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The Shale Barrens of Central Appalachia
The Shale Barrens of Central Appalachia
Published by Porterbrook
Default The Shale Barrens of Central Appalachia

The Shale Barrens of Central Appalachia

Frank W. Porter
Porterbrook Native Plants

Shale barrens are one of the most geologically interesting and botanically intriguing areas in West Virginia and Virginia. Comprised of sparse woodlands, shrublands, and open herbaceous rock outcrops, they occur on ridge and valley shale of the central Appalachian Mountains. These botanic communities are endemic to western Virginia, West Virginia, west-central Maryland, and south-central Pennsylvania. In most cases, plants are found growing on steep, eroding slopes of thinly bedded and weathered shale which face south to west. They have sparse tree cover and very little soil.

Nevertheless, these shale barrens are home to some of the rarest plants growing in the Appalachian Mountains. Most of these species are endemic to the shale barrens and are commonly referred to as shale barren endemics. In 1911, Edward S. Steele coined the term “shale barren” to describe these unique plant habitats. Referring to a shale barren in Virginia, Steele characterized it as “one of the most fascinating spots in which it has been my fortune to botanize.” He was not the only one. Several noted botanists and scientists of the late nineteenth century vacationed at the world-renowned White Sulphur Springs resort. During their forays into the nearby mountains, they discovered the classic shale barrens located on Kate’s Mountain. They found several species of plants that were new to science. Specimens were collected and sent to various herbariums, especially the New York Botanical Garden which had been established in 1896. White Sulphur Springs became the type location for at least eight of the shale barren endemics.

Visiting the shale barrens is a unique experience. They are hot, dry, and unstable. There is the occasional copperhead and on rare occasions an encounter with a black bear. But a visit to the shale barrens is worth every step just to see the rare and endemic plants and animals and the extreme conditions in which they grow. A combination of geology, soil, topography, and climate created the shale barrens. Beneath it all is bedrock: shale. Because shale is a highly friable rock, small fragments—called channers—tumble down the slopes and create a very unstable substrate. There is very little soil. And water sheds easily, making these barrens extremely dry and inhospitable. These unusual habitats, however, support rare species.

The most commonly found trees are extremely scrubby forms of Chestnut oak, Virginia pine, eastern red cedar, and pignut hickory. Growing along the fringe of the barrens are white ash, table-mountain pine and shagbark hickory. A few shrubs also grow on the barrens, including shadbush, black huckleberry, dwarf hackberry, deerberry and bear oak.

Despite these extreme conditions, there are some animals that reside in the shale barrens. Among the reptiles are five-lined skinks, eastern fence lizards, wood turtles, copperheads, and timber rattlesnakes. Bird watchers will find pine warblers, prairies warblers, Carolina wrens, and broadwing hawks. Several species of skippers, butterflies and moths also frequent the shale barrens. Mammals, both large and small, can be found on the shale barrens. White-tailed deer, eastern gray squirrels, foxes, coyotes, black bears, bobcats and eastern red bats frequent these barrens.

It is the rare plant communities, however, which have drawn attention to these shale barrens for over a century. Kate’s Mountain Clover (Trifolium virginicum) first drew attention to the uniqueness of the flora of the shale barrens. During an exploring trip in 1892, Dr. John Kunkel Small discovered Trifolium virginicum. His discovery prompted other botanists to visit this unique area and before long several other species were identified.

Phlox buckleyi (Swordleaf Phlox) was found by Samuel B. Buckley in 1838 at White Sulphur Springs, but remained unnoticed in his herbarium for eighty years. Edward T. Wherry formally named the plant in 1930, a century after its discovery. Although Phlox buckleyi does not grow on the barrens, it is usually found near the bases of these shale slopes. It has unbranched linear leaves with vivid pink flowers. Clematis albicoma (Whitehair leather flower) was first collected by Gustav Guttenberg in 1877 on Kate’s Mountain. This is a rather short species with dull purple and solitary flowers that grow at the end of the branches. Eriogonum alleni (Shale barren buckwheat) is named for its discoverer Timothy F. Allen. This genus is typical of those found growing in the Rocky Mountains and was thought at one time to have been introduced by dust storms carrying the seeds. It prefers the barest and most sterile growing conditions. The dark green leaves have loose tufts of soft white hairs. The flowers are dark yellow and grow in flat-topped clusters. Oenothera argillicola (Shale barren Evening Primrose) was discovered by Kenneth K. MacKenzie, an amateur botanist, in 1903 at White Sulphur Springs. When in bloom, this is one of the more spectacular sights on the shale barrens. On a recent trip to the shale barrens, I saw a shale slope that appeared as if an artist had brushed it a bright yellow. Taenidia montana (Mountain pimpernel) was also collected by MacKenzie in 1903 on Kate’s Mountain. This rare, monotypic species is restricted to the Allegheny Mountains. It has thickened roots and thin umbel rays of yellow flowers. Packera antennariifolius (Shale barren ragwort) was collected in 1897 by Nathaniel Britton on Kate’s Mountain. The tufts of white-wooly leaves are quite distinct. The erect stems support showy white flowers.

Arabis serotina (Shale barren rockcress) has become one of the most endangered species. Shale barren rockcress is an erect biennial and a member of the mustard family. It produces a white infloresence. Because it is one of the most restricted shale barren endemics and is known from only sixty populations with fewer than one thousand individuals, the threats to this species apply equally to all of the shale barren endemics. Spraying insecticides to control gypsy moth has had a devastating effect on the pollinators of Arabis serotina. Road construction, railroad construction, hiking trails and dam construction have reduced or destroyed its habitat. Several invasive species, including Centaurea maculata (Purple Knapweed), can out-compete Arabis serotina. Deer browsing, long periods of drought, and the naturally low populations of all shale barren endemics present potential threats.

Shale barrens are one of our botanical treasures. They must be protected so that future generations will have an opportunity to see and enjoy the unique flora and fauna that call these habitats “home.”

Reprinted with permission of the Marietta Register
By Porterbrook on 11-03-2009, 10:18 AM
Default shale barren photographs

Although shale barrens are harsh environments, endemic species have adapted successfully. From a distance the shale barrens appear to be devoid of vegetation, but a close examination reveals striking examples of how these species survive.
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The Shale Barrens of Central Appalachia-covington-barrens-016.jpg  
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By Porterbrook on 11-03-2009, 11:28 AM
Default more shale barren plants

More photographs of shale barren plants.
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appalachia, barrens, central, shale, virginia, west virginia

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