West Virginia’s original 1,700 plant species blanketed the entire state. Native forests still cover nearly 80 percent of the land or nearly 12 million acres. However, almost 30 percent of our plant species are aliens. The original species provided food, shelter, medicine, and beauty to Indians and the flood of Europeans who immigrated here. The new Americans brought nearly 900 alien plants of value and many weeds.
The native vegetation developed over millions of years as the mighty Appalachian Mountains slowly eroded to their present configuration. The earth’s crust was subjected to earthquakes, continental shifts, and other cataclysmic forces that created a very diverse landscape. The present altitude ranges from 247 feet at Harpers Ferry to 4,861 feet at Spruce Knob. Rock layers vary from acid sandstones to shales conglomerates and alkaline limestones. Some rocks are high in iron, sulfur, calcium, aluminum, manganese, and silica. Coal and shale outcrops are common. Deep deposits of rich alluvial soils cover many river floodplains.
Climate, topography, man’s activities, and animals have also shaped the plant life. Rainfall in West Virginia ranges from 66 inches at Pickens to 31 inches at Wardensville. The growing season varies from 92 days in Canaan Valley to 193 days in Williamson. The topography varies from extremely steep in the eastern mountains and southern coalfields to relatively flat along the Ohio River and on mountaintops. Mankind has introduced weeds, landscape plants, grasses, and crops. Timbermen cut valuable black walnut, red spruce, chestnut, white oak, and red oak, while leaving an abundance of low-value trees such as hickories, black locust, elms, black gum, beech, and scrub pine. Red spruce forests were reduced from a half million acres in the late 1800s to only 50,000 acres today by over cutting and damaging wildfires.
West Virginia has many migrating plants. Prairie plants have crossed the Ohio River and flourish along many rivers and larger streams. Along these waterways are found prairie cordgrass, switch grass, big bluestem, little bluestem, and Indian grass. Prairie species also persist in the Eastern Panhandle from previous geological eras. Botanists have recently located prairie ragwort, Cooper milkvetch, redroot, prairie-clover, and stiff goldenrod on Cave Mountain and nearby areas. All of these species are typical of midwestern and western prairies.
Boreal plants migrated southward during the ice ages, and many such as balsam fir and bog rosemary reach their southern limits in West Virginia. Atlantic coastal plain species are frequently found in the Potomac River and New-Kanawha drainages, where they have migrated westward. From the south, several plants have migrated northward along the New River and across the Cumberland Plateau. Crossvine, southern loosestrife, recurved fetterbush, spreading pogonia, and Carolina lily have their northernmost locations in West Virginia.
Another way to view West Virginia’s vegetation is through plant communities. The very highest peaks are covered with red spruce forests. Below this occur northern hardwoods in the higher mountains. Below the northern hardwoods the western two-thirds of West Virginia is covered with cove and mixed mesophytic hardwoods. East of the high mountains, in the Potomac drainage, the forests are mostly oak-hickory-pine.
The highly variable topography, climate, and geology have created many small pockets of unusual vegetation, such as bogs, swamps, grass balds, heath barrens, riverbanks, cliffs, and shale barrens. These are the niches searched for by botanists and naturalists seeking unusual and rare plants.
Red spruce grows above 3,500 feet elevation and covers about 50,000 acres. Original red spruce forests covered nearly 500,000 acres, but heavy timbering followed by damaging wildfires destroyed 90 percent of the spruce. Spruce forests are dense, and the wet air and heavy shade allow ferns, mosses, bryophytes, and fungi to flourish, while most shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers are scarce. Common shrubs that tolerate the spruce forests are mountain holly, southern mountain cranberry, rhododendron, and mountain laurel. Common wildflowers are Canada mayflower, white wood sorrel, painted trillium, sweet white violet, fireweed, and yellow clintonia. Ferns and lycopodiums that flourish under the spruce are spinulose and intermediate wood ferns, long beech fern, New York fern, mountain wood fern, and stiff and common clubmosses.
Northern hardwood forests cover many higher mountains and northeast facing slopes from 2,500 feet elevation up to the red spruce belt. These forests extend from Preston, Tucker, and Grant counties on the Maryland border southward to Raleigh, Mercer, and Monroe counties on the Virginia border. Common shrubs and vines include smooth serviceberry, mountain holly, rhododendron, mountain laurel, striped maple, hobblebush, and Dutchman’s pipevine. Common wildflowers of the northern hardwoods are Canada mayflower, yellow fawn lily, painted trillium, hellebore, ramps, spring beauties, white wood sorrel, Canada violet, sweet white violet, dwarf ginseng, and Oswego tea. Fern patches are common and include common polypody, cinnamon and interrupted ferns, and stiff and common clubmosses. Rare species are Canada yew, long-stalked holly, Appalachian blue violet, Fraser’s sedge, white monkshood, star-violet, and goldthread.
The western hills of the Alleghenies from 2,500 feet elevation down to the Ohio River are blanketed by rich cove and mixed mesophytic hardwood forests. Dry upper slopes are frequently oak-hickory-pine. Narrow bands of elms, river birch, box elder, sycamore, black willow, silver maple, and cottonwood line most rivers and streams. These riparian zones are extremely important for water quality, erosion control, and wildlife habitat. Small trees and shrubs such as bluebeech, kinnikinnik, silky willow, riverbank grape, and brookside alder are common along these waterways.
Common shrubs of the cove and mixed mesophytic forests are spicebush, witch hazel, flowering dogwood, redbud, pawpaw, rhododendron, and summer grape. Common spring wildflowers are wake robin, cutleaf and two-leaved toothworts, twinleaf, yellow fawn lily, largeflowered trillium, wild blue phlox, bloodroot, dwarf larkspur, spring beauties, blue cohosh, squirrel corn, Dutchman’s breeches, foamflower, Indian cucumber root, Solomon’s seal, white, blue, and yellow violets, Michania, and wood nettle. Common ferns are silvery spleenwort, New York, Maginal shield, intermediate wood, and broad beech. Rare plants include butternut, mandarin, netted chainfern, southern loosestrife, blue ash, false rue-anemone, running buffalo clover, Shumard oak, Carey’s saxifrage, and Guyandotte beauty.
East of the Alleghenies on the Potomac and Greenbrier drainages the forest is oak-hickory-pine except for the higher mountaintops. This was the oak-chestnut forest before chestnut blight killed all the chestnut during the 1930s and 1940s. Root sprouts of chestnut can still be occasionally found. The understory and shrubs consist of scrub oak, mountain laurel, flame azalea, redbud, deerberry, greenbrier, sweetfern, and beaked hazelnut. Common spring wildflowers include mountain lily-of-the-valley, mountain bellwort, spring iris, trailing arbutus, teaberry, pipsissewa, bedstraws, violets, and hairy forked chickweed. These forests are also open enough for New Jersey tea, bottlebrush grass, sticktights, mountainmints, dittany, rattlesnake orchids, goldenrods, asters, and sunflowers to flourish as summer and fall flowers. Rare plants are downy arrowwood, box huckleberry, roundleaf dogwood, nodding wild onion, smokehole bergamot, smooth sunflower, bunchflower, and swordleaf phlox.
Grass balds and heath barrens occur at high altitudes between 3,800 and 4,800 feet. Most grass balds occur in a narrow belt running northeast from Spruce Knob to the Maryland border. These mountaintop sites have thin, acid soils and are exposed to constant winds and high rainfall and snowfall. Noteworthy grass balds and heath barrens include Dolly Sods, Dobbin Slashing, Roaring Plains, and Spruce Knob. These areas occurred naturally in the mid-1700s. Heavy timbering and the ensuing wildfires of the late 1800s and early 1900s greatly expanded the size of these habitats. Grasses of grass balds are hairgrass, redtop, Allegheny fly-back, and several sedges. Common associated plants are strawberry, cinquefoil, sheep sorrel, goldenrods, bracken and hay-scented ferns, and several clubmosses.
Heath barrens are dominated by low shrubs of black huckleberry, blueberries, chokeberries, Allegheny Menziesia, mountain laurel, rhododendron, mountain rosebay, smooth serviceberry, mountain ash, mountain holly, and aspens. Common wildflowers include trailing arbutus, bleeding heart, gaywings, fireweed, and pearly everlasting. Rare plants are wild holly, three-toothed cinquefoil, oceanorus, goldthread, wood lily, dwarf cornel, and woolly Hudsonia.
Open glades and swampy forests occur infrequently in flatter terrain above 2,500 feet. These ecosystems are open, wet acid soils covered by sedges, beakrushes, and sphagnum mosses that grade into shrubs and trees. They normally form on top of flat sandstones that are very resistant to erosion. Examples of these habitats are Cranberry Glades, Droop Mountain Bog, Canaan Valley, Big Run Bog, Blister Swamp, and Cranesville Swamp. In addition to sedges, beakrushes, and sphagnum mosses, open glades include cottongrass, large and small cranberries, purple-stem aster, purple fringed orchid, manna grasses, bog goldenrod, skunk cabbage, bog clubmoss, and marsh fern. Common shrubs are rhododendron, wild holly, speckled alder, winterberry, red and black chokeberries, and smooth arrowwood. Common swamp forest trees are hemlock, red spruce, white pine, yellow birch, red maple, and black ash. Rare plants of these habitats are Canada yew, rose pogonia, grasspink, twayblades, golden club, sundew, pitcher plants, bog rosemary, Jacob’s ladder, balsam fir, buckbean, purple avens, glad spurge, and early coralroot.
Fast-flowing mountain streams flood frequently and carry lots of rocks, silt, logs, limbs, and ice that create difficult growing conditions for riverbank plants. However, some plants survive and even thrive in the narrow foot strips of boulders, roots, and sand along streams. Common riverbank trees are river birch, sycamore, silver maple, and box elder. Common shrubs are silky cornel, ninebark, brookside alder, willows, shrubby yellowroot, smooth azalea, poison ivy, and riverbank grape. Common herbs and grasses are monkeyflowers, great blue lobelia, cardinal-flower, tasselrue, stiff aster, and fringed loosestrife. Rare plants of riverbanks are Barbara’s buttons, balsam squaw-weed, riverbank goldenrod, star tickseed, McDowell sunflower, sand cherry, smooth rose, and Virginia spiraea.
Cliffs, outcrops, and large boulders are common in steep West Virginia terrain. Lichens and mosses grow on most exposed rocks. Overhangs support ferns, heuchera, and the rare round-leaved catchfly which is found in the southwestern counties. These habitats may originate from sandstone (acid) or limestone (alkaline). Common plants on sandstone rocks include hairy lip fern, spleenworts, purple stonecrop, wild columbine, and purple laurel. Common plants on limestone rocks include red cedar, rocktwist, walking fern, and purple cliffbrake. Rare plants of these habitats are silvery nailwort and famiflower on sandstone and arborvitae, Canby’s Mountain-lover, and crested coralroot on limestone.
Shale barrens are West Virginia’s most unique plant habitat. They occur on steep south- and west-facing slopes on Devonian shales that are usually undercut by roads or streams in eastern West Virginia. The following 14 plants are known as endemics to southern Pennsylvania, western Maryland, western Virginia, and eastern West Virginia: nodding wild onion, shale barren rockcress, whitehaired leatherflower, Kates Mountain clover, yellow buckwheat, shale barren eveningprimrose, mountain pimpernel, swordleaf phlox, shale skullcap, shale bindweed, shale barren goldenrod, shale barren aster, shale barren pussytoes, and pussytoes ragwort. Scrubby scattered trees growing on shale barrens include Virginia pine; red mockernut and pignut hickories; chestnut, post, and yellow oaks; red cedar; and dwarf hackberry. A few shrubs such as downy arrowwood, scrub oak, and dwarf hawthorn grow on shale barrens. Showy wildflowers are wild pink, bird-foot violet, goat’s rue, mosspink, prickly pear cactus, gray beardtongue, smooth sunflower, and panicled bellflower.
West Virginia has five plants on the federal endangered or threatened list: harperella, northeastern bulrush, Virginia spiraea, shale barren rockcress, and running buffalo clover. The most valuable and best-known herbaceous plant is ginseng. It is not extremely rare but is regulated by digging permits to ensure its sustainability as a plant and part in our mountaineer heritage.
This Article was written by William N. Grafton
Last Revised on July 25, 2012
Core, Earl L. Vegetation of West Virginia. Parsons: McClain, 1974.
Strausbaugh, P. D. & Earl L. Core. Flora of West Virginia. Morgantown: 1964, Second edition, 4 vols. Morgantown: West Virginia University, 1970-77.
Keener, C. S. Distribution and Biohistory of the Endemic Flora of the Mid-Appalachian Shale Barrens. Botanical Review, 1983.