species starting to appear.  The effect is similar to what you would see after a forest has been clearcut, where new growth in the form of multiple stems come up from the cut stumps.  The only difference here is that the tree skeletons remain until they fall or are cut down.  Some of the most successful species that I am seeing right now in terms of regeneration are sassafras (Sassafras albidum), sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), and black gum (Nyssa sylvatica)
Sassafras sprouts.
Sourwood sprouts around a charred tree.

Regeneration around a dead black gum.
One of the most incredible fire responses that I have seen across the majority of forest types is the coverage of ferns.  Typically ferns don’t dominate the forest floor, but post-fire the fern diversity appears to have increased and species' size and densities have increased, covering the forest floor  where other species would typically dominate.  This appears to hold true with other herbaceous species as well, given that I've seen spiderworts (Tradescantia sp.) and fire pink (Silene virginica) with larger than normal blooms and taller than normal heights.   Light gaps created where trees are dying or have already succumbed to their wounds are creating clearings where grasses and other forbs can establish, increasing biodiveristy until trees have a chance to re-colonize and close the canopy again.
Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) covers the forest floor in dry forest near ridgetops.
Another interesting response is the changes in the shrub layer.  The fire had a huge impact on mountain laurel and rhododendron.  Mountain laurel has largely responded by starting to regenerate from their root crowns, but the large rhododendrons did not fair so well and are mostly dead.  This is because many of these individuals have lived way longer than was naturally intended, and the species as a whole has increased its presence in the natural communities it inhabits .  Rhododendron has come to dominate some of these natural communities, growing large and creating vast amounts of shade, but as a result of their overwhelming presence, they have reduced diversity because there has been no significant fire to keep them in check and maintain a normal growth form. 

On my last few excursions up the mountain, I have been very interested in what's going on at Party Rock; the place where it all started.  The reason for this is because it was the point of origin, but also because of its successional nature as a plant community.  Party Rock, before the fire, was an area covered with vegetated mats that were inhabited by mostly spikemoss and a few grasses, with occasional other species scattered around in the deeper mats.  On the upper slope of Party Rock, Virginia pine saplings grew in the thin soil.  During the fire almost every sprig of vegetation was consumed, leaving a blackened moonscape.  The only trees remaining were a few red cedars that somehow managed to escape the main part of the fire.  Today, if you visit Party Rock, it no longer looks like a moonscape.  Almost all of the soil mats have new vegetation.  Much of the spikemoss is gone, most of it completely consumed in flames, but it has been replaced by numerous grasses and other herbaceous species that before only maintained small populations.  Now Party Rock is green and lush.  A normally dry place, recent rains and the increased plant diversity have made some areas of Party Rock almost boggy, which is something that I’ve never seen up there.  Party Rock is normally a very dry environment.  While what we’re observing up there is mostly not unexpected, it’s so cool to see these expected responses play out, but on a scale that could not have been anticipated.
Twisted-hair spikemoss (Selaginella tortipila) is beginning to come back to Party Rock.

Roundleaf fameflower (Talinum teretifolium) is an interesting succulent that occurs at Party Rock.
Much of the blackened soil is disappearing as new vegetation slowly fills in the gaps.
Numerous forbs are slowly filling in the gaps on the exposed soil mats.
What was the occasional species occurrence now dominates with the loss of the spikemoss.
A sea of green.
More green.
Sumac (Rhus sp.) is a shrub that responds particularly well to fire and is quite beneficial to many different bird species.
Curtiss' milkwort (Polygala curtissii) went from a minor species to a dominant species at Party Rock.
Certain images make it appear as though no fire ever occurred here.
Grasses such as broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) are re-appearing in this succesional habitat.
More regenerating spikemoss where it had previously burned up.
Another area that I thought was really intriguing was a small glade on the east side of the mountain just above a rock face.  Glades are transitional areas that are often found between granite domes and woodlands and are usually dominated by grasses.  Glades also are often home to the occasional shrub such as indigobush (Amorpha sp.) and rare species such as yellow honeysuckle (Lonicera flava) which I found at this particular site.  Transitional zones are prime habitat for lots of different species, so seeing the response of these forest glades post-fire will perhaps be an indicator of what we will see in other transitional zones.  There's a really nice glade on the east side of Cedar Knob that I would love to visit.  The fire burned really hot there, so it would be really interesting to see how that area is responding. 
Grasses are the dominant species in this glade near an east-facing granite dome on Rumbling Bald.
This is not to say that there aren’t negative impacts.  Already we are seeing invasions of non-native invasive species such as princesstree, tree-of-heaven, and oriental bittersweet.  Again, this was an expected consequence, but it is one of those discouraging realities that land managers will have to grapple with for years to come.  A prediction I made shortly after the fire was that there would likely be new scattered populations of oriental bittersweet in places we haven't seen it before, and unfortunately that prediction seems to be coming true.  Birds are the primary dispersal mechanism for bittersweet seeds, and they have been depositing these seeds in the soils of Hickory Nut Gorge for several years now in Hickory Nut Gorge as bittersweet expands its western North Carolina infestation from its point of introduction in the Asheville area.  Bittersweet has been present in Hickory Nut Gorge for many years now, but our thick forest canopies have mostly helped restrict its growth.  Bittersweet loves disturbed areas, particularly light gaps and will often lie in wait for the perfect opportunity to germinate.  Fire provided the needed light gaps and removed the litter layer in many places, providing the necessary ingredients for successful germination.   In a sunny environment, bittersweet wreaks havoc on native species by climbing into the canopies of trees, much like kudzu.  However, bittersweet is really worse than kudzu due to its high seed viability, ability to easily form monocultures, and general vitality.  Unlike kudzu which can be quite manageable with the right resources, bittersweet is much more difficult to control once it gets well established.  This species and others will present some difficult challenges in the years ahead.
Princesstree seedlings are already establishing in many burned places and pose the biggest near-term management challenge
 There are a lot of dead trees out there and more will die.  Already many trees are experiencing fungal growth on their trunks and around their root crowns.  Many of these trees have leaves on them, but their canopies are sparse, so death is right around the corner.  In the short-term, as mortality occurs it will increase the amount of available fuel for future fires, create more light gaps for invasive species establishment, and allow for re-colonization of some less desirable, fire-intolerant species such as red maple and yellow poplar.  While maples and poplars certainly have their place in eastern forests, there role as secondary associate species has been elevated due to changes in soil moisture and lack of regeneration in dominant species, primarily oaks.  This is being widely attributed to fire suppression, poor forest management practices, and global climate change, particularly in montane oak-hickory and pine-oak-heath forest types.
Many trees in this spot are dead or dying, providing much needed light to a clean forest floor.
This is a transition zone between high and medium intensity fire where tree mortality is a little lower.
Fungal growth on the outer bark of trees is a sure sign of mortality.
A beautiful clearing where the forest transitions from an open light gap back to closed understory.
For land managers it will be imperative to try to conduct periodic prescribed fires in the future where possible.  In many cases this will simply not be feasible, but that does not lessen the importance or the need.  For communities and citizens of the Gorge, being firewise and understanding the role of fire in the environment will go a long way towards improving the health of our forests, as we seek to manage fire hazards and control invasive species on private property, particularly in the area we refer to as the urban/wildland interface.  The important thing is that we never forget that the risk of fire is ever present and that it is a natural dynamic in the landscape.  Understanding that concept is key to making wise decisions that protect property, lives, and keep our forests healthy.  

To see more post-fire pictures from Party Rock and other areas of Rumbling Bald, check out my photo album on Flickr by clicking on the link:

Until Next Time!