By: Elray S. Nixon

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: September 1, 1995

To early explorers and settlers, the forests of East Texas must have been an awesome sight. On dry hills in Southeast Texas, longleaf pines towered to 150 feet and had bases four to five feet in diameter. The woods were open and easily accessible. Mesic uplands and creekbottoms in other parts of eastern Texas also contained large trees. Magnificent open forests of white oak, beech, elm, water oak, and magnolia occurred in creekbottoms, as did thick clumps of switch cane. In bottomlands, tree trunks stood far apart and sometimes were so big that three men could not touch hands around them. Giant cypress trees were encountered in swamps and sloughs. The pristine forest was a beautiful sight. As settlers increased in numbers, they cut trees for houses, barns, and furniture and cleared forests for farmland. Thus the numbers of large trees began to decline. By 1830 sawmills began to dot the East Texas landscape. As the mills increased in size and were modernized, and as more people settled in East Texas, the primeval forest was manipulated until few remnants of the original forest, if any, remained. Therefore, most forests in East Texas are in youngers stages of plant succession. In addition many are still being managed for the production of pine. Pine plantations are commonplace over the East Texas landscape. On the other hand, several sites in eastern Texas contain old-growth stands that remind us of how the primitive forest might have looked. Such forests can be found, for example, in Caddo Lake State Park and Turkey Hill Wilderness Area.

A forest is a large area containing closely spaced trees. Texas has approximately 22,032,000 acres of forest. There are five principal forest and woodland regions in the state: pine-hardwood, located essentially in East Texas in the Pine Belt or "Piney Woods"; post oak, associated primarily with the Lost Pines Forest in Bastrop County; the Eastern and Western Cross Timbers, centered around the northern part of the state near the Red River; cedar brakes, found primarily on the Edwards Plateau; and scattered coastal forests, found near the Gulf of Mexico. There are four national forests in Texas: Angelina (153,176 acres), in Angelina, Jasper, Nacogdoches, and San Augustine counties; Davy Crockett(161,841 acres), in Houston and Trinity counties; Sabine (160,609 acres), in Jasper, Newton, Sabine, San Augustine, and Shelby counties; and Sam Houston (161,508 acres), in Montgomery, San Jacinto, and Walker counties. The five Texas state forests are the E. O. Siecke State Forest, I. D. Fairchild State Forest, W. Goodrich Jones State Forest, John Henry Kirby State Forest, and Paul N. Masterson Memorial Forest. All the state and national forests are located in East Texas, the primary and most important forest area in Texas. The East Texas Pine Belt extends over forty-three counties and accounts for almost all the state's commercial timber. Also, East Texas forests are a part of the Eastern Deciduous Forest Formation, and although positioned on the western edge, display an affinity to those forests eastward.

General descriptions of the forests of East Texas were initiated by William L. Bray in 1906 and by Benjamin C. Tharp in 1939. They found that the great variation in topography in East Texas resulted in accompanying vegetational change. For example, dry upland, creekbottom, riverbottom, and swamp forest communities are each quite different in species composition. Until 1970 only a smattering of additional information was provided to aid in our understanding of these communities. Since then, mainly through the efforts of E. S. Nixon, P. A. Harcombe and C. A. McLeod and their graduate students, forest stands have been analyzed in greater detail, and thus there is presently a better understanding of forest structure and composition.

Dry Upland Communities. Because East Texas is an area of rolling hills, hilltops, especially those surfaced by deep sandy soils, become dry during hot summer months. As a result, species that are more drought resistant are found on these sites. The most common dry upland tree species are post oak (Quercus stellata), black hickory (Carya texana), blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica), sandjack oak (Quercus incana) and black oak (Quercus velutina). Shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) is occasionally associated with the oaks and hickory, and in southeastern Texas it is not uncommon to find almost pure stands of longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) on dry upland sites. Understory shrubs of importance in the upland forest are yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), farkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum), American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), and St. Andrew's Cross (Ascyrum hypericoides). Some common woody vines are summer grape (Vitis aestivalis) and saw greenbrier (Smilax bona-nox).

Mesic Upland Communities. Soils of mesic uplands are usually fine sandy loams and are more moist than those of dry uplands. As a result, they support a somewhat different assemblage of woody species. Mesic upland communities are generally found on rather flat hilltops, slopes facing east or north, and upper slopes of creek and river bottoms. Principal tree species are southern red oak (Quercus falcata), sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), and flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) is often associated with various hardwoods. Common shrubs are American beautyberry and poison ivy (Rhus toxicodendron). Alabama supplejack (Berchemia scandens), cross vine (Bignonia capreolata), and Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) are frequently encountered woody vines.

Mesic Creekbottom Communities. These rather flat to narrow creekbottoms and adjacent lower slopes have well-drained soils with intermediate amounts of moisture. Soils are usually fine sandy loams. The creek channels are deeper than those of wet creekbottoms. Trees are tall and provide good canopy cover. The upper canopy of mesic creekbottom communities consists chiefly of sweetgum, white oak (Quercus alba) and American beech (Fagus grandifolia). American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), eastern hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), and American holly (Ilex opaca) are important midstory species. A common shrub is American beautyberry. Principal vines are Alabama supplejack and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).

Wet Creekbottom Communities. Wet creekbottoms, which in some instances are called baygalls, are generally quite flat and contain shallow, somewhat winding channels. Springs and seepages are common along the margins. Soils are mucky and usually saturated with water most of the year. Plants inhabiting these bottoms are water-tolerant. Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica), and red maple (Acer rubrum) are common overstory dominants. A pronounced shrub layer exists in such bottoms, where Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), wild azalea (Rhododendron spp.), Arkansas blueberry (Vaccinium arkansanum), and possomhaw viburnum (Viburnum nudum) are frequently encountered. One of the most common woody vines is laurel greenbrier (Smilax laurifolia).

Spring and Seepage Communities. As a result of certain geologic formations in eastern Texas, springs and seepages are often encountered on slopes of hills. Seepage areas that are open and support pitcher plants (Sarracenia alata) are called pitcher plant bogs. Their flora is quite distinct. It includes, for example, four insectivorous groups, including sundews (Drosera spp.), butterworts (Pinquicula pumila), bladderworts (Utricularia spp.) and pitcher plants. Woodlands associated with these wet sites generally contain red maple, sweetbay magnolia, blackgum, and red bay (Persea borbonia). Principal shrubs are baygall holly (Ilex coriacea), wax myrtle (Myrica heterophylla), red chokeberry (Pyrus arbutifolia), and poison sumac (Rhus vernix). Laurel greenbrier is a common woody vine.

Riverbottom Communities. Hardwood forests occupying riverbottoms in eastern Texas include trees and other plants that are able to tolerate fairly long periods of flooding. Soils are usually clay loams or silty clay loams. Bottomland forests, as a result, are quite distinct floristically from more upland communities. They are generally characterized by the presence of such trees as overcup oak (Quercus lyrata), willow oak (Quercus phellos), water oak (Quercus nigra), green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), sweetgum, blackgum, cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia), red maple, and Texas sugarberry (Celtis laevigata). Associated midstory species are Carolina ash (Fraxinus caroliniana), American hornbeam, and hawthorn (Crataegus spp). The usually sparse shrub layer is composed primarily of indigo bush amorpha (Amorpha fruticosa), American snowbell (Styrax americana), and dogwood (Cornus foemina). Some common vines are American buckwheat vine (Brunnichia ovata) and common greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia).

Swamp Communities. Swamps are wet areas with standing water, trees, and other aquatic plants. Soils are mucky loams. Trees growing in swamps are often characterized by swollen buttresses; bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) are prime examples. Green ash and water locust (Gleditsia aquatica) are also overstory representatives. Swamp privet (Forestiera acuminata), water elm (Planera aquatica), and common buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), which are small trees or shrubs, are also present. There are different kinds of swamps depending on the combination of shrubs and trees present. Some swamps are occasionally dominated by a single species. See also LUMBER INDUSTRY.

E. Lucy Braun, Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America (Philadelphia: Blakiston, 1950). William L. Bray, Distribution and Adaptation of the Vegetation of Texas (University of Texas Bulletin 82, Austin, 1906). Frank W. Gould, Texas Plants: A Checklist and Ecological Summary (College Station: Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, 1962). Robert S. Maxwell and Robert D. Baker, Sawdust Empire: The Texas Lumber Industry, 1830–1940 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1983). Elray S. Nixon, Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of East Texas (Nacogdoches, Texas: Cunningham, 1985). Benjamin C. Tharp, The Vegetation of Texas (Houston: Anson Jones Press, 1939). Joe C. Truett and D. W. Lay, Land of Bears and Honey: A Natural History of East Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Elray S. Nixon, “Forests,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 14, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 1, 1995