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The Natural Communities of Virginia
Classification of Ecological Community Groups

Second Approximation (Version 2.7)
Information current as of February, 2016

Table of Contents Table of Contents

Coastal Plain / Piedmont Bottomland Forests

This is a diverse group of temporarily flooded to seasonally flooded forests occupying floodplains and river terraces of the Coastal Plain and outer Piedmont . It includes all of the relatively well-drained forests of levees and higher terraces, along with wetter swamps that are not dominated by bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and tupelos (Nyssa spp.). In the larger Coastal Plain river bottoms, microtopographic heterogeneity is very high, and it can be difficult to determine flooding frequency and duration without repeated observations and study. Communities in this large group tend to sort themselves out along intersecting gradients that include relative elevation above stream level, hydroperiod, soil drainage, soil texture, and soil fertility.

Characteristic tree species vary with stream order, soil type, flooding regime, and successional status. High, infrequently flooded terraces along brownwater rivers (e.g., the Nottoway) of southeastern Virginia support swamp chestnut oak (Quercus michauxii), cherrybark oak (Quercus pagoda), shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), and sweetgum Liquidambar styraciflua), with an understory of deciduous holly (Ilex decidua var. decidua), American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana ssp. caroliniana and ssp. virginiana), Elliott's blueberry (Vaccinium elliottii), and parsely hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii), and other species of relatively well-drained soils. In the same drainages, low terraces or swales on higher terraces support forests of green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), water hickory (Carya aquatica), overcup oak (Quercus lyrata), and laurel oak (Quercus laurifolia), often with a minor component of bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica). These forests are usually flooded during the winter and early spring but exposed during much of the growing season. Their understory is typically open, with sedges and grasses (especially Carex typhina, Carex louisianica, and Leersia lenticularis) dominant in the herb layer. Analogous communities of the Piedmont and northern Coastal Plain are similar but with overstory dominance by willow oak (Quercus phellos) and pin oak (Quercus palustris).

The wettest swamps of the northern Coastal Plain are usually co-dominated by green ash and red maple (Acer rubrum), with large clones of hydrophytic forbs such as lizard's-tail (Saururus cernuus) in the herb layer. Herb layers of swamp forests contain many species well adapted to fluctuating water levels and often have distinctly seasonal aspects related to inundation and draw-down cycles. The early-season aspect of more deeply flooded microhabitats may be completely dominated by emergent aquatics such as eastern mannagrass (Glyceria septentrionalis), swamp dock (Rumex verticillatus), and Virginia blue flag (Iris virginica). Late-season draw-down zones are often lush with common wood reedgrass (Cinna arundinacea) and forbs such as lizard's tail, false nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica), small beggar's-ticks (Bidens discoidea), winged monkeyflower (Mimulus alatus), mad-dog skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), and dense-flowered smartweed (Persicaria glabra). Such swamps are particularly important conservators of diverse animal populations because of their landscape continuity, abundance of water, and multifaceted food and habitat resources. These communities typically support an array of nesting birds, mammals, invertebrates, reptiles, and amphibians.

On sandy levees and well-drained terraces of inner Coastal Plain and southern Piedmont rivers, stands often lack a significant oak component and contain mixed overstories of sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), hackberries (Celtis occidentalis and Celtis laevigata), American elm (Ulmus americana), river birch (Betula nigra), and green ash. A rich floodplain forest containing American beech (Fagus grandifolia), bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis), Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii), swamp chestnut oak, and a diverse assortment of nutrient-demanding herbs has been documented on floodplains of the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, and Rappahannock Rivers in east-central Virginia. On small stream bottoms, where alluvial landforms and habitat conditions occur at very small scales, trees typical of both levees and swamps may occur in mixed stands. On well-drained small stream bottoms, tulip-tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) is often important. Understory and herbaceous composition is highly variable with geography and site conditions.

References: Crouch (1990), Fleming (2002a), Fleming and Moorhead (1998), Frost and Musselman (1987), Glascock and Ware (1979), McCoy and Fleming (2000), Parker and Wyatt (1975), Parsons and Ware (1982), Rheinhardt et al . (2000), Walton et al. (2001).

Click on the images below to open a larger image in a separate window.

This link opens a new browser window to display a larger photo Drawn-down, shortly seasonally flooded swamp forest on a low terrace along the Nottoway river in Southampton County. The overstory is dominated by overcup oak (Quercus lyrata<>), water hickory (Carya aquatica), and some bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), while catchfly cutgrass (Leersia lenticularis) and cypress-swamp sedge (Carex joorii) carpet the forest floor. Photo: Gary P. Fleming / © DCR Natural Heritage.
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Fern-rich floodplain forest along a tributary of Hatcher Run near Five Forks, Dinwiddie County (Petersburg National Battlefield). The overstory dominant is sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and the prevalent ferns are southern lady fern (Athyrium asplenioides) and New York fern (Parathelypteris noveboracensis). Photo: Gary P. Fleming / © DCR Natural Heritage.
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Dense herb layer of ferns and sedges under red maple (Acer rubrum) in a floodplain forest along North Wilderness Run, Orange County (Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Military Park). Photo: Gary P. Fleming / © DCR Natural Heritage.
This link opens a new browser window to display a larger photo Lush herbaceous growth of common wood reedgrass (Cinna arundinacea), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), halberd-leaf tearthumb (Persicaria arifolia), and other species in a floodplain forest along the headwaters of Quantico Creek, Prince William Forest Park, Prince William County. Photo: Gary P. Fleming / © DCR Natural Heritage.
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Spring-flooded swamp forest along the Chickahominy River in Hanover County. Photo: © Irvine Wilson
This link opens a new browser window to display a larger photo A mature, pin oak (Quercus palustris)-dominated backswamp covering ca. 1.5 ha along the South Anna River in Hanover County. The dense herb layer is dominated by sedges, particularly Carex typhina , C tribuloides , C. louisianica , and C. lupulina . Photo: Gary P. Fleming.
This link opens a new browser window to display a larger photo A mature Coastal Plain / Piedmont Swamp Forest co-dominated by willow oak (Quercus phellos) and pin oak (Q. palustris), with a patchy shrub layer of deciduous holly (Ilex decidua var. decidua), and an herb layer consisting largely of cattail sedge (Carex typhina). Backswamp of the Willis River near Trents Mill, Cumberland County (Cumberland State Forest). Photo: Gary P. Fleming. This link opens a new browser window to display a larger photo




Seasonally flooded swamp forest dominated by green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) and lizard's-tail (Saururus cernuus). Beaverdam Creek, York County (Colonial National Historical Park). Photo: Gary P. Fleming / © DCR Natural Heritage.

Good examples of this group are a continuing priority for data collection since this vegetation and its habitats are complex, variable, often disturbed, and difficult to interpret. Data from more than 175 plots have been collected from several landscapes and numerous discrete watershed localities in eastern Virginia (map). The classification of several community types listed below resulted from a regional analysis of 154 Maryland and Virginia floodplain plots; other units were crosswalked to existing NVC types following a state-wide analysis of Coastal Plain and eastern Piedmont bottomland data. Some questions concerning the within-state distributions of these units and their relationship to associations currently in the USNVC remain to be answered. Click on any highlighted CEGL code below to view the global USNVC description provided by NatureServe Explorer.

  • Acer rubrum - Fraxinus pennsylvanica / Saururus cernuus Forest
    Coastal Plain / Piedmont Floodplain Swamp (Green Ash - Red Maple Type)
    USNVC: = CEGL006606
    Global/State Ranks: G4/S3S4

  • Quercus lyrata - Fraxinus pennsylvanica - (Carya aquatica, Quercus laurifolia) / Carex louisianica - Leersia lenticularis Forest
    Coastal Plain Bottomland Forest (Brownwater Low Terrace Type)
    USNVC: < CEGL007397
    Global/State Ranks: G4G5/S3?

  • Quercus phellos - Quercus (palustris, lyrata) / Ilex decidua / Carex typhina - (Carex grayi) Forest
    Southern Piedmont / Inner Coastal Plain Mixed Oak Floodplain Swamp
    USNVC: = CEGL006498
    Global/State Ranks: G3?/S3

  • Quercus (phellos, palustris, michauxii) - Liquidambar styraciflua / Cinna arundinacea Forest
    Northern Coastal Plain / Inner Piedmont Mixed Oak Floodplain Swamp
    USNVC: = CEGL006605
    Global/State Ranks: G3G4/S3?

  • Quercus michauxii - Quercus pagoda - Carya ovata / Carpinus caroliniana / Carex abscondita Forest
    Coastal Plain Bottomland Forest (Brownwater High Terrace Type)
    USNVC: = CEGL004678
    Global/State Ranks: G3G4/S3?

  • Fagus grandifolia - Carya cordiformis - (Quercus michauxii, Quercus shumardii) / Ilex opaca / Podophyllum peltatum Forest
    Northern Coastal Plain Beech - Mixed Hardwood Floodplain Forest
    USNVC: = CEGL006493
    Global/State Ranks: GNR/S1?

  • Liquidambar styraciflua - Quercus (michauxii, shumardii) - Carya cordiformis / Ilex decidua / Carex amphibola Forest
    Southern Piedmont / Inner Coastal Plain Floodplain Terrace Forest
    USNVC: = CEGL007006
    Global/State Ranks: G3G4/S3

  • Platanus occidentalis - Celtis occidentalis - Ulmus americana - Fraxinus pennsylvanica / Acer negundo / Chasmanthium latifolium Forest
    Southern Piedmont / Inner Coatal Plain Floodplain Levee Forest
    USNVC: = CEGL007013
    Global/State Ranks: G3G4/S3

  • Liquidambar styraciflua - Liriodendron tulipifera / Lindera benzoin / Arisaema triphyllum Forest
    Coastal Plain / Piedmont Small-Stream Floodplain Forest
    USNVC: = CEGL004418
    Global/State Ranks: G4/S4

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