Woodland Communities

In each of the communities covered, a photograph of the community is accompanied by a description of the soil conditions favored, the distribution of the community, and other points of interest. This summary is followed by two lists; the list entitled 'Typical indicator species' includes plant species which tend to be dominant and typify the community. The second list, entitled 'Species to watch for' includes some of the rarer species which - in our area at least - tend to favor this community. Becoming familiar with the commoner species and their association with each other can be a good step toward finding rarer or more interesting plants.

Dry Pine-Oak Forest

Dry Pine-Oak Forest Dry Pine-Oak Forest Dry Pine-Oak Forest
Typical oak-dominated forest with a
ground layer of Black and Tall Huckle-
berries and thin shrub layer of juneberry,
Staggerbush, blueberries etc.
Mixed pine-oak forest with
emergent Pitch Pines.
Area of dry pine-oak forest with dense
understory of Mountain-laurel.

The term 'pine-oak' is used here to include all types of woodland dominated by a mix of pine and oak species on drier, sandy soils. Many ecologists differentiate 'pine-oak' from 'oak-pine' based on the relative percentages of pines and oaks present but, for simplicity, here they are all included under one heading. Areas dominated by pines and oaks make up the vast majority of woodland in the northern third of the county, becoming progressively less common southward, as soil types change. These stands typically grow on the driest soils, mostly made up of free-draining sands. In Cape May, these are the closest communities to pine barren habitats, but differ generally in having less diversity of associated plant species and, in particular, not containing many of the pine barren specialty plants.

In the driest areas, these woods typically appear rather open (despite a closed canopy), due to the generally low-shrub understory, dominated by members of the heath family - most notably Black Huckleberry. Pitch Pine, Scarlet Oak and Chestnut Oak are particularly dominant in such areas. In areas of slightly richer soils, where there may be a slight increase in soil moisture, Mountain-laurel becomes dominant and forms a taller, impenetrable shrub layer with little or no field layer beneath. The progression from the driest woods to the moister, Mountain-laurel areas generally sees a gradual increase in woody plant species, with Oblong-leaved Juneberry, Black Cherry, Flowering Dogwood and other species of pine and oak appearing in the mix. Stands of Bigtooth Aspen appear in a few of the moister areas.

Throughout much of this type of woodland, the tree canopy can be fairly open but the shrub layer can be dense, especially in areas carpeted with huckleberry species. For this reason, the field layer of herbaceous plants can be poor, except in openings and clearings. Such clearings were, in the past, often created by forest fires but today, such fires are suppressed and the clearing of trails and powerline rights of way provides critical open habitat for many herbaceous plant species.

Progression to moister soils can produce a slow gradient into other mixed forest types, as typically happens southward along the spine of the county. In contrast, plant community changes can be quite sudden where streams or low-lying areas cut into the soil profile. Dry pine-oak forest can change rapidly into white cedar swamp in some areas, while the more diverse plant communities around the margins of old cranberry bogs - especially in the Tuckahoe watershed, can produce a rapid shift to a rich understory of woody perennials, as well as a much richer herbaceous layer.
Typical indicator species
  • Shortleaf Pine
  • Pitch Pine
  • Black-edged Sedge
  • Scarlet Oak
  • Chestnut Oak
  • Sheep-laurel
  • Mountain-laurel
  • Tall Huckleberry
  • Black Huckleberry
  • Dwarf Huckleberry
  • Species to watch for
  • Virginia Sweet-pea
  • Pennsylvania Sedge
  • Ipecac Spurge
  • Low Frostweed
  • Long-branched Frostweed
  • Fern-leaved False-foxglove
  • Downy False-foxglove
  • Slender Aster
  • Eastern Showy Aster
  • Shaggy Blazing Star

  • Upland Mixed Forest

    Upland Mixed Forest Upland Mixed Forest
    Huckleberries carpet the ground in more
    open areas, but disappear with the shading
    effect of understory trees such as American
    Typical upland forest in winter with
    emergent oaks, Mockernut Hickory and
    Sassafras, and a well-developed under-
    story of American Holly.

    This is a very broad group of woodland communities, as the dominant tree species can vary according to subtle differences in soil types. To differentiate these communities from wet woods, upland is considered to be any soils that are not seasonally flooded at any point during the course of the year. This plant community group more or less forms the progession between the pine-oak woods that dominate the northern third of the county, and the wet woodlands that occur throughout the area in low-lying locations, and become more dominant southward. These communities are generally more rich in woody plant species than the pine-oak woods, having a greater diversity of oak species and often having hickories mixed in. A sub-group within this cluster of communities can be found in the lower part of the county, where American Beech becomes dominant in a handful of locations, often with American Hornbeam as an understory tree.

    An understory of smaller trees commonly contains American Holly and Flowering Dogwood, while the shrub layer can vary according to soil type; woods with much holly can be rather species-poor in the field layer, due to the shading effect of the hollies, but Spotted Wintergreen and Partridgeberry are often common. Where holly is sparse or absent, the ground flora can be extensive, often including showy mats of American Wood Anemone, May-apple and a variety of liliaceous plants.

    Typical indicator species        
  • Thicket Sedge
  • American Beech
  • Southern Red Oak
  • Willow Oak
  • Mockernut Hickory
  • Pignut Hickory
  • American Spindle
  • Flowering Dogwood
  • Partridgeberry
  • American Holly
  • Veined Hawkweed
  • Trumpet Honeysuckle
  • Canadian Sanicle
  • Species to watch for
  • Indian Cucumber-root
  • Moccasin-flower
  • Downy Rattlesnake-orchid
  • Starry False Solomon's-seal
  • Canada Mayflower
  • Smooth Solomon's-seal
  • May-apple
  • American Wood Anemone
  • Thicket Hawthorn
  • American Hornbeam
  • Sand Hickory
  • Indian-pipe
  • Pinesap
  • Pink Azalea
  • Beechdrops
  • American Dittany

  • Plantation Woodland

    Plantation Woodland Plantation Woodland
    Dense, tall stands of Eastern White Pine
    on Jake's Landing Road.
    Typical Eastern White Pine
    plantation with poorly
    developed understory.

    Plantations are woodlands that have been planted artificially, usually to provide lumber. Many species of tree can be used for this purpose but, in the Cape May area, plantations are almost always of Eastern White Pine. To ensure a strong, straight growth, the trees are planted close together, resulting in a densely shaded forest floor, and thus very little understory or ground flora. Species such as Partridgeberry and Spotted Wintergreen (that do well under American Holly stands) can often be found in the ground flora, but more often, the flora consists of persistent alien species such as Japanese Honeysuckle and Coralberry. Very occasionally, a rare species may be found under the trees, which probably represent relics from before the original woodland was felled. In a few areas, Loblolly Pine (and Loblolly x Pitch Pine hybrids) and Norway Spruce have been planted, especially in Belleplain State Forest after the last major Gypsy Moth attack on the native oaks.

    Plantations can be readily recognized by the fact that the trees are in straight rows, and by the poor ground flora. Thankfully there are few of them in the county and Cape May's woodlands are still largely natural. There are too few plantation areas of any size, and they vary widely according to soil type, that it is not possible to draw up a complete list of typical indicator species or species to watch for.

    Typical indicator species        
  • Eastern White Pine
  • Partridgeberry
  • Spotted Wintergreen
  • Species to watch for
  • Downy Rattlesnake-orchid

  • Mixed Wet Forest

    Mixed Wet Forest Mixed Wet Forest Mixed Wet Forest
    Mixed wet forest with Walter's
    Sedge a typical dominant
    groundlayer species in the
    wettest areas.
    Rich forest flora with Skunk-cabbage,
    Marsh Marigold, Marsh Blue Violet,
    and many ferns and sedges.
    Mixed wet forest with a rich
    shrub layer bordering a
    blackwater stream in winter.

    This group of woodland communities follows the progression of natural forests in the region. They form the intergrade between upland mixed forest and wet maple swamp, and form the most species-rich of woodland communities. Generally these woods form narrow corridors along existing waterways, such as the upper, freshwater stretches of the Tuckahoe River, but they also form more extensive stands at the headwaters of major wetlands such as Cedar Swamp, Beaver Swamp and Lizard-tail Swamp. In addition, there are smaller wet woods in the southern half of the county and these constitute the most species-rich and most botanically important wetlands in Cape May. While Red Maple is usually present as a canopy tree, it shares space in these woods with a number of other species, with the mix varying somewhat from north to south, though Sweetgum is generally found throughout. Northerly woods often have some Eastern White-cedar and Gray Birch mixed in, with Northern Spicebush in the understorey; gradually the birch is replaced by Blackgum and Sweetbay Magnolia, while fine stands of American Tulip-tree occur mid-county, and the most diverse wet woods have Green Ash, Pumpkin Ash, or Swamp Chestnut Oak in the mix.

    The understory in these woods varies in density, mostly according to the periodicity of water inundation - wetter areas tend to have less of an understory. However, many of these woods have an extensive and diverse shrub layer, including several species of Cornus, Viburnum, and Vaccinium as well as many other species. Perhaps most noticable in these woods, however, is the rich diversity of sedges and ferns that occur in many of them, while woods on the most acidic soils have carpets of sphagnum moss. Where streams run through these woods an even greater diversity of plants may be found, with the edges of the water courses providing home for Cardinal-flower, White Turtlehead, Southern Adder's-tongue, American Golden-saxifrage, Marsh-marigold and many more species.

    Typical indicator species             
  • Cinnamon Fern
  • American Royal Fern
  • Netted Chain Fern
  • Sweetbay Magnolia
  • Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Canada Mayflower
  • Howe's Sedge
  • Fringed Sedge
  • Greater Bladder Sedge
  • May-apple
  • Sweetgum
  • Blackgum
  • American Chickweed-wintergreen
  • Common Sweet Pepperbush
  • Swamp Azalea
  • Maleberry
  • Swamp Sweetbells
  • Green Ash
  • Inkberry
  • Southern Arrowwood
  • Possumhaw
  • Species to watch for
  • Southern Adder's-tongue
  • Cut-leaved Grape-fern
  • Northern Lady Fern
  • Northern Spicebush
  • Swamp-pink
  • Perfoliate Bellwort
  • Laurel-leaved Greenbrier
  • Southern Twayblade
  • Swamp Wedgescale
  • Tall Meadow-rue
  • Virginia Sweetspire
  • American Golden-saxifrage
  • Soft Agrimony
  • Swamp Chestnut Oak
  • Swamp Cottonwood
  • Virginia Spring-beauty
  • Gray Dogwood
  • Pumpkin Ash
  • White Turtlehead

  • Maple Swamp

    Maple Swamp Maple Swamp Maple Swamp
    Waterlogged maple swamp in winter. Some maple swamps have a ground-
    layer rich in sphagnum moss.
    Late-season herbaceous plant species
    (such as Cardinal-flower and the water-
    horehounds) do well in maple swamps,
    as the swamps are at their driest later
    in the year.

    The wettest areas of woodland, that receive the greatest number of days of freshwater inundation, tend to develop into swamps that are dominated by stands of Red Maple. These stands can be overwhelmingly dominated by this one species of tree, and often have little ground flora except mats of sphagnum moss, often with a fringing tangle of Round-leaved Greenbrier toward the drier edges. In contrast, other Red Maple swamps can form a gradient from mixed wet forest, with extensive colonies of Skunk-cabbage as the commonest associate species, as well as an assortment of ferns and sedges. Lizard's-tail is also a frequent species, especially where water or wet mud is more or less permanent throughout the year. These wettest of Cape May's woods can hold a few surprises, perhaps in part because they can be so hard to get into. At least one maple swamp near Goshen was visited in 2012 and found to have a number of young Bald Cypress trees growing in it. This species is generally not considered to be native this far north, but the remoteness of the location makes it unlikely they were planted.

    Typical indicator species        
  • Lizard's-tail
  • Skunk-cabbage
  • Howe's Sedge
  • White Cut-grass
  • Red Chokeberry
  • Swamp Loosestrife
  • Red Maple
  • Blackgum
  • Common Winterberry
  • Species to watch for
  • Bald Cypress
  • Swamp-pink
  • Green False-helleborine
  • American Mistletoe
  • American Featherfoil
  • Golden Ragwort

  • White Cedar Swamp

    White Cedar Swamp White Cedar Swamp White Cedar Swamp
    Tall, dense stands of Atlantic
    Cedar swamp with herb layer
    of ferns, blueberries and
    Cedar swamp in winter
    showing the strict vertical
    structure of the community.

    Along the courses of the most acidic, blackwater streams in the north of Cape May County, Atlantic White-cedar can be found forming almost pure stands of tall, tightly-packed trees. The densest stands often resemble plantation woods, shading out any understory and few plants are found underneath, except for mats of sphagnum moss. But other stands may be more open and have a more diverse understory of ferns, sedges and a few woody perennials. In areas where saltwater incursion is creeping into cedar swamps, the cedars are dying, and these areas are gradually opening up and forming transitional habitats with neighbouring plant communities.

    Although white cedar swamps are generally species-poor when it comes to plants, they attract other forms of wildlife, and such stands can be home to Pine-barren Treefrogs, Hessel's Hairstreak and Appalachian Browns, among others. Where the stands border dense beds of sphagnums, along the margins of savannas and old cranberry bogs, there can be good populations of pitcherplants present.

    Typical indicator species        
  • American Royal Fern
  • Atlantic White-cedar
  • Howe's Sedge
  • Collins' Sedge
  • Species to watch for
  • Laurel-leaved Greenbrier
  • Walter's Greenbrier
  • Smooth Winterberry

  • Coastal Dune Forest

    Coastal Dune Forest Coastal Dune Forest Coastal Dune Forest
    Typical dense tangle of deciduous and
    evergreen trees at Avalon.
    Dense, tangled dune forest. Dune forest at Higbee Beach, with
    understory of Japanese Honeysuckle
    and Chinese Privet.

    Coastal dune forest was once widespread in Cape May, smothering the barrier islands and the coastal areas of Cape May Point in a dense tangle of woodland and vines. Sadly, overdevelopment has seen this become a rare and fragile plant community now, with small remnant stands found in just one or two pocket handerchief-sized lots at Avalon and Stone Harbor. A larger stand of this community can still be found at Higbee Beach WMA, though the quality of the community has been greatly reduced by severe missuse of the dunes in the past, resulting in disturbance and consequent colonization by invasive alien plants. The plant species in these woods are essentially the same as those found in neighbouring successional habitats and upland mixed forest areas, but in the dune communities, the canopy height is lower, allowing smaller trees such as American Holly and Post Oak to be co-dominants rather than merely associates.

    On the seaward side, where communities have been left intact, a succession can be seen from dune forest through the various coastal dune and scrub habitats to open beach. On the landward side, succession may go to upland mixed forest or to maple swamp or more open wetland habitats according to soil type and location. Pehraps due to the high levels of disturbance in the past, these habitats tend not to hold any rare plant species, but they nevertheless provide valuable habitat for much wildlife, particularly migratory songbirds and breeding herons and egrets.

    Typical indicator species        
  • Virginia Juniper
  • Sassafras
  • Summer Grape
  • Multiflora Rose
  • Black Cherry
  • Post Oak
  • Southern Red Oak

  • Successional Scrub

    Successional Scrub Successional Scrub Successional Scrub
    Early scrub colonization by Sweetgum,
    Black Cherry and Winged Sumac on
    abandoned golf course.
    Dense scrubby habitat dominated by
    Multiflora Rose at Higbee Beach WMA.
    Scrub developing on abandoned farm-
    land and dominated by Callery Pear,
    seeded from neighboring backyard
    Bradford Pears.

    In theory every piece of land, if left undisturbed for long enough, will develop a climax habitat. If an area of land is cleared then left, plants will gradually recolonize the site in a more or less predictable order, going through a series of temporary habitats before reaching a settled equilibrium. This final habitat is known as climax habitat and its constituent parts are defined by soil type and a number of external factors, centered mostly around weather influences, such as wind, rain and temperature, as well as geography (gradient of land, aspect etc.). The various stages are known as successional habitats, and these too vary according to the same external factors. In Cape May County, this process is most often seen when farmland is abandoned and a series of open habitats gradually become scrub, then woodland. Successional scrub in our area tends to be largely dominated by non-native species, especially Multiflora Rose, Autumn-olive and Callery Pear. All three of these species have advantages over native species in favoring open habitats, being early into leaf in spring (and thus getting a head start) and in producing copious amounts of berries, which are spread by birds. The dominance of these species masks the true successional scrub habitat of the region, but this can be found in some places. Successional scrub dominated by native species will consist largely of Virginia Juniper, Black Cherry and Winged Sumac, with Northern Bayberry also coming in at a relatively early stage. As canopy height increases, Sassafras, Black Walnut and Persimmon can become important constituents.

    As these are successional habitats, they don't tend to hold much in the way of rare or unusual plants, but occasionally there can be remnants of grassland or other open communities which may hold a few species of interest before the canopy closes over, especially if the ground is wet.

    Typical indicator species        
  • Virginia Juniper
  • Multiflora Rose
  • Black Cherry
  • Callery Pear
  • Autumn-olive
  • Winged Sumac
  • Japanese Honeysuckle