Native Plants and Animals
With extremes of climate ranging from arctic to tropical, and with landforms that include mountains, plains, deserts, and swamps, the United States has a rich variety of plant life.
Forests. When Europeans first came to North America, forest covered almost all the area now included in the United States east of the Mississippi River. Prairies and other grasslands extended westward from the Mississippi to the Rockies, where forests began again. The clearing of land for farming and unrestricted lumbering destroyed many of the forests, especially in the Midwest and East.
Today, Alaska has the greatest forested area in the United States, followed by California and Oregon. Extensive forests are also found in the South and in the Northeast and in the Great Lakes states.
Coniferous, or cone-bearing, trees grow mainly in the Northeast, in the Rocky Mountain region, on the Pacific Coast, in Alaska, and in the South. Fir, spruce, and red and white pines are among the most common trees in the Northeast. Engelmann spruce, ponderosa pine, western white pine, lodgepole pine, and Douglas fir are among the chief trees in the Rockies. On the Pacific Coast are Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, sugar pine, red cedar, and Sitka spruce. The giant redwoods grow in California.
Hemlock and Sitka spruce form dense forests on the southeast coast of Alaska. There are forests of white spruce mixed with broadleaf trees such as white birch and aspen in the interior of Alaska. A region of mostly coniferous trees, including longleaf. shortleaf, and loblolly pines, extends from North Carolina to Texas. Bald cypress grows in swamps in the South.
Broadleaf trees are most abundant in the Midwest. These broadleaf trees include oak, elm, maple, beech, hickory, walnut, ash, and birch. Tupelo, red gum, and magnolia are broadleaf trees common in the South. Certain types of palms and other tropical trees grow in the Everglades and in Hawaii.
Grasslands occupy the area between the eastern forests and the Rocky Mountains. In the eastern part of this grassland area is the tall-grass prairie, which contains such grasses as big bluestem, Indian grass, and prairie cordgrass. Cities and farms now occupy most of the region.
West of the prairie, roughly west of the 100th meridian, lies the short-grass country of the Great Plains. Here grow buffalo grass, side oats grama, western wheatgrass, and other short and medium grasses.
More than 20,000 species of flowering plants are native to the United States, and numerous species introduced from Europe and Asia are now as much a part of the American scene as the native plants. The goldenrod is perhaps the most widespread flower in the United States; it grows in all states except Hawaii.
In the East, the earliest wildflowers to bloom in the spring are woodland plants such as hepaticas, trilliums, bloodroot, and spring beauty. Typical of the Great Plains are sunflowers, blazing stars, pasqueflowers, and lupines. Texas is noted for the bluebonnet and Indian paintbrush.
Bitterroot, harebells, Rocky Mountain columbine, and other hardy plants grow in the Rockies. The numerous desert wildflowers include cacti, yuccas, mariposa lilies, and the desert star. Along the Pacific Coast grow such colorful flowers as poppies and godetias.
Alaska has a rich variety of wildflowers, including harebells, lupines, violets, and hyacinths. Tropical flowers such as hibiscuses, orchids, and the maile, prized for making leis, grow in Hawaii.
Among the common plants introduced from Europe are the dandelions, bouncing bet, yellow iris, and Queen Anne's lace. The tiger lily came from Asia, and the daylilies come from Eurasia.
For various state flowers, see articles on the states.
Desert areas exist chiefly in Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah. Sagebrush, greasewood, creosote bush, agaves, yuccas, and cacti are typical plants of the deserts. The giant saguaro cactus and the Joshua tree, a yucca, are the largest desert plants.
Such evergreen shrubs as scrub oak, chamise, and manzanita grow in the chaparral of southern California where there is a Mediterranean-type climate. Mesquite is a thorny shrub or small tree that grows in thorn scrub, semiarid areas in the southwest. Mosses, lichens, and short grasses are characteristic of the arctic tundra, in Alaska, and the alpine tundra, in the Rockies.
The United States has a great variety of animal life, although some once-common animals are extinct and others survive only under government protection. A few wild animals, such as the white-tailed deer, are more abundant than they were in colonial times.
Free-ranging bison exist only in preserves, and the musk ox is found in Alaska only because it was reintroduced after it had been exterminated there. Black bears, brown bears (including grizzly bears), and polar bears are the largest carnivores (meateating animals) of the United States. Members of the deer family native to the United States are the white-tailed deer, mule deer, moose, caribou, and American elk.
Members of the dog family include gray and red wolves; red, gray, and arctic foxes; and the coyote. Cat-family members include the mountain lion, bobcat, and lynx. Jaguars and ocelots are sometimes found in the Southwest. Jackrabbits, cottontail rabbits, and snowshoe rabbits are numerous. Among native rodents are beavers, muskrats, porcupines, squirrels, ground squirrels, marmots, and prairie dogs.
There are several native species of weasels and other members of the weasel family, including the marten, fisher, mink, skunk, badger, and wolverine. The raccoon is widely distributed. The opossum is the only marsupial (pouched mammal) found in the United States.
Many kinds of ducks, geese, and other waterfowl are found in the United States. Shorebirds such as plovers, sanderlings, and sandpipers also are numerous. Among native ground birds are the turkey, quail, prairie chicken, and grouse.
Native wading birds include herons, ibises, and egrets. Among birds of prey are numerous species of hawks and owls and the golden and bald eagles. The buzzard and the California condor are native carrion-feeding birds. Among the hundreds of kinds of songbirds are thrushes (including robins), warblers, cardinals, tanagers, sparrows, and bobolinks.
Alligators and crocodiles are found in Florida. Among the many kinds of turtles are the snapping turtles, the alligator snappers, box turtles, and desert tortoises. Rattlesnakes are found in almost all of the states, but chiefly in the Southwest. Other poisonous snakes include the water moccain in, found in the Southeast and coral snakes, found in the Gulf Coast states and in the Southwest. The many kinds of nonpoisonous snakes include bull snakes, hognose snakes, king snakes, and garter snakes. Lizards are most numerous in the Southwest. The Gila monster, a venomous lizard, lives chiefly in deserts of the Southwest.
About 60 different species of frogs and toads and 80 species of salamanders are native to the United States. The bullfrog, largest of the native frogs, is found in the eastern and central United States.
Sunfish and their relatives, the basses, are found almost everywhere east of the Rockies. Brook, rainbow, cutthroat, and Dolly Varden are among native trout species. Muskellunge, northern pike, and walleyed pike are most numerous in the Northeast.