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Source walks: 6-4-92, 9-23-96 and 9-24-96
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War Spur is a northeast-trending spur of Salt Pond Mountain within the Mountain Lake Wilderness of the Jefferson National Forest. It lies 2.5 miles (4 km) south of the White Rocks Campground. Access to the area is via Route 613 from the southeast along the Doe Creek Valley. This valley ascends through an elevation range of 2000 ft (610 meters) and terminates very near Mountain Lake, one of only two natural lakes in Virginia. Curiously however, this lake drains north into Little Stony Creek (see our section on Little Stony Creek). Rich mixed mesophyte forest characterizes the lower valley. Trees here include but are not limited to Tuliptree, Cucumbertree, Sugar and Red Maples, Yellow Buckeye, Shagbark Hickory, Northern Red Oak, Black Walnut, White Ash, White and American Basswoods and Sycamore. At higher elevations this forest gives way to one in which Northern Red Oak dominates the upland and Canada Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis ) and Red Spruce (Picea rubens) occupy the hollows. While in part a result of elevation, this change in forest type is also related to the presence of Ordovician limestones in the lower Valley and Silurian and Devonian Sandstones at the highest elevations.
Northeast of Mountain Lake and skirting the western edge of the Wilderness, Rt. 613 passes through typical high elevation forest of squat-formed and thick-trunked Northern Red and White Oak with a dense ground cover of Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea). The Country rock on much of this plateau-like upland appears to be Silurian Keefer Sandstone whose austere flags, angular boulders and outcrops everywhere erupt from the forest floor.
Inventories done in this area on 6-4-92 were cursory but those of 1996 were more extensive. Our arrival at the war Spur trailhead on the afternoon of 9-23-96 allowed time for an inventory of the upland forest and a brief survey of the old growth hemlock-spruce forest along the upper War Spur Branch of Johns Creek, a part of the James system to the northeast. The inventory extended along the “Chestnut Trail,” which forms a loop with the War Spur Trail at elevations ranging from 3750 ft (1140 meters) on War Spur itself to 3550 ft (1080 meters) along war Spur Branch.
The upland forest along War Spur is mostly mature, although young in places, reflecting differences in logging history. The canopy is dominated by squat, thick-trunked Northern Red Oak with lesser amounts of White, Chestnut and Black Oaks. The ratio of Northern Red to Chestnut Oak appears to be about ten to one. Dominance by these oaks is shared with Cucumbertree (Magnolia acuminata) , Red Maple, Black Gum, Sassafras, Pignut Hickories (including some identified as Carya glabra ) and small amounts of Black Cherry, Hemlock, Black Birch and White Pine. The Black Cherry has the usual poor form that distinguishes the growth habit of this species in the Valley and Ridge from that in the Alleghenies. American Chestnut (Castnaea dentata) sprouts are very abundant and form an understory with Striped Maple, Mountain Holly (Ilex montana ) and Serviceberry (Amelanchier ) of undetermined species. Shrubs include Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia ), Minnie-bush (Menziesia pilosa ), Southern Mountain Cranberry (Vaccinium erythrocarpum) , Thornless Blackberry (Rubus canadensis ) , Wild Raisin (Viburnum cassinoides ) , Upland Low Blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum or V. vacillans ) , Flame Azalea (Rhododendron canlendulaceum ) and Pinxter Azalea (R. nudiflorum ) . Flame and Pinxter Azaleas had been observed in bloom on our June 1992 visit. It is interesting also that the fruit of the Southern Mountain Cranberry is almost black in color here as distinguished from the bright red berries usually observed by us in the Alleghenies, although this may be a widespread variant. Ground Berry (Rubus hispidus ) occurs as ground cover in moister areas. Macrolichens were abundant on tree trunks.
Herbs and various low plants included New York Fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis ) , Cinnamon Fern, Hay-scented Fern (Dennstædtia punctilobula ) and Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum) in order of abundance, Mountain Aster (Aster acuminatus ), Fly Poison (Amianthium muscatoxicum ) , Teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens ) , Trailing Arbutus (Epigæa repens ) , Yellow Clintonia (Clintonia borealis) , Curtis Goldenrod (Solidago curtisii ), Blue Monkshood (Aconitum uncinatum ) , Variable Panic Grass (Panicum commutatum ) , Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis ), Four-leaved Yam (Dioscorea quaternata ), Soapwort Gentian (Gentiana saponaria ) then in bloom, Lovage ( Ligusticum canadense ) , Wild Lily of the Valley (Convallaria montana ) , Southern Bellflower (Campanula divaricata ), Windswept Moss (Dicranum scoparium ) , Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens ), Indian Cucumber-root (Medeola virginiana ), a large Stinkhorn (phallus type) fungus, Sweet White Violet (Viola blanda ) , the Panic grass Panicum boscii and Smooth Forked Chickweed (Paronychia canadensis ). In one place along the trail we were attracted by a large clump of Slender-flowered Muhly (Muhlenbergia tenuiflora ) and nearby,tufts of its congener, Nimblewill (M. schreberi ) . Not far beyond, Autumn Bent (Agrostis perennans ) and Calico Aster (Aster lateriflorus ) were added to our tally. Fire Pink (Silene virginica ), although not noticed on this traverse, was observed in spectacular bloom on our June, 1992 visit. One further addition was the tall brome grass Bromus latiglumis ,which formed a few conspicuous clumps at the forest edge near the road.
As sometimes happens, the dry, acid environment in these mountains is locally relaxed in a seep or enclave of better soil. This appeared to be the case as we neared the farthest reach of the upland traverse. Here we encountered a small community consisting of Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa ), Dotted St. Johns-wort (Hypericum punctatum ) , Purple Bedstraw (Galium atifolium ) , Hairy Disporum (Disporum l anuginosum ) and American Spikenard (Aralia racemosa ) , all stunted in appearance however.
Not far beyond this point the trail turns sharply left and descends into the ravine. Here Mountain Laurel increases greatly in abundance, Great Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum ) appears, with the Hemlock-Spruce forest just beyond. Description of the latter will however be reserved for the next section.
After a night of listening to the intermittent patter of rain and Barred Owls (Strix varia) we awoke to the conversation of Ravens (Corvus corax) . Because more rain threatened, we made a decision to forego a trip to more distant Mann’s Bog for an inventory of War Spur Hemlock-Spruce forest. On this foray we took the north loop of the trail. Although the upland forest along this trail is much like that along the Chestnut Trail, a few new species were recorded. These included fairly abundant Round-leaf Pyrola (Pyrola rotundifolia ) , a single anemic-looking Stiff Aster (Aster linariifolius ) , a species which seems more at home at lower elevations, Wood Tickseed (Coreopsis major) , the sedge Carex swanii, Slender Goldenrod (Solidago erecta ) and an alien Fescue (Festuca sp.) in conspicuous dark green clumps of filamentous leaves. Also, despite the uncompromising soil, evidence of a Mole in the form of castings and heavings was apparent along the trail.
The canopy of the Hemlock-Spruce forest is dominated by Hemlock as large or larger than four feet (1.2 meters) dbh. The Red Spruce, although less than half as abundant as Hemlock, are also rather large with some ranging to 28 inches (0.7 meters) or greater in dbh. Although Yellow Birch outnumber Black Birch, the latter is represented by larger trees, up to 28 inches (0.7 meters) dbh or more. Other canopy species noted either in the 1992 or 1996 visits are Red and Sugar Maples, Northern Red and White Oaks, Tuliptree, Black Cherry, White Ash, Black Gum and Beech. Of these the oaks, Tuliptree and Black Gum in particular reach large sizes. The spruce, except for scattered saplings, appears to be virtually confined to the upper War Spur Branch ravine above 3500 ft (1070 meters) asl. However Hemlock, apparently free of the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, continues abundant and perhaps increases in importance below this elevation, at least to the limit of our traverse to about 3400 ft (1040 meters). At these lower elevations only a few Spruce Saplings were seen, but Hemlock was also of large size.
Neither Hemlock nor Red Spruce seedlings and saplings were abundant,and those of Hemlock showed signs of deer browsing. One five foot (1.5 meter) tall Red Spruce in partial shade showed apparent yearly height growth increments of around three inches (8 cm) for four recent years. It was also noted that the ravine Hemlock-Spruce forest is bordered by a sparse distribution of small spruce saplings in the upland oak forest, which may be a consequence of fire suppression in recent years A notable feature of the Hemlock-Spruce forest was the great abundance of Northern Red Oak seedlings. Red Maple and Birch seedlings were also common, with the latter almost confined to the surface of large woody debris in openings.
Mountain Holly , Striped Maple and Serviceberry of unidentified species form an understory in the Hemlock-Spruce forest, while the shrub layer is dominated by Great Rhododendron near the stream. Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana ) , Minnie-bush and Mountain Laurel are also common and Hobblebush (Viburnum alnifolium ), in autumn red, occurred in at least one place. Common Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia ) was the only vine seen.
Herbaceous ground cover in the ravine forest is sparse. Round-leaf Violet (Viola rotundifolia ) , Northern White Violet (Viola pallens ) , Mountain Oat Grass (Danthonia compressa ) , White Wood Aster (Aster divaricatus ) , Mountain Aster, Teaberry, Indian Pipe ( Monotropa uniflora ) , Pinesap (Monotropa hypopithys ) , the rushJuncus tenuis, Indian Cucumber-root, Squaw Root (Conopholis americana ) , the forest grass Brachyelytrum erectum, Downy Rattlenake Plantain and Galax (Galax aphylla ) were observed. Although not noticed at that time, Canada Mayflower (Mainthemum canadense ) was observed as intergrowths with Galax in June 1992. Only New York, Hay-scented and Cinnamon Ferns and a little Marginal Shield Fern (Dryopteris marginalis ) were noted in the upper Hemlock-Spruce forest. However , on descending the ravine to where few spruce occur but Hemlock is abundant, there was an abrupt appearance of Intermediate Shield Fern (Dryopteris intermedia ) and this species continued very abundant to the apparent exclusion of other ferns with farther descent along stream.
Mosses are in places abundant and diverse in the Hemlock-Spruce forest. Taxa observed were various unidentified species of Polytrichum, Leucobryum, Hypnum, Mnium and Sphagnum,Thuidium delicatulum, Dicranum scoparium, Hedwigia ciliata and Rhodobryum roseum as, as well as the liverwort Bazzania trilobata.. These bryophytes occurred mostly on down woody debris but in some places mosses ascended to shoulder height on trunks of trees such as Beech. In places there were intergrowths of Dicranum scoparium and Cladina lichens in patches on soil.
The trees in the Hemlock-Spruce forest, which is old growth primary forest, are widely spaced with a resultant low stem density (Adams and Stephenson, 1991). In some places these gaps are filled by dominantly hardwood saplings or shrub thickets. There is also much large woody debris on the forest floor, including large, partially decayed boles of American Chestnut.
Both the upland and ravine forests reflect the substrate, topgraphy and elevation. Plants here are almost universally acid soil species , many with northern or high elevation distributions. Examples falling in both categories are Mountain Holly, Southern Mountain Cranberry, Thornless Blackberry, Yellow Clintonia, Canada Mayflower, Wild Sarsaparilla , Mountain Aster, and Wild Lily of the Valley. Some acid lovers are however conspicuous by their absence. These include Spotted Wintergreen (Chimophyla maculata ), Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum ) and Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida ). All three are common at White Rocks, which is some 600 ft (180 meters) lower in elevation. Spotted Wintergreen is seldom found above 3000 ft (910 meters) asl at this latitude and Flowering Dogwood only a little higher. Here, as elsewhere in this belt of transition to the Southern Appalachians, Galax seems to thrive at most elevations. Tuliptree, a component of the ravine forest, is not often found this high and infrequently at the elevation of White Rocks, where it is common. Such extensions of range may result from local factors such as greater precipitation and cloud cover especially during the early part of the growing season.
The ravine Hemlock-Spruce forest is a good example of the acid-mesic type or one of several types of oligotropic communities. In this case it is a consequence of a moist siliceous substrate. Such forests frequently have large well-formed trees but a depauperate ground flora as a consequence of nutrient and moisture deficiencies in the upper soil horizons. The ravine forest here contrasts greatly with analogous bottomland part of the Fanny Bennett Hemlock Grove in West Virginia, which contains a rich herb flora as a result of nutrient introduction from upstream (see our section on Fanny Bennett, also Mueller, 1998). It is however not too different from that part of Fanny Bennett which occurs on a steep sandstone slope and which does not receive supplementary nutrients. Attention has previously been called to similarities between Hemlock-Spruce stands at War Spur and at Laurel Run on Shenandoah Mountain (see our section on Hall Spring), both of which share dominance with Appalachian hardwoods.
Another characteristic of these infertile forests is their apparent poverty of birdlife. Although a few species such as Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) and Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus piliatus ) made themselves known along War Spur in September, their number and variety did not compare with those observed at White Rocks two weeks later.
Considerable research has centered on Salt Pond Mountain and vicinity. Adams and Stephenson (1989, 1991) and Stephenson and Adams (1991) in particular have studied both the deciduous and coniferous forests of the area. They have shown that the soils of the Salt Pond Mountain Hemlock-Spruce forest are very acid indeed, with pH in the range of 3.5.
Adams,Harold S. and Steven L. Stephenson, 1989, Old-growth red spruce communities in the mid- Appalachians, Vegetatio 85, 45 - 56.
Adams, Harold S. and Steven L. Stephenson, 1991, High Elevation Coniferous Forests in Virginia, Virginia Journal of Science 42 (4) 391 - 399.
Mueller, R. F., 1998, Exploring Natures's Multidimensional Space, The Forest Example, Forests of the Central Appalachians Project, Virginians for Wilderness website.
Stephenson, Steven L. and Harold S. Adams, 1991, Upland Oak Forests of the Ridge and Valley Province in Southwestern Virginia, Virginia Journal of Science, 42 ( 4 ) 371 - 380.