Types of Forests in Tennessee

Apr 29, 2024

Pine trees

Tennessee is known as the most biodiverse inland state in the country. Part of what makes it so diverse is the many types of habitats and ecosystems found throughout the state. More than 50% of the Tennessee landscape is forested—but not all forests are the same. Keep reading to learn about some common (and uncommon) forest types and where you can find them in Tennessee. 

At its most basic definition, a forest is an area covered with trees. The Natural Resources Conservation Service defines a forest as having at least 10% tree cover by trees at least 13 feet tall at maturity. The other 90% of the area can contain several different habitat features, such as streams or patches of grassland, and still be considered a forest. 

Today, approximately 14 million acres of Tennessee is forested. Most of that land is privately owned, but there is still more than 2.3 million acres of diverse public forestland for all to enjoy. 

The most common forest type in Tennessee is oak-hickory forest. These forests are typically found in drier, upland areas (at a higher elevation than floodplains) and are dominated by various oak and hickory tree species. Oak-hickory forests are common in Middle Tennessee and the eastern edge of West Tennessee, surrounding the Tennessee River.

Trail on the Natchez Trace
Hiker on a trail on the Natchez Trace. Photo by Margie Hunter.

Where to find it: Montgomery Bell State Park, Natchez Trace State Forest, Stewart State Forest

Along floodplains of major tributaries of the Mississippi River in West Tennessee are moist-soil landscapes known as bottomland hardwood forests. The composition of these forests is dependent on how often the area is inundated with water. Permanently flooded areas are typically characterized by bald cypress and water tupelo. Periodically flooded forests are dominated by red maple, sweetgum, and several species of oak that are more tolerant of water.

Big Cypress Tree State Natural Area
Big Cypress Tree State Natural Area. Photo courtesy of TN Department of Environment and Conservation.

Where to find it: Big Cypress Tree State Natural Area, John Tully State Forest

Pine trees, as well as certain species of oak, are most well-adapted to the dry, rocky soils of East Tennessee. The most common native pine tree species are shortleaf, Virginia, and eastern white pine. Middle elevations of the mountains also commonly contain a mix of oak species, particularly chestnut oak, among the pines.

Appalachian Trail near Charlies Bunion. Photo by David Liles.

Where to find it: Bledsoe State Forest, Pickett State Forest

On lower mountain slopes and valleys of East Tennessee are two unique types of forests. Mesic hardwood forests are characterized by significant plant and wildlife biodiversity. Dominant tree species typically include a mixture of oaks, tulip poplar, chestnut, maples, and beech. 

Cove hardwoods are a subset of mesic hardwoods characterized by highly fertile soils. Acidic cove forests are found slightly higher on mountain slopes, adjacent to rocky habitat, and contain acid-tolerant trees such as red maple and eastern hemlock. Rich cove forests are found at the base of slopes, where soil is more moist, and contain trees such as buckeye, white ash, and basswood.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by Roger Trentham.

Where to find it: Martha Sundquist State Forest

One of Tennessee’s most unique ecosystems is the limestone cedar glades of Middle Tennessee. These forests are composed primarily of eastern redcedar along with other mixed hardwoods that can grow on the dry, limestone soils. Caves, sinkholes, and underground drainages are common in these habitats.

Where to find it: Cedars of Lebanon State Forest

Manus Road Cedar Glade. Photo courtesy of TN Department of Environment and Conservation.

  • Barnett, Dwight. (1999). Behind the Wall of Green. Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Division of Forestry. Link
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service. (n.d.). Forestry. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved April 4, 2024. Link
  • Northern Colorado Plateau Inventory & Monitoring. (2022). Upland Vegetation and Soils. National Park Service. Retrieved April 4, 2024. Link
  • Tennessee Department of Agriculture. (n.d.-a). Forests. Retrieved April 4, 2024. Link
  • Tennessee Department of Agriculture. (n.d.-b). State Forests. Retrieved April 4, 2024. Link
  • Tennessee Department of Agriculture. (2010). Tennessee Forest Resources Assessment and Strategy: Forest Resource Conditions. Link 
  • Tennessee Division of Forestry. (2024). Landscape Management Plan. Tennessee Department of Agriculture. Link  
  • United States Geological Survey. (n.d.). Ecoregions of Tennessee. Link  

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