Scott County's amazing diversity stems in part from the four main plant communities that can be found within our borders. From the northern hardwood forests on the top of High Knob to the floodplain forests hugging the banks of the Clinch and Holston, each forest community comes with a unique set of plants and animals. Serious naturalists will plan their trip to visit each one!
Northern Hardwood Forest
As the name suggests, the northern hardwood forest is full of plant and animal species which are more often found in New England. This plant community can be found at the peaks of some of the tallest mountains in the region --- in Scott County, you'll need to head up to the top of High Knob. There, the canopy is full of a mixture of trees including Yellow Birch, Sugar Maple, American Beech, Eastern Hemlock, White Pine, and Northern Red Oak. Rare birds such as the Magnolia Warbler and the Rose-breasted Grosbeak sing above a profusion of spring wildflowers.
The best place to explore the Northern Hardwood Forest is at the High Knob or the High Knob Lake Trailheads of the Chief Benge Scout Trail.
Cove Hardwood Forest
The cove hardwood forest community is one of Scott County's most common forest types and is also home to the greatest profusion of plant and animal species. This mixture of dozens of types of trees is descended from the Arcto-Tertiary forest which used to coat the entire northern hemisphere. Two million years ago, this forest was nearly wiped out by advancing ice sheets, but pockets of Arcto-Tertiary forest survived in the central Appalachian Mountains.
After the ice retreated, trees from the Arcto-Tertiary forest remnant in our region repopulated most of the forests in the United States, but the majority of the trees also stayed here in our mountains. A walk through a typical cove hardwood forest today turns up dozens of species, including basswoods, Tulip-trees, Yellow Buckeye, Sugar Maple, Red Maple, Black Birch, White Ash, several deciduous magnolias, Bitternut Hickory, and Eastern Hemlocks. Rhododendrons and Mountain Laurels often form large stands in the understory and are covered with pink and white flowers in the late spring. The botanist will be even more delighted by a peek at the forest floor which is carpeted with pink, white, and yellow flowers from March through May.
Birdwatchers will be inspired by the dozens of species of warblers and other songbirds which nest in our coves during the summer months. Ovenbirds holler "Teacher, teacher, teacher!" from the ground while brilliant red tanagers flit in and out of the lush green leaves above your head. Hooded Warblers, Louisiana Waterthrushes, Worm-eating Warblers, Pileated Woodpeckers, and Wild Turkeys are all commonly sighted in our woods. On the forest floor, the moist conditions make this a great place to look for Lungless Salamanders.
Many of our trails offer good views of cove hardwood forests, but some of the best examples are found along the Guest River Gorge Trail and the Little Stony Falls Trail.
The oak-hickory forest is found on drier ground than the cove hardwood forest, usually on ridges and southwest slopes. Here, half a dozen species of oaks along with a few species of hickories dominate the canopy. The forest floor is often dotted with tasty Teaberry plants which gave their flavor to wintergreen gum. Squirrels, chipmunks, turkeys, and Blue Jays are all abundant, attracted by the large, nutritious nuts produced by the canopy trees.
Natural Tunnel State Park provides good examples of the dry, oak-hickory community and the rare plants which call this forest home.
You will find the floodplain forest community in frequently flooded areas beside rivers and large streams. Keep your eyes open for the brilliant white trunks of the Sycamore along with Box-elders, Black Willow, and White Ash. Spring wildflower displays in the floodplain forest rival even those found in the cove hardwood forest, with masses of Virginia Bluebells overshadowed by the tropical leaves of the Paw-paw.
Wildlife watchers will also be attracted to the floodplain forest, where dozens of types of animals congregrate around the water. Keep your eyes open for the secretive Wood Duck and Great Blue Heron and listen for the plop of sunning turtles slipping off logs into the river. If you're lucky, you may glimpse the dark body of a mink as it runs through the undergrowth at the water's edge.
Floodplain forests are best observed from the water. Take your time paddling down the Clinch or Holston Rivers and you're bound to be inspired by the fertility and serenity of the floodplain.