West Virginia’s forests are made up primarily of deciduous trees. Deciduous trees are those that lose their leaves each fall. They are known as hardwoods since generally their wood is denser and harder than that of conifers. There are more than 100 species of native hardwoods, plus several introduced species.
Our hardwood forests can be grouped into northern hardwoods, mixed oak, cove hardwoods, and bottomland hardwood types.
Northern hardwood forests occur at elevations above 2,000 feet. Predominant species are sugar maple, red maple, American beech, yellow birch, and black birch. It is in these mixtures that our best black cherry is found. Other associates include mountain magnolia, buckeye, and Canadian hemlock. These stands have been a valuable source of high-quality lumber for furniture, flooring, cabinetry, and turned-wood products.
Oak mixtures predominate at moderate elevations and are typical forest cover on the drier exposures. Mixed oak stands include many species. Northern red oak is our most common species, but white oak, black oak, yellow oak, chestnut oak, and scarlet oak are all abundant throughout the state. Red and white oaks are widely used for flooring and furniture, while white oak has been the sole species suitable for making barrels for aging whiskey. Growing with these oaks are mockernut hickory, pignut and shagbark hickory, sassafras, black locust, black gum, and red maple.
Cove hardwoods mixtures, often referred to as the mixed mesophytic forest, dominate moist slopes and mountain coves at intermediate elevations. These stands may contain as many as 50 different hardwood species; however, yellow poplar is usually a major component of these stands. Other valuable species include white, northern red, and black oaks, cucumber tree, umbrella magnolia, basswood, white ash, black walnut, and occasionally butternut. Other species include sourwood, black cherry, black birch, and red and sugar maples.
Bottomland hardwood mixtures occupy the rich alluvial soils along major water courses. Among the most common of these species are box elder and silver maple. Other common trees include green ash, slippery elm, black willow, river birch, sycamore, and honey locust.
Coniferous species in West Virginia include eastern white pine, which played a major role in attracting the first large-scale forest industry to the state in the 1880s. Table mountain pine occurs only at the highest elevations and is easily identified by its large prickly cones which persist indefinitely on limbs and trunk, and may even be overgrown and become embedded in the wood. Virginia pine predominates on dry, recently abandoned fields, and pitch pine occurs as a scattered tree on dry ridgetops. Both are used primarily for pulpwood. In 2012, a Virginia pine growing near Smithtown, Monongalia County, was recognized as the largest of its species in the country. The tree is 65 feet tall and has a 63-foot crown spread.
There were originally 469,000 acres of red spruce dominating elevations above 3,600 feet. These valuable stands were mixtures of red spruce and Canadian hemlock forming a dense, impenetrable forest. The large pulp mills which entered the state at the turn of the 20th century were attracted by the spruce, since at that time paper was made exclusively from spruce due to its long, strong, white fiber.
Other conifers include eastern red cedar, which is particularly common on limestone soils, as well as northern white cedar and balsam fir. Northern white cedar occurs along stream margins in the eastern counties, but only where limestone is the bedrock. This valuable tree, commonly known as arbor vitae, reaches its greatest size here at the southern part of its range, and is of great value for boat building.
West Virginia’s balsam fir, restricted to a few swamps in the high mountains, is at the southern limit of its range. This strain is becoming a preferred seed source among Christmas tree growers throughout the Northeast since it has superior foliage color, good needle retention, and is resistant to disease. The trade name is ‘‘Canaan fir.’’
Eastern larch or tamarack, a tree of boreal forests, reaches its southern limits in Cranesville Swamp, Preston County. This large thriving colony is 150 miles south of other occurrences of this deciduous conifer. Another tree of limited occurrence is shellbark hickory or king nut which produces a very large, sweet nut, much prized by those who collect a supply of hickory nuts for winter eating. This species occurs sparingly, but is more common along the western margin of the state.
Princess-tree or paulownia, a native of the Orient, is widely scattered throughout the state. The large, heart-shaped leaves make it easily mistaken for catalpa, but the purple, trumpet-shaped flowers and brown pecan-shaped woody capsules are distinct. The wood is much in demand in China and Japan, and today West Virginia logs are exported to the Far East.
Written by Kenneth L. Carvell
Clarkson, Roy B. Tumult on the Mountains: Lumbering in West Virginia 1770-1920. Parsons: McClain, 1964.
Core, Earl L. Vegetation of West Virginia. Parsons: McClain, 1974.
Strausbaugh, P. D. & Earl L. Core. Flora of West Virginia. West Virginia University Bulletin, 1970.