barren [ BAR–uhn ] noun: a substantial area of land, usually level, with limited growth of stunted trees and little other vegetation except perennial grasses or lithophytic (growing on rock) forbs. Often used in plural form, barrens.
The geographic areas known as barrens are of different causes and types. Many have in common that they are located in geographic areas sitting on several feet of gravel and coarse sandy soil, usually highly acidic, left behind by retreating glaciers during multiple ice ages. These areas often have fairly flat topographies, lending themselves to spreading wildfires that keep them as largely savannas vegetated mostly by grasses and sedges. Barrens generally have a limited range of shrub-layer plants that tolerate infertile acidic soils that drain very quickly and hence dry out easily, as well as some areas of relatively low, stunted tree canopy. Common trees are various pines, including pitch, jack, red, and white pines, as well as some oaks, black cherries, and aspens, depending on other geographic factors. Blueberries and cranberries are two of the few commercial crops that can be successfully grown in barrens, thanks to the acidic soil and sandy bogs.
Left to right clockwise: New Jersey Pine Barrens cranberry bog, Michigan’s Huron National Forest, 2010 Meridian Boundary Fire in/near the Huron National Forest, Pennsylvania Centre County strip mining reclamation project, Central Appalachian Shale Barrens in Virginia.
Note: Click on images to see enlarged photos, captions, and photo attributions.
On a mobile phone, click on the information symbol (circle with a letter ℹ︎ symbol).
Examples of barrens as a type of landscape include the New Jersey Pine Barrens, the jack pine and northern pin oak barrens of Michigan’s Upper and northern Lower Peninsulas, the Central Appalachian Shale Barrens, and some historically forested lands (including those in the northern Appalachian mountain region) that have been clear-cut. Deforested areas with shallow soils are subject to drought and major fires, limiting the reestablishment of woody succession plants or causing stunted growth. Others, like Pennsylvania’s Centre County Barrens (known locally as the Scotia Barrens), remain quite barren because they are in an anomalous pocket that differs from the general climate zone of the region for reasons of altitude, temperature, light, or moisture – conditions that generally also keep the soil poor and prevent plants from thriving and reproducing. The Centre County Barrens, a low-lying area that was heavily damaged by mining multiple times, is now “the coldest region in Pennsylvania once the sun sets.”
The term barrens comes from the adjective barren, which in relation to plants means not productive, producing little or no vegetation; desolate; producing inferior crops; fruitless. Some barrens change over the years if conditions permit organic matter to accumulate and enrich the soil. Some agricultural and environmental scholars believe barrens should be managed to maintain the “barren” state as a kind of landscape exemplar. In fact since 1979, both state and federal laws have protected most of the ecologically and geologically unique New Jersey Pine Barrens and the land use is strictly controlled. In other cases, such as where barrens were caused by over-mining, clear-cutting, or other land damaging activities or natural disasters, the area can slowly heal or evolve to become more fertile and heavily vegetated or even forested.
Bennett, Karen P, editor. 2010. Good Forestry in the Granite State: Recommended Voluntary Forest Management Practices for New Hampshire (second edition). University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, Durham, NH. Sensitive Areas: 7.4 Pine Barrens.
Central Appalachian Shale Barrens. The Natural Communities of Virginia Classification of Ecological Groups and Community Types. Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. (accessed August 26, 2022).
Kost, MA, Albert DA, Cohen JG, Slaughter BS, Schillo RK, Weber CR, Chapman KA. 2007. Pine Barrens, Michigan Natural Features Inventory. Michigan State University. Natural Communities of Michigan: Classification and Description. Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Report No. 2007-21, Lansing, MI.
Oak Barrens Community Abstract. Michigan Natural Features Inventory. (accessed August 25, 2022).
Sheridan, Robert. June 27, 2005. New Jersey Pine Barrens. EPOD blog, a service of Universities Space Research Association.
The Barrens Microclimate. The Pennsylvania State Climatologist, a service of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and Penn State University. (accessed August 25, 2022).