At present, the appearance of our forests is characterized by spruces, pines, beeches and oaks on a total of 73 % of the timberland.
These tree species have different regional focuses. The spruce is found in particular from the Alpine foothills to the high altitudes of southern and southwestern Germany and in the uplands of northeastern Bayern to the Thüringer Wald and the Erzgebirge, as well as in Hunsrück, Eifel, Taunus, Westerwald, Rothaargebirge and Harz. The pine stretches mainly across the northeastern German lowlands of Niedersachsen to Brandenburg and Sachsen. It is also found in Pfälzer Wald, in the valley of Rhein and Main and in the Oberpfälzer Becken und Hügelland. The beech occurs mostly in the uplands of the Schwäbisch-Fränkische Alb across the Pfälzerwald, Eifel, Odenwald and the Spessart to Solling. We find the oak in particular in the Pfälzer Wald, the Spessart and the warm low-lying areas of Germany.
The National Forest Inventory surveyed 51 tree species or tree species groups. Approximately 90% of the timberland is taken up by 11 tree species. They are, in addition to the tree species named above, the common spruce, common pine, purple beech, sessile oak and European oak, the tree species common birch, common ash, black alder, European larch, Douglas fir and the sycamore maple. The other 40 tree species share the remaining 10% of the timberland. In spite of their low distribution they make important contributions to diversity, stability, soil maintenance and timber production. They fill in ecological niches, like the Swiss pine in the mountains. Its timber is sought for special uses, as for example, the ash for tool handles, the lime tree for sculpture and the wild cherry for furniture.
The rarer deciduous tree species are put together in the groups “other deciduous trees with long life expectancy” and “other deciduous trees with short life expectancy.” These are tree species such as the hornbeam, which only rarely dominate in upper canopy layers. Other tree species (e.g. the service tree and wild service tree) can only compete with tree species that tolerate shade, like the beech and spruce on dry and warm sites. In this way, the site and tree species-specific competitive strengths naturally differentiate the tree species composition. In addition, game browsing of young tree growth exacts a toll on the rare tree species in particular.
Humans are another force that shapes the forests. Our silvicultural actions decisively determine what tree species grow in the productive forests. Today’s forests testify to both the present and, in particular, the past circumstances, the social needs and the silvicultural decisions made by our ancestors. In past centuries, uncultivated wasteland had to be afforested in order to re-establish the forests and cover timber demand. In this way, the spruce – actually native to the highlands – became widespread, and the pine on poorer sites.
Expeditions introduced non-native tree species to Europe. Compared with our native tree species, these exotic trees play a subordinate role in the German forests. Non-native forest tree species such as the Douglas fir, Japanese larch, red oak, black locust, Sitka spruce, black pine, Mexican white pine, grand fir and others altogether have an area percentage of a little less than 5%. Cultivating these tree species allows for additional silvicultural alternatives to the number of Central European tree species, which was greatly diminished by the Ice Ages. This aspect is gaining importance in view of climate change. The most widespread, although still low in numbers, is the Douglas fir with approximately 218,000 hectares or 2%, followed by the Japanese larch (approx. 83,000 hectares or 0.8%) and red oak (approx. 55,000 hectares or 0.5%).