QR sign 4 plant habitats


In its short two miles, the Mountain Goat Trail traverses several different plant habitats. Some of them are as old as the Cumberland Plateau itself; others have been here only as long as people have been manipulating the environment.

The natural vegetation of the top of the plateau is a mixed oak or oak-hickory forest, part of the larger temperate deciduous forest that once covered the United States east of the Mississippi River. Unlike New England, where much of the forest is on land recovered from agriculture, this is the original forest that has been here for centuries, still intact. Although it has been logged, it was never converted to agricultural use. Water is the limiting factor here, so there is more diversity in woody plants than in herbaceous, which usually require the more moist environment that is found on the sides of the plateau and in the coves.

The forest plants form a series of layers. Beneath the canopy, which is composed largely of oak and hickory species, a healthy subcanopy of sourwood, sassafras, dogwood, and other smaller trees. Still lower, blueberry and azalea shrubs, both members of the heath family, are dominant plants of the shrub layer, along with maple-leaved viburnum and sweetshrub. In the dappled light of the forest floor, look for evergreen Christmas fern, Pipsissewa, and partridgeberry. Mosses hug the tree trunks, and greenbrier, grape, and crossvine climb from the forest floor to the shrub layer and beyond.

Along the Mountain Goat Railroad, workmen constructed culverts to allow natural water channels to flow underneath the railroad bed.  Natural wetlands, dominated by ferns, surround these streams. These fern species include cinnamon, royal, New York, and chain ferns. In contrast to Christmas fern, which inhabits dryer sites, these fern species are deciduous and die back in winter.

To keep the railroad bed as flat as possible, it runs through a series of “cuts” and “fills,” sometimes as much as 15 or 20 feet above or below the surrounding landscape. In addition to the natural wetlands, “fills” have created ephemeral wetland places where water stands in pools for weeks or months at a time.

The “cuts,” where the trail is lower than the surrounding landscape, are dominated with woody shrubs, herbaceous plants, and Christmas fern. These areas are often among the more moist habitats, because water percolates down through the soil to the roots of these slope-dwelling plants.

Although several pine species are native to this part of the Cumberland Plateau, neither white nor loblolly pine is among them. Those tree species are much in evidence in plantations and where they have naturalized nearby.

Toward the eastern end of the trail, the Perimeter Trail leaves the Mountain Goat Trail to cross the highway and enter Shakerag Hollow. Here, between the Mountain Goat and the highway, a pine plantation was clearcut several years ago. It has grown up in smaller trees, particularly yellow-poplar.

The trail crosses roads and is crossed by power line rights-of-way in several places. These are where you will find most of the herbaceous plants, including, particularly, grasses and wildflowers. A number of these plants are exotic, and a few are invasive pests.

Obviously the railroad bed itself constituted a disturbance of the land. One way to tell that is to notice the large number of yellow-poplar trees along the way. Yellow-poplars tend to pop up after a disturbance. They may not be the biggest, but they are by far the straightest and tallest of the trees along the Mountain Goat.

– Mary Priestley

Common Plants of the Plateau

Tulip Poplar – Liriodendron tulipifera

  • Tulip Poplars on the mountain goat trail are a peculiar sight for they usually grow in the shadier more nutrient rich cove forest.
  • These Poplars are here because of the opening presented in the canopy when the forest was cleared for the railroad.

White Oak – Quercus alba

  • White Oak acorns contain less tannin (bitter acid), than Red Oak varieties. So keep an eye out for animals who will be attracted to these acorns.
  • White Oaks are one of the most common Oak varieties that make up  most of the upland forest.

Red Maple – Acer rubrum

  • Red maples atop the mountain are not common in typical upland forest, but when given an opening and dependable sources of water it can flourish.
  • Some of the maples here along the trail have multiple trunks from where they were cut back by humans maintaining the train tracks.

Sugar Maple – Acer Saccharum

  • Sugar maples like their Red counterparts flourish in the wet, nutrient rich ditches of the trail’s waysides.
  • The Sugar maple leaf is the leaf pictured on the Canadian flag, which can be a helpful tip in differentiating the two maple species on the Cumberland Plateau.

Slippery Elm – Ulmus Rubra

  • The single Elm along the MGT is very special in that is the one of the four remaining Elms on the Sewanee domain.
  • Elms much like Chestnuts used to be common in the forest, but were decimated when a fungus called Dutch Elm disease came through the region and killed off most of the Elms in the forest.

Dogwood – Cornus Florida

  • Flowering Dogwoods are an essential part of the upland forest ecosystem. They provide vital calcium through their leaf litter.
  • The Dogwoods are experiencing a blight of harmful fungus. Their numbers have fallen drastically in the last couple years.

Sassafras – Sassafras albidum

  • Sassafras can be easily identified through its three distinct leaf types (three lobed, two lobed, and single lobed).
  • The roots of Sassafras, when dried, also make excellent tea. The roots smell somewhat like root beer.

Eastern Red Cedar – Juniperus virginiana

  • The Eastern Red-Cedar contrary to its name is not actually a cedar. It is a variety of Juniper.
  • This tree is excellently adapted to the rocky dry soil of upland forest, and is most at home in dry rocky outcrops.

White Pine – Pinus strobus

  • White Pines, while not invasive, outcompete the local pines native to the plateau (Virginia Pines).
  • One can tell a pines age from the number of rungs where the branches connect to the tree.

Honeysuckle – Lonicera

  • These flowers produce sweet nectar in the bottom of their flowers, which can be reached by plucking off the flower.
  • This plant is also invasive to the upland forests.

White Snakeroot – Ageratina altissima

  • White Snakeroot was the cause of Milk Sickness in the early 1900’s. This plant would be eaten by grazing milk cows, and the toxins in the plant transferred to the milk that  people drank.

Late Blue Asters – Aster oolentangiense

  • Late Blue Asters, also called Farewell summer, are some of the last flowers to bloom before winter.

Blackberry – Rubus ulmifolius

  • Blackberry plants along the Mountain Goat should be at the peak of their crop mid-summer.
  • Look for these plants in the clearings filled with tall grasses.

Red Berried Sumac – Rhus coriaria

  • Red berried Sumac produces large clumps of sour tasting berries similar to lemon in taste, which are ripe at the beginning of fall in September and early October. They go very well in tea.

Wild Mint – Mentha arvensis

  • Wild mint grows plentifully in the shaded parts of the trail.
  • Wild Mint, also called Mountain Mint, goes very well in iced tea.
  • The leaves are great to chew right off the stem as well.

New York Fern – Thelypteris noveboracensis 

  • These ferns are one of several varieties along the trail, that cover the wetland areas around stream beds.
  • This the most common fern in the wetland areas along the trail, so any large patch of ferns, is most likely New York Fern.

Invasive Species

Nepal Grass – Microstegium vimineum

  • Nepal grass, or also called Japanese Stiltgrass is an invasive pest which covers great patches of forest floor very quickly.

Honeysuckle – Lonicera

  • These flowers produce sweet nectar in the bottom of their flowers, which can be reached by plucking off the flower.
  • This plant is also invasive to the upland forests.


– Benjamin Sadler, University of the South Class of ’17

 Sewanee Projects and Sewanee Research

To find out more about the Mountain Goat Trail or to donate to the Mountain Goat Trail Alliance, click the links below.

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