Archived Mountain Voices

An early description of Haywood’s vegetation

Roland M. Harper was born in Maine but spent practically his entire professional life in the South, where his work embraced studies in plant geography, forestry, systematics, human demography, and economic botany. Harper’s extensive field work resulted in the discovery of more than two dozen new species of flowering plants. His published works exceeded 500 in number.

Just over a century ago, Harper visited Haywood County and adjacent areas in Western North Carolina quantifying and classifying habitats, one of the first systematic physiographic-botanical undertakings of that sort in the southern Appalachians. In March 1910, his notes were published in the journal Torreya under the title “Summer Notes on the Vegetation of Haywood County, North Carolina.” Excerpted below are some of Harper’s general observations regarding topography and vegetation. Those interested in detailed plant lists for various habitats and other particulars can access the original document at:

“It was my privilege in July and August, 1908, to spend a few weeks at the Biltmore Forest School, in the mountains of North Carolina, by invitation of the Director, Dr. C. A. Schenck. This school is located during the summer months in the ‘Pink Beds,’ a beautiful valley in the northern corner of Transylvania County, with its floor elevated about 3,200 to 3,300 feet above the sea. The Pisgah Ridge, with its crest varying in altitude from about 4,500 to 6,000 feet, forms the northwestern boundary of this valley and the southeastern boundary of Haywood County. The Pink Beds valley seems to be unique in several respects, and considerably more field work would be necessary before one could do justice to its very interesting vegetation and ecological problems. But the mountains of Haywood County seem to be thoroughly typical of western North Carolina, and much of what follows will doubtless apply almost as well to any other county in the neighborhood. While sojourning with Dr. Schenck I ascended to the crest of the Pisgah Ridge several times, and walked once over to Waynesville (the county-seat of Haywood County, distant 16 miles from the Pink Beds “as the crow flies” and nearly half as far again by the roads) and back. On the way over to Waynesville I followed the East Fork of Pigeon River most of the way, leaving it at its confluence with the West Fork and going thence nearly due west the remaining seven or eight miles. On the way back I went up the West Fork a few miles, then turned eastward and went over the summit of Cold Mountain, a sharp peak between the two forks, whose altitude is given on the topographic maps of the United States Geological Survey as between 6,000 and 6,100 feet. From Waynesville I also walked the railroad to Balsam, about eight miles southwestward and just over the line in Jackson County. This is about 3,300 feet above sea level, and is said to be the highest railroad station east of the Rocky Mountains. Although a great deal of botanical work has been done in these far-famed North Carolina mountains ever since they were visited by Bartram and Michaux in the latter part of the 18th century, it has been mostly mere collecting, and the publications resulting from it, with very few exceptions, have been either works relating to trees only, notes on selected species, or narratives dealing with the flora or scenery rather than with the vegetation. So perhaps an attempt to classify the habitats of a small but typical portion of the mountain region, and arrange the species in each according to structure, relative abundance, etc., will not involve too much duplication of previous publications. Although the time I spent in Haywood County was very short, and I collected no specimens (so that some of my identifications are incomplete or uncertain), some of the generalizations which follow may be just as true as if they were based on a broader foundation, and some comparisons with other regions may be of interest. As is well known to geographers, the mountains of North Carolina are as near normal as any in North America, having been brought to their present form almost entirely by erosion … The following descriptions of vegetation are intended to apply only to areas more than 2,700 feet above sea-level. Below this rather arbitrary limit in Haywood County the country is scarcely mountainous, consisting mostly of broad valleys and low hills with fertile red soil, very largely under cultivation, and the vegetation does not differ greatly from that of the Piedmont region of the Carolinas and Georgia. Above the altitude just mentioned the principal habitats in this county seem to be (1) mountain summits above 5,500 feet, (2) slopes and lower summits below 5,500 feet, (3) wet ravines or mountain rivulets, (4) rich ravines or steep coves, (5) river banks and bottoms, (6) gravelly and muddy river beds, (7) wet meadows, and (8) artificial or unnatural habitats … The trees here [in the higher elevations], as in many other exposed places in different parts of the world, are very stunted, none over ten feet tall and they are mostly so scattered as to afford little shade …The balsam, Abies Fraseri, seemed to be confined to north slopes too. It was not common on Cold Mountain, but considerable quantities of it were plainly visible on another peak of about the same height a few miles to the southward; and the Balsam Mountains are said to be covered with it, whence their name. The herbs were scarcely stunted at all, doubtless because the larger ones are not evergreen, and thus escape the chilling blasts of winter. On the very highest point was a specimen of Lilium superbum [turk’s-cap lily] about four feet tall, rearing its flowers above all other vegetation on the mountain ... On the mountain slopes and lesser summits, from about 3,300 to 5,000 feet above sea-level, the flora is considerably richer, chiefly because this habitat is the most widespread and variable one in the region under consideration … The wet rocky ravines at the heads of streams have a characteristic and interesting but not very rich flora. This habitat seems to be much better developed in the Pink Beds than in the parts of Haywood County that I visited … About half of these are typical southern Appalachian species. The remainder range farther north. Some small ravines or steep coves are so filled with deep rich humus or colluvial soil that no water appears above ground in them in ordinary weather. Such places have a decidedly climax vegetation … Half the trees have wind-borne seeds, but among the herbs a large proportion have berries or burs, adapted to be carried off by animals, as is the case in many climax forests … Near Davis Gap (sometimes called Pigeon Gap), about three miles east of Waynesville, and near Balsam Gap, about seven miles southwest, are the only wet meadows which I made note of in the region under consideration.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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