The Blue Ridge Parkway is home to over a hundred species of trees, and they put on a dramatic show throughout the year. In spring, tulip trees and serviceberry produce vivid, eye-catching blooms. In fall, leaves burst into color. Flowering shrubs such as rhododendron, flame azalea, and mountain laurel put on a springtime show that rivals the tree’s fall display.

Forest Types

Beginning at the Parkway’s lowest elevations and climbing up to the highest, visitors will notice numerous transitions among a variety of forest types. At lower elevations, the oak-chestnut forest dominates Parkway lands. In remote, sheltered cove forests, you may find dozens of varieties of species, and some of the remaining virgin timber that was inaccessible to loggers earlier in the century. Higher up on the mountains, northern hardwood forests remind many people of those in New England. Beech, birch, or buckeye may dominate depending on other characteristics of the habitat. At the highest Parkway elevations, it is the spruce-fir forest that crowns the ridgetops and mountain peaks. In front of advancing glaciers, remnants of seeds normally germinating in Canadian forests found a habitat in which to grow.

Interspersed among these various forest types are some small, unique habitats, such as mountain bogs and heath balds. Many species of animals find their niche in these small pockets of habitat. Bog turtles and Gray’s Lilly thrive in mountain bogs. Sheltered, wet coves are excellent for finding a variety of salamanders, some of which are unique to the southern Appalachians. A hemlock cove is an excellent place to find populations of red squirrel. Black capped chickadees replace the Carolina chickadees as you climb up toward the spruce-fir forest.

Autumn Colors

On the Blue Ridge Parkway, trees enrich our lives throughout the year, but it is only in autumn that their vibrant foliage demands our attention. Dogwood, sourwood, and blackgum turn deep red in late September. Tulip-trees and hickories turn bright yellow, sassafras a vivid orange, and red maples a multi-colored brilliance. Finally, various oaks put on a dash of russet and maroon. Evergreen trees include Virginia pine, white pine, hemlock, spruce, and fir.

The intensity of the fall colors in a given year depends on weather conditions. A vivid autumn show requires bright, sunny days and nights that are cool but not freezing. If there is an early frost, many of the leaves may turn brown and drop before the rest have turned colors. But whatever the intensity, the autumn show is always a spectacular way of ending the summer and ushering in the winter.

Common Name Family Fall Color
Alternate Lvd. Dogwood Dogwood Red
American Beech Beech Brown/Yellow
American Chestnut Beech Yellow
American Elm Elm Yellow
American Hornbeam Birch Orange/Red
American Plum Rose Yellow
Apple Rose Yellow
Big Tooth Aspen Willow Yellow
Bitternut Hickory Walnut Yellow
Black Birch Birch Yellow
Black Cherry Rose Red/Yellow
Black Gum Dogwood Red
Black Locust Bean Yellow
Black Oak Beech Red/Brown
Black Walnut Walnut Yellow
Black Willow Willow Yellow
Box Elder Maple Yellow/Red
Carolina Hemmlock Pine Evergreen
Catawba Rhododendron Heath Evergreen
Chestnut Oak Beech Yellow
Choke Cherry Rose Yellow
Common Winterberry Holly Yellow
Cucumber Magnolia Yellow
Eastern Hemlock Pine Evergreen
Eastern Red Cedar Pine Evergreen
Eastern White Pine Pine Evergreen
Flowering Dogwood Dogwood Red
Green Ash Olive Yellow
Hophornbeam Birch Yellow
Mockernut Hickory Walnut Yellow
Mountain Ash Rose Yellow
Mountain Laurel Heath Evergreen
Mountain Maple Maple Orange/Red
Mountain Winterberry Holly Yellow
Northern Oak Beech Red
Paw Paw Annona Yellow
Persimmon Ebony Yellow
Pignut Hickory Walnut Yellow
Pitch Pine Pine Evergreen
Red Maple Maple Yellow/Red/Orange
River Birch Birch Yellow
Royal Paulownia Figwort Yellow
Sassafras Laurel Yellow/Red/Orange
Scarlet Oak Beech Red
Serviceberry Rose Red/Yellow
Shagbark Hickory Walnut Yellow
Smooth Sumac Cashew Red
Sourwood Heath Red
Staghorn Sumac Cashew Red/Purple/Orange
Striped Maple Maple Yellow
Swamp Dogwood Dogwood Red
Sycamore Sycamore Brown
Table Mountain Pine Pine Evergreen
Tree of Heaven Quassia Yellow
Virginia Pine Pine Evergreen
White Ash Olive Purple/Yellow
White Oak Beech Red/Brown
White Walnut Walnut Yellow/Brown
Winged Sumac Cashew Red/Purple
Witch Hazel Witch Hazel Yellow
Yellow Birch Birch Yellow
Yellow Poplar Magnolia Yellow

Why do the leaves change color?

In autumn, chlorophyll, the green coloring agent in leaves that makes photosynthesis possible, begins to decrease. As chlorophyll fades, other colors such as red, orange, and yellow appear.

Carotenes and xanthophylls are pigments that produce the lively yellows, golds, and oranges of autumn leaves. These pigments are present in summer but they are hidden by the green of chlorophyll. Only when chlorophyll production stops, do they show their presence.

The scarlet, rust, and purple leaves are caused by anthocyanin pigments. Unlike the carotenes and xanthophylls, these pigments are not already present in the leaves but are synthesized in the leaf after chlorophyll production stops. When chlorophyll production stops, so does the flow of water and glucose between the leaves and the tree. A layer of cells called the abscission layer develops to block the flow. Some glucose will be trapped inside the leaf and it will change to anthocyanin pigments with the help of certain weather conditions.

Tree Identification Book Resources

Nature Guide to the Blue Ridge Parkway

Nature Guide to the Blue Ridge Parkway

The stunning wildlife along the Blue Ridge Parkway attracts more than 14 million annual visitors from near and far for viewing and photographing opportunities. This information-packed, pocket-size field guide features more than 200 species of mammals, birds, insects, fish, wildflowers, mushrooms and more in a convenient, portable package.

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