by Jess Riddle : Forest Ecologist
One of the beauties inherent in having access to large areas of public land is the potential for discovery – uncovering places and things Google doesn’t know about. You can take your map and compass and keep finding out what’s just over the next ridge until you run out of time and energy. And just like every person is unique when you really get to know them, a close-up exploration of a landscape reveals that every crease and fold has its own flavor.
On most maps, the Long Mountain Georgia’s Mountain Treasure doesn’t grab the imagination with possibilities for exploration. This mountain treasure sweeps south from the Appalachian Trail ridge and borders Army Ranger Camp Frank D. Merrill on the north side of Dahlonega. In most places, such exposed sunny slopes would support a forest of moderate-sized, drought-tolerant oaks and thickets of mountain laurel. Yet this area, more out of the way than truly remote, may be one of the most underappreciated patches of ground in north Georgia.
The geologic map of the area, though, shows that the ground itself is reason for exploration. Rather than a single rock type underlying this area, geologists mapped this area as “metagraywacke/mica schist-quartzite/amphibolite.” That alphabet soup of rocks shows up on the ground in a number of eye-catching ways. Bright blue blades of kyanite shoot through the rocks in the backbone of Long Mountain. Books of mica as big as your boot lie scattered around old mining prospect pits on the lip of the escarpment. Chunks of amphibolite, with their rusty brown rinds and sparkling black cores, poke out of the leaf litter like cooked and crystallized lemons.
Long Mountain’s geological jumble gives rise to a diverse tapestry of plant communities, and the amphibolite “lemons” are clues to finding some of the most interesting ones. Unlike most rocks in northeast Georgia, amphibolite weathers into soils rich in calcium and magnesium. That unusual chemistry is likely the critical factor allowing several unusual plants to emerge from the soils in this area. Whorled stoneroot, with a feather duster of pinkish flowers, pokes up in the lower elevations. High up, orange-fruited horse gentian lives up to its name, with miniature “pumpkins” sitting in its leaf axils. Nutrient-demanding trees get in on the act too. Hackberries and black walnut create islands of shade on some of the rock outcrops, the highest of which provide great views of the Dahlonega area.
It’s hard to say whether extra nutrients or extra time to grow has been more important in allowing some more common trees like black oak to reach impressive sizes. Black oaks often tower along with chestnut oaks in the old-growth forest that covers the steep south-facing slopes of Long Mountain proper. Not surprisingly though, the largest trees grow in the small fragment of old-growth with more moisture. Tulip poplar just misses 5 feet in diameter in that stand, and on the fringes of the stand, northern red oak reaches 55 inches in diameter. The state champion chestnut oak, however, grows off by itself, a remnant of the original forest in a second-growth part of the area.
The folds and warps of more run-of-the-mill geology in the Long Mountain area have produced some of the most interesting nooks, though. A little stream dribbling over fragmented and nearly vertical rocks provides an oasis for many water-loving species, such as hazel alder, tassel rue, and brook lettuce. At the opposite end of the moisture spectrum, table mountain pine, Georgia’s least common pine, waits on steep ridges for a hot fire. These areas combine with pockets of rich soil and the more common communities to create a diverse landscape worthy of both further exploration and protection.