Donald Hagan, right, and his dendrology students pose on Devil's Courthouse on the first day of fall.

Donald Hagan (right) and his dendrology students pose on Devil’s Courthouse.
Image Credit: Jim Melvin / Clemson University

BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAINS — One of the most biologically diverse regions in the world is just an hour’s drive from the main campus of Clemson University.

Rising abruptly from about 500 feet above sea level to more than 6,000, the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment forms a dramatic transition from the rolling hills of the Piedmont to the majestic mountains of Southern Appalachia. Starting at about 2,500 feet, the varieties of plant life explode into a bonanza that only a few places on Earth outmatch.

“There are 130 to 140 species of trees here in the southern Blue Ridge Mountains,” Clemson University forest ecologist Donald Hagan said during a recent trip with 25 of his dendrology students. “There are up to 2,500 different species of flowering plants and 400 species of mosses. You can hardly take a step without seeing a salamander scampering along the edge of a stream. There is just a tremendous amount of life in these woods. There are entire countries with fewer species of trees and flowering plants than we find in this one relatively small area.”

Chugging along winding mountain roads in a pair of cumbrous vans, Hagan’s group makes its first stop at Courthouse Creek in Pisgah National Forest at about 3,000 feet above sea level. Hagan then leads the students down a forest service road paralleled by the creek and heavily lined with trees.

With the help of teacher’s assistant Nathan Weaver, who is a graduate student at Clemson, Hagan examines several different trees, discussing in detail the variety of ways used to identify them.

While his students collect leaf specimens, Hagan talks to them about leaf shapes and flower characteristics, while describing the unique habitat requirements of each species.

“It’s a great opportunity for my students to learn about some species that we don’t have in Clemson,” said Hagan. “Clemson is not that far from the mountains, so we can get here in just a short drive. This service road runs through what is called a cove forest. A cove is a landform enclosed on three sides. And these coves in the southern Appalachians are bursting with life. In this particular area, we’re learning about species like yellow birch and black birch, which we don’t have in Clemson. But there are also yellow poplar and northern red oak here, which we do have in Clemson. This particular elevation is very special because we get lower-altitude species overlapping with those only found higher up.”

Clemson students, including teacher's assistant Nathan Weaver, far left, listen intently to Dr. Hagan.

Clemson students, including teacher’s assistant Nathan Weaver, far left, listen intently to Dr. Hagan.
Image Credit: Jim Melvin / Clemson University

After studying the trees, catching a garter snake and playing with several salamanders, the group clambers back into the vans and continues its steep journey, finally reaching an overlook off Highway 215 just below the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Now the elevation is 5,000 feet. Hagan strides immediately to a fire cherry tree, also called pin cherry. The small tree’s leaves certainly live up to their name, glowing like red neon in the sharp sunlight. Hagan then leads his students into a wooded area that is as dark and densely suffocating as a cave. Ducking beneath low-lying branches and navigating a tangle of ankle-wrecking roots, Hagan comes upon a victim of one of the great natural calamities of the past hundred years.

“This is a tree that for all intents and purposes is extinct,” said Hagan, pointing to a gnarled, struggling American chestnut. “These trees used to be among the dominant deciduous tree species in this region. But they were wiped out by the chestnut blight, a disease brought about by a fungus introduced from Asia. After we lost the chestnuts, oaks and maples came in and filled the vacant niche. But as tragic as this is for chestnut trees, we have to understand that forests are dynamic. They are constantly changing. And they’re under a lot of stress, such as attacks by non-native insect and disease agents, while also having to weather the accelerating effects of climate change.

“Where we’re standing right now probably looked very different 50 years ago. And it will probably look very different than this 10-15 years down the road.”

The third stop is at Black Balsam Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina. Now the elevation is about 6,000 feet. As a cool breeze swirls and ripples along the surface of the bald, Hagan and his students stand beneath a gigantic Fraser fir, its dark-green needles starkly contrasted by the deep-blue sky.

Despite this past weekend's ferocious storm, this season's fall foliage still promises to be spectacular.

Despite recent storms, this season’s fall foliage still promises to be spectacular.
Image Credit: Jim Melvin / Clemson University

“This is a magnificent place because of the array of fascinating plant communities that you don’t see in the lower elevations,” Hagan said. “Below us is a stand of red spruce, which are endemic to northern United States and Canada. But we find them up here because the climate at this elevation is more akin to what you would see in Vermont or New Hampshire. This Fraser fir is also a high-elevation species.”

It is a common misconception that the balds of the southern Appalachians lack trees because their peaks rise above the treeline. In reality, it would take elevations approaching 9,000 feet to create conditions too hostile for trees to survive. Instead, other factors – both natural and human-induced – created balds like Black Balsam.

“Each bald has its own history,” Hagan explained. “Black Balsam Knob was once covered with spruce and firs. But these trees were logged in the early part of the 20th century — and then wildfires swept through, burning up a lot of the debris and exposing the soil to the erosive effects of rain. So it still hasn’t recovered and has remained as a bald ever since. There are other balds in these mountains that were likely created by purely natural processes like fire and even grazing animals. Nowadays, in many cases, we actually maintain these balds to preserve the incredible diversity of shrubby and herbaceous vegetation, such as minniebush, asters and bush honeysuckle, that you just don’t see in closed-canopy woods.”

The fourth and final stop is at Devil’s Courthouse, elevation 5,719. The steep trek to the top is a heart-thumping, thigh-burning test of endurance, but the exertion is well worth it. At the summit, visitors are rewarded with a 360-degree panoramic view of South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

Dendrology students take notes during a lecture on a trail leading up to Black Balsam Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Dendrology students take notes during a lecture on a trail leading up to Black Balsam Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Image Credit: Jim Melvin / Clemson University

“Another beautiful feature of the landscape that you’ll see this time of year is the fall foliage starting to develop,” Hagan said. “Off in the distance at this higher elevation, you can see some yellows and oranges, and even some reds and purples, starting to pop. From the evidence that we’ve seen thus far, it really does look like 2015 is going to be one of the best fall color seasons in recent memory. I encourage everyone to come out and explore. It’s beautiful and the scenery will be amazing.”

Madison Dominick, an environmental resource major at Clemson, agrees with her professor.

“We’re getting some beautiful mountains today,” Dominick said. “The fall foliage is just gorgeous. Honestly it is. And there’s so much different stuff out here. You never know what you’re going to find. There’s so much to learn. It really is fun.”