Shenandoah National Park
Flora & Fauna
Shenandoah boasts more species of plants than all of Europe! Over the past six decades, Shenandoah has seen the return of many trees, flowers, and animals that were all native at one time. As the earth reclaims what had been temporarily fashioned into -farmland, the forest gains an ever--increasing foothold.
A wildlife and plant observation log is kept at the Byrd Visitor Center desk. You are encouraged to add your sightings to the list.
There are more that 1,100 species of flowering plants in Shenandoah, including 18 varieties of orchids. The march of flowers begins with the arrival of spring. The lengthening days along with the warmer temperatures breed bloodroot and coltsfoot. In April the periwinkle, dogwood, and columbine bloom while birds are courting and building nests. May brings azaleas, golden ragwort, violets and marsh marigold. From June to August there is a vivid succession of black-eyed Susan, delicate Queen Anne's lace, asters, mountain laurel and evening primrose. Changing colors of the leaves in the fall compete with gentian, harebell and goldenrod.
Many flowers have been imported into the park. If the flower is growing in the open, it is probably one of the "exotics," but if it is in the deep woods, it is probably native.
Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is one such exotic. The flower resembles a dandelion and entered the park via the crushed rocks used to build the parking lot at Byrd Visitor Center.
Charlock (Sinapis arvensis) is a member of the mustard family and is called wild mustard in Europe. The bright yellow flowers with long, beaked pods became prolific after a park photographer used birdseed containing charlock to attract winter birds for his photographs.
Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) is a blue, bell-like flower that blossoms in the latter half of the summer. It grows in dry grasslands, on cliffs and dunes, and in shallow soil.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) gets its name from the red sap contained in the stout rhizomes (root- like stalks).
Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) is also known as cowslip. The showy yellow flowers have up to eight petals and as many as 100 stamens.
Shenandoah nurtures about 100 species of trees, 47 species of ferns and mosses, and hundreds of different fungi. This region was originally dominated by the American chestnut and a variety of oak trees. Today, the chestnut blight has resulted in oak and hickory being the most common trees within the park. The black locust is generally the first tree to grow in fields and meadows. Pitch pine, Virginia pine and scrub oak dot the dry slopes of the southern section of the park, while cove hardwoods, red oak, ash and basswood flourish along the streams.
The American chestnut (Castanea dentata) accounted for about a quarter of all the trees in Shenandoah when Europeans first arrived here. It was a valuable tree, fast growing, with an average height of about 80 feet, and a trunk with a diameter of three to four feet. Durable and straight-gained, the wood was popular for constructing homes. The nuts were eaten by squirrels, turkey, bears and people.
Around 1904, a small fungus, Endothia parasitica, found its way to the United States. Quickly spread by insects and wind, it entered the bark of the tree, caused reddening and splitting, and ultimately killed it. This chestnut blight affected the entire range of chestnuts in America, and by the early 1930s the trees were almost extinct.
Remains of this once-beautiful tree can still be seen in the park today. Occasionally sprouts grow from old stumps and even produce a few chestnuts before giving in to the blight.
Numerous animal species live in the park, from the rarely seen bobcat to the more common raccoon. Birdwatchers will be pleased to know that about 200 species of birds have been observed in Shenandoah National Park.
Between 300 and 600 black bears (Ursus americanus) live here, and their high concentration has been helpful for research conducted here since 1982. Visitors, however, are not likely to see them due to the park's wildlife management policy, which works to keep the animals wild. Unlike the 1970s, bears today are less likely to become dependent on food brought into the backcountry by visitors, a much healthier scenario for both bears and visitors.
Black bear are occasionally seen roaming through the forest in search of food. A few bears are still so accustomed to human food that they drive people away from their picnic tables. To ensure that bears do not damage your tent or hurt you, keep food in a bear proof cannister or suspended from a tree.
Bears are rarely seen in winter because they hibernate in their dens for four to five months.
There are approximately 6,000 white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in Shenandoah. Reintroduced from other areas in Virginia and New York State, they are commonly seen along Skyline Drive, and prefer semi-open to deep woods.
Of all the birds that soar in the air, the most impressive is the turkey vulture, which has a wingspan of up to six feet. Its wings are a beautiful black or dark gray; the heads of the adults are red, while those of the young are black.
The meadow mouse, goldfinch, groundhog and many types of insects live in the relative exposure of Big Meadows. In the area between forest and meadow, you will find the gray fox, rabbit, deer and owl.
The waterways of the park are also habitats for certain animals. The beaver, crayfish, raccoon, frog and water strider are permanent residents.
The beaver is an uncommon species in the park. Only a few beaver colonies exist, all near the park boundary.
The park is home to two venomous snakes, the timber rattlesnake and the copperhead. The timber rattlesnake varies in color from black to gray and even yellow. Its skin shows a faint diamond pattern. The copperhead is smaller and thinner than the rattlesnake and is usually pinkish in color. If you see the typical hourglass pattern on this snake's skins, you are too close, as the pattern is barely visible.
Since 1993, gypsy moth caterpillars have defoliated many trees in Shenandoah, especially oaks, their favorite food. Park rangers are working to reduce the gypsy moth population in the developed areas of the park. They are also letting nature take its course in many parts, replacing defoliated oak trees with species less preferred by the moths. The result will be a smaller, less damaging population of gypsy moths.
Another imported pest, the hemlock woolly adelgid, threatens the park's eastern hemlocks by sucking the sap from the base of their needles. As the loss of the eastern hemlock would permanently alter the forest ecosystem, park managers are actively seeking a natural predator of the pest.