The Transylvania Times -

The Unique Flora, Fauna Of The Southern Blue Ridge

 

April 16, 2018

Courtesey photo

The Trillium flower is part of the lily family. There are 12 different varieties of Trillium in our local forests.

Geographers call the fantastic area where we live the Southern Blue Ridge. The Southern Blue Ridge is narrow near its northern terminus at Roanoke, Va., but broader southwards, and at its broadest on the East-West axis in southwestern North Carolina and east Tennessee.

Often called "the world's oldest mountains," a claim that may be true, but is difficult to prove, the Southern Blue Ridge is characterized by ancient metamorphic and metasedimentary rock, mostly older than the origin of complex life on the planet and devoid of fossils. Those ancient rocks have been warped, buckled, folded, and uplifted many times over millions of years into the mightiest mountain range in the Eastern U.S .; great, cloud-wringing mountains that intercept the storms from the Gulf of Mexico and give birth to lush forests and mighty rivers. Our region has a character that is both subtle and spectacular, blending rounded hills and soft, green forests with sharp peaks and rock faces.

Part of the rich character of the place we call home is the diversity of life found here. Many of our species, including black bears, white tailed deer, and basically all of the large mammals and birds, are shared with other regions of the continent and are important parts of our biodiversity and culture. However, many species of plants and animals are restricted to our region and found nowhere else in the world. They are referred to as restricted endemics in the academic world. Some restricted endemics have found a refuge here after climate changes, while others were likely always limited to a small range with special conditions.

The Southern Blue Ridge is known to be the richest area in the continental U.S. for restricted endemic species. In 1999, the total number of such species in our region stood at 258, though that number is no doubt larger now. Among animals, our region is especially rich in unique species of fish, freshwater mussels, crayfish (I call them crawdads), salamanders, land snails, insects and other invertebrates. All of these species have something in common: a reliance on the heavy and steady rainfall of our area. Many of them are restricted to particular reaches of stream, or a particular mountain, and they are too small, or slow going, to move far on their own. It's difficult for these species to pick up and find a new home if their habitat changes rapidly. For this reason, these species will always be more vulnerable to extinction than widespread species. Since these animals occur only here, caring for them and their unique genetics and ecological roles is our responsibility.

The endemic plants of the Blue Ridge are numerous and perhaps more famous than the animals, with species like pink shell azalea and Oconee bells getting lots of attention locally. Much like our endemic animals, many of our endemic plants require moisture and stable conditions. Many also require the full sun of a rock outcrop, bald or mountain bog. And many, from Rugel's ragwort and skunk goldenrod to the recently described (2009) Balsam Mountain gentian, are associated with islands of high elevation habitat.

Spring is a fantastic time to appreciate our unique flora. March kicks it off with blooms of the aforementioned Oconee bells in the areas of Jocassee Gorges and a few small ravines near Marion, N.C. Several species of heartleaf, or wild ginger, or the genus Hexastylis bloom in March and April and are endemic to our region, including the highly restricted French Broad heartleaf right here in Transylvania County. While I can't list all the unique plants to our region in the space provided, the genus Trillium deserve special recognition because of its beauty and the fact that we live in the heart of North America's Trillium capitol.

Courtesey photo

The Oconee Bell can be found along the Blue Ridge Escarpment near streams. This rare flower is one of the first to bloom in the spring and is a favorite of local botanists – both amateur and professional.

Within an hour's drive of Brevard, you could realistically see at least 12 species of Trillium if you sought them out.

This is the season where the world comes alive all around us. Be sure to get out and enjoy it. Seek out some of your favorite places and keep in mind that there are some ancient and unique lineages you share those places with. When I'm out in the mountains on a beautiful day in a holler that is bursting with life, I like to meditate on what we can do to ensure that all the lineages we share these mountains with can persist a few more millennia. We are lucky to live in one of the great cradles of life on the planet. It has nurtured unique species for millions of years – may it always be so.

Kelly is a public lands fields biologist with MountainTrue, a regional conservation nonprofit.

 
 

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