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The Balds; Origins, Exposure, and Succession

Figure 7. Both grassy balds and shrub balds are visible here. (Photograph by the author. More about the photograph)

Many high-elevation areas of the Blue Ridge have no trees. As a result these areas are called balds.

The origin and persistence of mountain balds is poorly understood. Some scientists claim that they form in areas particularly susceptible to fires initiated by lightening strikes. Some say overgrazing by the livestock of early settlers eliminated previous plants and slowed the return of forests by inhibiting succession. Others trace the origin of balds to the tundra that covered the high elevations of the Blue Ridge during glacial periods. Whatever their origin, the balds and appear to have existed more or less unchanged for thousands of years.

There are two major types of Blue Ridge balds, those that are dominated by grasses and those that are dominated by shrubs of the heath family, particularly blueberries, rhododendrons, and laurels. There is also evidence that some bald areas are slowly giving way to young forests of maples, mountain ash, and willows. These types of balds and the apparent succession that is allowing forests to occupy some areas are shown in Figures 7 through 10.

Figure 7, taken at about 5500 feet, shows a grassy bald in the foreground, a shrub bald beyond the grass, and an expanse of shrub and grassy balds on the sides of Craggy Gardens Pinnacle in the background. Note the small shrubs sticking up above the grassy surface of the grassy bald and the small trees sticking up above the top of the rhododendron in the shrub bald. Both are indications that the processes of secondary plant succession are beginning to occur at this relatively protected site near Craggy Gardens Picnic Ground. Secondary succession is the term ecologists give to the sequence of plant occurrences in habitats that are reestablishing vegetative cover that has been removed by natural processes (such as fire, landslide, or flood) or human activity (such as forestry, farming, or paving).