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Grasslands, Barrens, Balds & Savannas

Most people don't think about Tennessee as having grasslands. In fact, many people probably still subscribe to the old adage that a squirrel could have traveled from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River without ever having touched the ground. The view that eastern North America was mostly a big close-canopied forest prior to European settlement is no longer widely accepted as fact. Many ecologists and botanists argue that the East is littered with various types of grass-dominated communities some covering an area the size of a house or smaller and others that at least historically covered thousands of square miles. All parts of Tennessee presently have or once had grasslands, from the lower elevations of West Tennessee's Coastal Plain to the highest mountain summits along the backbone of the Appalachians. As recognized here, our grasslands fall into four major groups: prairies, barrens, balds, and savannas. The first three are all dominated by grasses or grasslike plants (e.g. sedges) and various herbaceous species. Shrubs and trees are scarce and usually stunted or small in size. Savannas are closely related to grasslands and oftentimes grade into adjacent woodlands and grasslands much like an ecotone. Savannas have more tree canopy coverage than grasslands, generally 10-30%, compared to tree canopy coverage in woodlands which typically is 30-75% or greater.  Below, the distinctive characteristics of each system type are described in more detail.