Woody Plants

Red Spruce

Picea rubens

Whether it be lining the foggy ridgelines or lining the edges of northern bog, Red Spruce is the staple of the West Virginia Highlands and the Blackwater Canyon. This species is one you have likely seen while exploring the area and adds to the reminisce feeling that you are farther north than your true positioning. Often the windward (west-facing) side of the trees along the ridgelines and mountaintops are stunted due to the prevailing winds at these elevations that they are exposed to. The spruce was once a much more dominant species in our forest until extensive logging at the turn of the 20th century resulted it being outcompeted in several areas due to the succession of more rapidly regenerating species. It is estimated that in the central Appalachians only 10% of the original Red Spruce forest is still standing. Many of the species that are unique to the area we work so hard to protect rely on Red Spruce. Red Spruce can be separated from introduced Norway Spruce from its silhouette looking neat with a narrow crown and horizontal branches compared to the Norway Spruce which its messy silhouette is aimed by branches that appear to droop towards the end. Cones are also a good way to separate the two as Red Spruce has smaller cones reminiscent of what most people visualize as a “regular” pinecone compared to the long narrow cones of the Norway Spruce. While Norway Spruce is popular as an ornamental for lifetimes as settlers planted this species originally as a reminder of where they called home, we encourage the planting of our native Red Spruce.

Red Spruce

Eastern Hemlock

Tsuga canadensis

A denizen found from the cool, moist hollows on the lower reaches of the watershed to the mountaintops where it dominates along side the Red Spruce, Eastern Hemlock is a conifer that towers into the canopy with thin needles that have a whitish underside that can help to create dark, moist conditions below. The seedlings and saplings can grow in the dark conditions created by the mature hemlocks above as they are one of the most shade tolerant species in our area. The cones are produced when the tree reaches 20 to 40 years of age and are relatively small oval-shaped cones. This species can grow to large sizes and can have a trunk that can grow to be over 3 feet in diameter and over 100 feet tall. However, in our region the Eastern Hemlock is under siege from the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid. This invasive aphid-like insect can be easily identified by the white woolly masses they form on the underside of branches at the base of the needles. Fortunately, many trees are being treated for this invasive.

Eastern Hemlock

Yellow Birch

Betula alleghaniensis

One of the dominant deciduous components of our northern-type hardwood forests is the yellow birch which has its name derived from the yellowish that in mature specimens, flakes off in thin layers, giving it a papery appearance. A closer approach of the trunk will give way to scattered holes. These holes are known as lenticels which permit the exchange of gases between the environment and the internal tissue spaces of the organs, with birches the trunk. Like other birches, the growth of the twigs grows in an alternating manner that gives the twigs a “zig-zagging” look as they reach their tips. Leaves are ovoid-shaped with a finely serrated margin and turn yellowish in the fall adding to the great fall foliage that you can immerse yourself in here around the Blackwater watershed. Look for this species in rich woodlands and can occur throughout the watershed, for example along the “Yellow Birch Trail” at Blackwater Falls State Park. Twigs from smaller trees can be snapped off and chewed up for a tasty treat that tastes and smells of wintergreen or root beer while on the trail.

Yellow Birch

Giant Rhododendron

Rhododendron maximum

Rhododendron is a dominant component of the understory on the moist, shaded slopes of the Blackwater Canyon. An evergreen shrub or small tree, the Giant Rhododendron can create thickets in the understory famously known for how dense they can grow, and limit travel as noted by some of the first explorers to the Canyon. They retain their large, alternate, dark green and leathery leaves throughout the year, only dropping older leaves occasionally. Leaves show drooping and curling that are typical in low winter temperatures. Look for this species blooming from June-August where they display umbel-like inflorescences that are pink to whitish. The flowers are iconic in West Virginia, being displayed by the West Virginia State Parks emblem as it is the state flower of West Virginia.

Giant Rhododendron

Common Ninebark

Physocarpus opulifolius

A shrub that can be commonly found lining the riparian corridor of the Blackwater River as it flows through downtown Thomas, Common Ninebark can be recognized as a shrub that grows three to nine feet tall with leaves superficially similar to maple leaves with their three-lobed structure. Along the stem and branches the bark peels off in numerous thin layers as it matures and is where its name is derived from. Look for this shrub to be flowering along the river from May to June, with flowers being whitish to purplish. The flowers give way to a fruit that is an inflated seed capsule (a follicle) for each flower, borne in the upright cluster, turning to a reddish brown in the fall and by that time the cluster is usually drooping. This cluster often persists through the winter and can be a key aid to identifying this species once it has dropped its leaves.

Common Ninebark