The Pocket, Pigeon Mountain, GA
  Jul 20, 2005 13:16 PDT 

The Pocket, a recess in the edge of the Cumberland Plateau in the
northwest corner of Georgia, harbors a variety of diverse forests and
several state rare species. Pocket Branch forms a miniature gorge in the
otherwise gentle floor of the northwest facing hollow. For close to 900'
elevation, the surrounding sweep of slopes rise at an overall moderate
incline up to the edge of the Cumberland Plateau. Most of the slopes
have a stair-stepped profile since relatively flat benches alternate with
rows of boulders and highly fragmented five to 10' high cliffs.
Limestone underlies most of the formation, but sandstone is also present,
and probably accounts for the more erosion resistant layers.

Sassafras and carolina buckthorn fringe the large field that still
occupies the floor of the cove, but multiple distinct and diverse
second-growth forest communities still occur in the area. On the
relatively moist, north facing slopes in the middle of the cove, sugar
maple (probably) dominates with northern red oak, white ash, (probably)
tuliptree and other hardwoods. In those areas, four to five foot high
sugar maples grow at densities more often achieved by herbaceous plants
like jewelweed, and completely obscure the ground. A moister and richer
community occurs in the narrow cove below the falls, which apparently no
longer fall, on Pocket Branch. Tuliptree and sweetgum dominate,
particular in the younger alluvial flat, but white basswood, white ash
(probably), bitternut hickory, northern red oak are all common.
Spicebush, paw paw, and bladdernut all grow in the understory. The
herbaceous layer mirrors the canopy diversity with glade fern, doll's
eyes, yellow mandarin, walking fern, and several others.

Farther away from the stream, the stepped structure of the slopes
revealing bedrock close to the surface is more apparent, but the species
composition still reflects rich, if drier, soils. On the northeast
facing slopes, white ash, chinquapin oak, shumard oak, and southern
shagbark hickory form a mixed canopy about 70' high. Hophornbean, rusty
blackhaw, and redbud mix in much of the understory, but areas sparse
understory or thick hoptree are also present. Areas with the fewest
shrubs tended to have the thickest herbaceous layers; grasses are
abundant, and one species of mint is common above them.
A slightly drier appearing forest occurs on some steeper west facing
slopes. White ash, southern shagbark hickory, and chinquapin oak are
again common, but make up a smaller proportion of the overstory. Sugar
maple, eastern red cedar, and smoketree fill in much of the remaining
canopy. Ohio buckeye grows in a midstory position over rusty blackhaw,
hoptree, and sparkleberry.

Species                        Cbh            Height            Comment
Ash, Blue                     41            64.2           
Establishes state height record
Basswood, White         NA            117.3
Buckeye, Yellow          110            NA            Remnant
Hickory, Bitternut         NA             104.1
Hoptree                        7               25.0           
Establishes state height record
Mulberry, Red              44            51.6            Establishes
state height record
Oak, Chinquapin           71            NA
Oak, Chinquapin           56            94.3            State height
Oak, Northern Red       NA            118.7
Oak, White                   NA            117.3
Pine, Virginia                57            99.2
Smoketree                    49            48.7            Current
State Champion
Smoketree                    41            59.4            Potential
State Co-champion
Smoketree                    43 @ 8'3" 60.7            Potential State
Smoketree                    NA             62.9            State height
Sweetgum                     NA            113.5
Tuliptree                       NA            120.5
Tuliptree                       NA            128.1
Virginia Creeper           1'4"             NA
Walnut, Black               NA            109.5

In addition to the blue ash and smoketree listed above, the ohio buckeye
population is significant for the state. Ohio buckeye is known in
Georgia from only one other site where it occurs as a shrub. Similarly,
blue ash is known from only two other sites in the state, one of them
recently discovered. Of the three, smoketree has the smallest overall
range, and has not been found elsewhere in Georgia.

Smoketree (Cotinus obovatus) may be one of the coolest trees in eastern
North America. The leaves are fairly large, blunt tipped oval, not
flashy, but fairly distinctive; Michael Davie has also commented on the
excellent fall color the trees planted around Nashville displays. The
name comes from the structure of flower clusters; the trees produce large
clusters on small flowers on fine, highly branched panicles. Only a few
of the flowers produce small seeds, so the airy support structures give
the trees a somewhat smoke shrouded appearance. The trees also have
distinctive, dark gray, scaly bark. Since the scales attach in the
center, the overall effect is similar to black cherry or some pines.
Surprisingly, the bark is very thin, and can easily be scratched away to
expose decay resistant wood. The wood is initially bright yellow or
orange yellow, and oxidizes dark brown. The trees often produce a few
sizeable sprouts from their bases, and the main stem often forks low into
long straight stems. Due to the decay resistance and thin bark, strips
of exposed wood often spiral up the trunk and weathered old stems linger
at the base. The smoketrees at the pocket are larger than the sizes
often given for the species in literature.

Jess Riddle