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Characterization of a Disjunct Population of Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and Surrounding Plant Communities in the North Carolina Piedmont After 65 Years of Forest Change

Austin M. Thomas1,*, Mark E. Johns2, and Robert M. Jetton1

1Camcore, Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, North Carolina State University, Campus Box 8008, Raleigh, NC 27695. 2Stevens Nature Center at Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve, 2616 Kildaire Farm Road, Cary, NC 27518. *Corresponding author.

Southeastern Naturalist,Volume 20, Issue 3 (2021): 377–398

Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve is a 57-ha preserve in the piedmont of North Carolina. A small disjunct Tsuga canadensis (Eastern Hemlock) population exists in the preserve, primarily within a microclimate on a north-facing bluff. A study published in 1956 included a 1952–1953 inventory of the hemlock population as well as records of the local flora and climate. We re-inventoried the Eastern Hemlock population, conducted a new floristic survey, and recorded new climate data in the preserve in 2018–2019. Our new data reveal a notable change in both the Eastern Hemlock population and preserve-wide stand structure. Only 2% average light transmittance through the canopy was recorded in the preserve in the 2019 growing season, compared to 11% in the 1953 growing season (P = 0.02). At least 7 plant taxa underwent notable shifts in distribution, mostly moving down-slope on the bluff face. Average ambient air temperatures on the bluff were 1.62 °C higher in 2018–2019 than in 1952–1953. Canopy closure, inbreeding depression, increased temperatures, erosion, and browsing by Odocoileus virginianus (White-tailed Deer) all likely contribute to low Eastern Hemlock seed germination and high seedling mortality within the preserve. These factors may also partially account for observed shifts in floristic distribution. In addition to mortality caused by Adelges tsugae (Hemlock Woolly Adelgid), these environmental changes endanger the future viability of this Eastern Hemlock population.

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