The North Carolina Mountains Feature


Exotic Plant Threat

The North Carolina Mountains have been victims of many alien predators. Hundreds of exotic, nonnative plants and some animals have been introduced into the region.

One of the earliest and still most serious was the chestnut blight, a fungus from Asia that struck the American chestnut. Once the dominant tree in Appalachian forests, between around 1900 and 1930 the chestnut was wiped out by the fungus. Biologists think 4 billion trees died across the Eastern U.S. In many areas, oaks and poplars became the successor trees, significantly changing not only the look but also the ecology of the region's forests. More recently, other species from Asia are killing the firs and hemlocks in the mountains. The balsam woolly adelgid has destroyed many of the Fraser firs, and the hemlock woolly adelgid has infested the eastern hemlocks. At lower elevations, the southern pine beetle has bored into native pines, quickly turning them brown and leaving piles of fallen dead trees as a fire danger.

The granddaddy of all the exotics is kudzu, which was introduced in the U.S. at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The Japanese government's pavilion included a garden with kudzu, and American gardeners quickly adopted the plant as an ornamental. Then, in the 1930s, the Soil Conservation Service promoted kudzu for erosion control. Unfortunately, the climate in the Southeast is ideal for kudzu, and it grows all too well here. Kudzu vines can grow over a foot a week, and it now covers more than 7 million acres in the South and is a pest in many parts of the mountains.

Other troublesome exotics include the multiflora rose, mimosa, bush honeysuckle, privet, oriental bittersweet, Japanese grass, Japanese spirea, and garlic mustard.

On the mammal side, the wild European hog roots up hundreds of acres of land in the Great Smokies and elsewhere, killing native plants and making the earth look like it was tilled. The hog was brought to a private game preserve in western North Carolina more than 100 years ago. Some of the hogs escaped, interbred with domestic hogs, and eventually, in the 1940s, made their way to the Smokies. At their peak, in the 1970s and 1980s, the hogs in the park numbered several thousand. After years of removing hogs from the park, today only a few hundred remain.

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