USA tree frequency

To mark the inauguration of the 46th American President Joe Biden I thought it fitting to celebrate the amazing diversity of the USA’s forests.

I don’t tend to comment on politics, and in any case, who would care what a small-time forest researcher and author in the UK might have to say about one of the most dangerous men ever to be allowed to roam uncontrolled in the corridors of a world superpower. All I will say is that 2021 is now starting to look up, especially with the USA rejoining the 2015 Paris Agreement which after all aims to secure a future for all life on Earth.

I’ve written before about Britain’s depauperate tree species diversity, having only 35 common native trees (stretched to 60 if you include minor species) – read more. The USA meanwhile has many hundreds of native tree species. In fact the Native Tree Society of the USA lists 777 native tree species.

Overall, the USA has 33.9% forest cover by area, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). This places the USA somewhat in the middle of forest cover compared to European countries, which range from 74% in Finland to 13% in the UK – read more. In terms of trees per person, the citizens of the USA are lucky to have 716 trees each, compared to just 47 trees per person for those living in the UK – read more about trees per person around the world.

The USDA Forest Service provides excellent inventory data on trees by states, including some really attractive maps. I found it a little harder to track down some basic facts and figures for the USA as a whole, which is perhaps unsurprising given the huge diversity of landscapes and the scale of the country. A citation for the data I have used in preparing the following table and figure is provided at the bottom of this page.

First of all, if we look at data available for 200km plots, one way to consider dominance is to look at basal area. Basal Area (BA) is the cross-sectional area of a tree at breast height (at 1.3m above ground level), and is normally described as tree stem area per hectare (m2 ha-1) (or this case, as it’s the US, basal area is measured in square feet per acre). Basal Area provides an indication of the productivity of the land, and the growth rate of the trees when one or basal area estimates are compared. Read more about Basal Area here.

The table below lists the top 20 tree species by basal area, showing that when they occur in a forest, various mesquite species are the most dominant. Be aware however, this means that these are the dominant species only in plots where they exist. In other words, while mesquite species cover 113.8 ft2 per acre, they only appear in 0.001% of measured plots.

Common nameScientific namePlots (%)Basal Area (ft2/acre)
mesquite spp.Prosopis spp.0.001113.8
Shasta red firAbies shastensis0.06086.3
California red firAbies magnifica0.21682.1
Pacific silver firAbies amabilis0.18265.2
mountain hemlockTsuga mertensiana0.25964.7
Utah juniperJuniperus osteosperma1.92060.6
plains cottonwoodPopulus deltoides0.03858.0
Douglas-firPseudotsuga menziesii3.38253.7
white firAbies concolor1.06053.7
lodgepole pinePinus contorta1.70750.1
tanoakLithocarpus densiflorus0.07848.6
loblolly pinePinus taeda5.39644.1
western hemlockTsuga heterophylla0.31744.0
water tupeloNyssa aquatica0.08844.0
oneseed juniperJuniperus monosperma0.35843.8
Engelmann sprucePicea engelmannii1.33043.0
Jeffrey pinePinus jeffreyi0.33342.6
giant sequoiaSequoiadendron giganteum0.00242.2
western redcedarThuja plicata0.23841.5
ponderosa pinePinus ponderosa2.81741.1
Top 20 tree species in the USA frequency (basal area) within plots. This means that where present in a 200km plot, these are the trees which dominate in those forests.

Another way to look at the data is to report the frequency of occurrence, i.e. how many plots that a tree species appears across the US. The chart below includes the top 100 species ordered by frequency recorded in the 200km plots. The graph is interactive so if you move your mouse or finger over it, it will reveal more information. You can also scroll to the right to reveal more data..

The top ten tree species in the USA ordered by frequency of occurrence shows that red maple (Acer rubrum) is the most frequent species, followed by white oak (Quercus alba) and sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua).

RankCommon nameScientific name
1red mapleAcer rubrum
2white oakQuercus alba
3sweetgumLiquidambar styraciflua
4loblolly pinePinus taeda
5black cherryPrunus serotina
6yellow-poplarLiriodendron tulipifera
7blackgumNyssa sylvatica
8northern red oakQuercus rubra
9sugar mapleAcer saccharum
10American elmUlmus americana
The top ten tree species in the USA ordered by frequency of occurrence.

Citation

Wilson, Barry Tyler; Lister, Andrew J.; Riemann, Rachel I.; Griffith, Douglas M. 2013. Live tree species basal area of the contiguous United States (2000-2009). Newtown Square, PA: USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. https://doi.org/10.2737/RDS-2013-0013

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.