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Cumberland Plateau

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About the Cumberland Plateau

The Cumberland Plateau is a plateau in the Southwestern Appalachians, extending from eastern Kentucky, through Tennessee and into northeastern Alabama, with the bulk of the region located within Tennessee.

This region is flatter than much of its surroundings, with gently rolling terrain throughout most of the region, and a few open low mountains. It is underlain by sandstone, conglomerate, shale, and siltstone, but this bedrock is covered in most area with relatively thick soils that are well-drained, acidic, and low in nutrients. The region has a humid subtropical climate which is cooler and has higher rainfall than surrounding low-elevation regions. Rainfall is high through most of the year, but there is a slightly drier season from August to October.

This area originally supported mostly the highly diverse mixed mesophytic forest, with American chestnut (Castanea dentata) and oaks on the drier sites. In the south of this region, chestnut and oak forest covered a greater portion of the uplands and the mesophytic forest was mostly limited to more sheltered ravines. The mesophytic forest included tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), white ash (Fraxinus americana), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), and eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), and in the south, Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra). Drier sites supported chestnut, white oak (Quercus alba), and other oaks, and some pine, with pine becoming more common towards the south.

The forests here have been largely cleared, but many have regrown; the area was utilized for some time for agriculture, but much of the agriculture has been abandoned due to the poor fertility of the soil. There is some pastureland and less cropland remaining; the region produces mainly livestock, and some hay, corn, and tobacco. There has been significant mining here, and there are both reclaimed and unreclaimed mine lands. Logging and mining has degraded waterways in much of the region; the absence of calcareous soil minerals leads stream acidification to be a major problem here. This region is more populous than more rugged neighboring regions, but much of it is still sparsely-populated. The largest city is Crossville, TN, and there are a number of small towns as well as scattered rural residential development, mostly along the corridors where US Highways 70 and 127 and interstate 40 cut through the region.

The forest composition here has changed considerably; chestnut has been virtually eliminated by the blight, replaced by mixed oaks. Mixed oak forests are still common, as are mixed mesophytic forests on the more mesic sites. However, many of the forests here are in early-successional stages. Recently-abandoned agricultural land supports Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana), shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata), red maple (Acer rubrum), and tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), except on lower and north-facing slopes, where early-successional forests are dominated by tuliptree and red maple.

This region is bordered to the northwest, and also surrounded to the south, and in the south of the region, also to the east, by the Plateau Escarpment, a steep, heavily-dissected region that represents a transition between this and the lower-elevation regions. The borders become more complex and irregular to the south of this region, and there is also an interior region where this escarpment descends into the separate Sequatchie Valley. In the north of this region, it is bordered to the east by the Dissected Appalachian Plateau and to the northeast by the Ohio/Kentucky Carboniferous Plateau.

Plant Lists & In-Region Search

We do not yet have data to generate plant lists for a region as fine-tuned as this one. However you can move up to the broader Southwestern Appalachians and generate lists for that region: native plants or all plants. Or search that region's plants here:


1. Woods, A.J., Omernik, J.M., Martin, W.H., Pond, G.J., Andrews, W.M., Call, S.M, Comstock, J.A., and Taylor, D.D. "Ecoregions of Kentucky (Poster)", U.S. Geological Survey, Reston, VA (2002) Web.

2. Griffith, G.E.; Omernik, J.M.; and Azevedo, S.H. "Ecoregions of Tennessee (Poster)", U.S. Geological Survey, Reston, VA (1998) Web.

3. Griffith, G.E., Omernik, J.M., Comstock, J.A., Lawrence, S., Martin, G., Goddard, A., Hulcher, V.J., and Foster, T. "Ecoregions of Alabama and Georgia (color poster with map, descriptive text, summary tables, and photographs)", U.S. Geological Survey, Reston, VA (2001) Web.