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This is the peculiar story of the land transactions, disputes, and incidents that led to the establishment of Bryson City and the construction of its first jail.

This town was a village named Charleston before it became Bryson City in 1889. Before that it was a tract of land known as Big Bear’s Reserve, which was itself located in the same general area as the old Cherokee village of Tuckaleechy Town (Tuckoritchie) that had been ravaged by General Grant’s British expeditionary force in 1761.

Big Bear (Yanegwa or Yonah) was a Cherokee chief who lived in the area where Bryson Branch empties into the Tuckaseigee from the north. “Big Bear’s spring” is located at the foot of the road leading over Coalchute Hill to the old Singer Plant. “Big Bear’s ford” was used into modern times.  It’s located on the west side of the bridge. “Big Bear’s canoe landing” was in the immediate area.

According to James Mooney, “(Big Bear) was among the signers of the treaties of 1798 and 1805, and by the treaty of 1819 was confirmed a reservation of 640 acres as one of those living within the ceded territory who were ‘believed to be persons of industry and capable of managing their property with discretion,’ and who had made considerable improvements on the tracts reserved.” The mile-square tract apparently included most of the flat land on both sides of the river west of the mouth of Deep Creek; that is, the central portion of present Bryson City.

Big Bear was ceded his reserve in early 1819. Later that same year, he signed a deed for the land, giving it over to a white man named Darling Beck. That’s when the trouble started.

In a 1959 Asheville Citizen-Times article titled “Indian Twice Sold Land That Is Now Bryson City” (subsequently republished in Lillian Thomasson’s 1964 history of Swain County), Karl Fleming related, “History has it that Beck, who evidently was no darling, plied Big Bear with giggle-water and got his signature on a deed which exchanged the land for a promise of $50. Big Bear claimed he never got the money and about a year later, on November 25, 1820, he deeded his 640 acres of land to John B. Love in return for a wagon and a team of horses. Love immediately took possession of the land and Beck responded by filing in the courts a suit of ejectment. The court ruled that Beck was legal owner of the land and Love appealed to the State Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court decision in its December sitting in the year 1834.

“Not satisfied with this, Love filed suit on October 13, 1835, against the widow of Beck, who had, in the meantime expired. Love’s suit was a suit in equity, whereas Beck’s suit had been an action at law in ejectment. The distinction between actions at law and suits in equity was not abolished in North Carolina until the state adopted its present constitution in 1868.

“Love attempted to show that Beck and Big Bear had rescinded their trade and that he was the rightful owner of the mile square.  (The court ruled that Love was entitled to the property as his was the superior title.) In 1841, Love, who, it will be remembered, came into possession of the land for a wagon and a brace of mules, turned a tidy profit by selling the tract to John Shuler for $2,500.”

Portions of this land were subsequently owned by members of the Burns, Bryson, and Cline families before being deeded to form Charleston, the county seat of Swain County, in 1871. The village was not incorporated until 1887, two years before the name was changed to Bryson City in order to avoid confusion over mail that was mistakenly being sent to the larger city in South Carolina.

Tuckoritchie. Tuckaleechy Town. Big Bear’s Reserve.  Charleston. Bryson City. All the same place. For the most part it’s been a quiet place. The jail our first citizens constructed encouraged peace and tranquility. The following description was provided by Wilbur G. Zeigler and Ben S. Grossscup  in The Heart of the Alleghanies or Western North Carolina (1883).

“The old, frame court-house has its upper story used as a grand jury room, and its lower floor … holds the jail. The dark interior of the ‘cage,’ used for petty misdoers, can be seen under the front outside stairs, through a door with barred window. An apartment fitted up for the jailer is on the same floor, and, by a spiked, open slit, about six inches by two feet in dimensions, is connected with the `dungeon.’ For its peculiar purposes this dungeon is built on a most approved pattern. It is a log room within a log room, the space between the log walls filled up with rocks. It is wholly inside the frame building. Besides the opening where the jailer may occasionally peek in, is another one, similar to that described, where a few pale rays of daylight or moonlight, as the case may be, can, by struggling, filter through clapboards, two log walls, spikes, and rocks, to the gloomy interior. A pad-locked trapdoor in the floor above is the only entrance. The daily rations for ye solitary culprit, like all blessings, come from above — through the trapdoor. Here, suspected unfortunates of a desperate stripe awaiting trial, and convicted criminals, biding their day of departure for the penitentiary or gallows, are confined in dismal twilight, and in turn are raised by a summons from above, and a ladder cautiously lowered through the opening in the floor.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

All of the spring flowering plants are early this year by as much as two to three weeks.

Black locust is no exception. Their beautiful creamy-white pea-shaped flowers form dependent clusters so fragrant that the air is heavy with scent and the sound of nectar-seeking honeybees.

I’m fairly good at the identification of deciduous trees during the flowering and fruiting seasons, when one can observe bark, leaves, general growth habit, and flowers or fruit. I’m less adept during the winter months, when one can observe just bark, buds, and general growth habit. One tree, however, that I do recognize without difficulty is the black locust. It’s deeply furrowed and cross-checked bark, dark-brown and scaly, is a dead giveaway. A really mature black locust tree will display bark so deeply furrowed and cross-checked that it resembles an alligator’s hide.

Unlike, say, a tulip poplar, the trunk of a black locust doesn’t grow straight and true. Stand at the base of a black locust and look upward. You will observe that the trunk ascends in a sinuous, almost serpent-like fashion. And unlike, say, tulip poplar, the grain of the wood is not long and easily worked. For these reasons, black locust was never, to my knowledge, utilized in the southern mountains in the exterior construction of log cabins.

Although its precise origins are debatable, botanists conjecture that black locust probably originated in the southern Appalachians and, perhaps, the Ozarks. Today, of course, the tree is widespread in central and eastern North America and Europe.    

During the era of wooden-hulled sailing ships, treenails (wooden pins) fashioned from black locust were utilized in European shipyards for pegging the planking of hulls. Once in contact with water, the treenails swelled and held tighter than iron rivets; moreover, they did not rust when in contact with salt water. It has been estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 black locust tree “nails” were exported annually from Philadelphia alone during the early 1800s.  

In this region, black locust was also highly prized by the Cherokees and early settlers. It was so useful, in fact, for the Cherokees in making blowgun darts, bows, “nails,” and other items they planted and cultivated the rapidly growing tree. The early settlers had numerous other uses for the rot-resistant wood, especially as base logs and interior beams for houses or outbuildings, firewood, and as durable fence posts. Among the many common names for black locust, the designation post oak is the most apt in this regard.

The best description of the essential attributes of black locust that I have encountered is provided by Donald Culross Peattie in A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1950): “In the first place almost the entire woody cylinder of the trunk is heartwood, always the strongest part of a tree. It is the seventh hardest in all our sylva and, as to strength in position of a beam, locust is the strongest in North America outside the tropics. It is the stiffest of our woods, exceeding hickory by 40 percent. Of all important hardwoods, black locust shrinks least in drying, losing only 10 percent volume … It is the most durable of all our hardwoods; taking white oak as the standard of 100 percent, black locust has a durability of 250 percent. The wood takes such a high polish as to appear varnished. The fuel value of black locust is higher than any other American tree, exceeding even hickory and oak, being almost the equal, per cord at 20 percent moisture content, of a ton of anthracite coal.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in April 2002.

Have you ever looked at a map of North Carolina and wondered how in the heck the Old North State came to be shaped like that? There’s no way to describe it except maybe as a key slot turned on its side. But that doesn’t do justice to a configuration which is almost as straight as a ruler on its northern boundary while the southern and western boundaries look like the work of a 3-year-old.  

Only half in jest, John P. Arthur in Western North Carolina - A History from 1730-1913 (Asheville, 1914) suggests that the location of still-houses producing moonshine were the primary causes of the seemingly haphazard state lines laid out by the early commissioners and surveyors:      

“It is said that the reason the Ducktown copper mines of Tennessee were lost to North Carolina was due to the fact that the commissioners of North Carolina and Tennessee ran out of spirituous liquors when they reached the high peak just north of the Hiwassee River, and instead of continuing the line in a generally southwestwardly direction, crossing the tops of the Big and Little Frog mountains, they struck due south to the Georgia line and a still-house.”

Well, losing Ducktown was perhaps no great loss. Arthur notes that the “the jagged boundary between North and South Carolina” has also been attributed “to the influence of whiskey.” (Actually this was due mainly to an agreement that the North Carolina line would be drawn north of the Catawba Indian Nation.)

I like the way in which W.L. Saunders, editor of the Colonial Records of North Carolina, phrased the matter (as quoted in Arthur): “... judging from practical results, North Carolina in her boundary surveys, and they have been many, seems to have been unusually fortunate in having men who were either abstemious or very capable in the matter of strong drink; for, so far as now appears, in no instance have we been overreached.”

The line that has always interested me the most is the fairly straight one on the northern boundary. This is because I was born in Danville, Va., just north of where the Dan River crosses the line, while my wife, Elizabeth, was born 34 days later on the other side of the line and the Dan River in Milton, N.C. Despite this proximity, we didn’t, however, meet until we were in our early 20s.  

I recently went back and reread Col. William Byrd’s accounts of how the line between Virginia and North Carolina was surveyed back in 1728. His remarks regarding the slovenliness, laziness, and generally disreputable character and ways of North Carolina is both scandalous and hilarious — and typically Virginian. Being a native Virginian, I can attest without need for rejoinder that they (we) are among the most uppity people in the world — and rightfully so. If you want some good reading, I recommend that you search out a reprint of Byrd’s accounts.  

I have never located a study that names the mountains Byrd describes. The designations suggested herein are based on this writer’s knowledge of the terrain and represent, at best, educated approximations.

Col. Byrd (William Byrd II) was one of the Virginia commissioners. Two manuscript diaries not published until long after his death have subsequently appeared in various ediitons: The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina and The Secret History of the Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina. The former suppressed personal details and was no doubt intended for a general audience, while the former was circulated among Byrd’s London friends amid great approval and has won an honored place in the literature of Colonial America.

The boundary line party set out on March 5, 1728, headed slowly westward from “north of Currituck river or inlet.” After six weeks the line had been run for 73 miles. Work was halted until Sept. 20. By Oct. 4 they had reached a point 50 miles west of any colonial settlements. The North Carolinians considered that to be quite far enough and departed, along with one of the Virginia commissioners. Along with the remaining commissioner, the surveyors and workers, Byrd pushed on westward.

On Oct. 10-11, they crossed the Dan River at present Milton, N.C., at a point about a mile north of where my wife was born, and then reached some high ground just southwest of present Danville, Va., about a mile east of where I was born. By this time they were approaching the inner Piedmont where the terrain changes from rolling woodlands to noticeably hilly uplands.

By late October the party had reached Peters Creek in Stokes County, where real mountains could be seen in the distance: “One of the Southern Mountains was so vastly high, it seem’d to hide its head in the Clouds, and the West End of it terminated in a horrible Precipice, that we call’ Despairing Lover’s Leap. The Next to it, towards the East, was lower, where it heav’d itself up in the form of a vast Stack of Cimnys. The Course of the Northern Mountains seem’d to tend West-South-West, and those to the Southward very near West. We cou’d descry other Mountains ahead of us, exactly in the Course of the Line, tho’ at a much greater distance. In this Point of View, the ledges on the right and Left both seem’d to close, and form a Natural Amphi-Theater.”  

The mountains to the north in Virginia were probably the low-lying Carter and Bull ranges backed up by the Pinnacles of the Dan complex on the Blue Ridge plateau. The mountains to the south were probably (east to west) Hanging Rock, Sauratown, and Pilot, which arise abruptly from the Piedmont province of North Carolina. From the hill above Peters Creek on the state line, 30 miles to the west — where the Blue Ridge escarpment is at its steepest in the area of Fisher Peak (3,609 feet elevation) — is precisely where Byrd’s imaginary “Ledges” would have appeared to converge.

Had, however, Byrd and his companions pushed on through the foothills of the Piedmont provinces of Virginia and North Carolina, they would have quickly penetrated the real mountains. In that instance, Byrd’s descriptions would be ranked today as the high-water mark in the literature of the Blue Ridge Province of North Carolina prior to the arrival of William Bartram in 1775.

What’s in a name? Well, sometimes a lot, especially when you’re considering the names we assign plants.

The striking little early wildflower of deciduous woodlands with its yellow reflexed petals, long red stamens, and lush brown dappled green leaves goes by many common names: trout lily, fawn lily, adder’s-tongue, dogtooth-violet, and Easter yellow lily.

The derivation of these designations is clear enough. It appears at the time of year when people’s thoughts are on Easter, catching trout, and seeing newborn deer. The dappled leaves further reinforce associations with both trout and fawns. And John Burroughs — the 19th century writer-naturalist who proposed the fawn lily name (he couldn’t stand dogtooth violet) — also thought that the leaves of the plant “stand up like fawn’s ears, and this feature, with its recurved petals, gives it an alert, wide-awake look.”

The “violet” association was a carry-over from Europe, where the common trout lily (the name I like best) was thought to resemble a violet in color. The “dogtooth” connection is more interesting. That came about because the white, underground tuber (or corm) from which the leaf and flowers arise resembles “a smooth, white fang.”

My second favorite name is adder’s-tongue. Once again, as is often the case with common names, the associations are intertwined: the pointed leaf-tips are curled as they emerge from the soil; and the six long reddish stamens bear jiggling anthers that reinforce the serpent iamge.

Like many other early woodland wildflowers — toothwort, hepatica, spring beauty, bellwort, bloodroot, Mayapple, trillium, etc. — trout lily has adapted to a situation that calls for a quick emergence in early spring before the leaf canopy closes overhead and energy-giving light levels drop. Some of these species compress their blooming season into spans lasting only a few weeks at given elevations; and, for this reason, this group of wildflowers appearing in waves across the still sunlit forest floor are frequently labeled “spring ephemerals.”

Setting fruit in early spring when not that many pollinators are about is risky business, especially since mining bees and bumblebees are frequently restrained in their search for food by cold spells. For that reason, trout lily has devised a backup system.

The plant can reproduce asexually via a fleshy bud called a “dropper” that forms at the end of a fragile white stem (or stolon) attached to the base of the parent corm. This dropper stem can be from 3” to 10” in length. Digging up trout lilies with their droppers intact is a tricky affair since the stem is fragile and the dropper is sometimes deeper underground than the corm.  (But the white stems sometimes grow above-ground before penetrating the soil to set the dropper and can be located by removing leaf-litter.)

Most plants in trout lily colonies probably arise from droppers. Missouri Botanical Garden botanist Peter Bernhardt — author of the delightful book Wily Orchids & Underground Orchids: Revelations of a Botanist — calculates that as high as 90 percent of eastern trout lilies are reproduced asexually.

When you come upon a colony, notice that the plants in bloom all have two leaves. Botanists disagree as to whether the clones produced by droppers ever develop two leaves and flower, or whether only the seed-produced individuals flower.

Be that as it may, flowering individuals always have two leaves and they take a long time (up to eight years in some species) to reach reproductive maturity. The yellow petals (actually “tepals,” an undifferentiated form between a sepal and a petal) are at first partially closed. Gradually, these reflex or recurve fully exposing the interior parts of the flower.

Flowers fortunate enough to be pollinated set fruit which disperse seed at about the time the leaf canopy is closing overhead in late April and early May. Look for trout lily stalks that have collapsed, causing the fruit capsules to spill seeds in a rather neat pile on the ground. With a handlens, you can spot soft tips on them called “carbuncles.”

These “meaty” tidbits induce litter-dwelling insects like crickets and beetles to drag the seeds away and gnaw off the carbuncles. (Many violet species utilize the same technique.) The seed thus dispersed from the parent colony can perchance then form a new colony with renewed genetic vitality, especially if the flower producing the seed was cross-pollinated rather than self-pollinated.

The most common species of trout lily here in WNC appears to be “Erythronium umbilicatum,” which has petals (or tepals) lacking auricles (ear-shaped lobes) and fruit capsules (indented at the apex) appearing on the end of arching flower stalks that allow the capsule to touch the ground.

You might also encounter a second less common species, “E. americanum” (the one listed in popular field guides), in our immediate area. Its petals are eared at the base.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

When I started writing features for a newspaper in the late 1980s, I didn’t have much of a clue as to what I was doing. I was working as a “stringer” for a regional insert called “Smoky Mountain Neighbors,” which was published in the westernmost counties of the state by the Asheville Citizen-Times. Especially difficult, for me, was interviewing. People wanted to tell me their life stories. I didn’t want to hear them. But for about 10 years I did as many as four interviews a week.

“Just the facts, lady, just the facts,” was my mantra.

My editor, Jim Crawford, was terrific when it came to working with newcomers to the profession. Some of the more crusty veterans would have had a field day with me once they found out: (1) I had a semi-academic background; (2) most of my publishing experience to that point in time had been semi-academic in style and content; and (3) I didn’t know how to use a camera, even though I had claimed to be “pretty good” in order to obtain my initial assignment. This was back in the day when most journalists, especially stringers, took their own photos. So I borrowed a camera and went to work. None of this bothered Jim; so long as I produced copy “on time” ... that is, about three minutes before deadline.

One day, after I had been submitting copy to him for almost two years, I ventured something like: “You’ve been reading my stuff for a long time now and never have said if you liked it or not.”

He peered over the rims of his glasses, rolled his eyes, and sighed, but didn’t say anything.

“Well, do you?” I persisted.

Without looking up again from proofing the copy I had just submitted, he said something like, “You’ll be the first to know when I don’t.”

When asked for advice about interviewing, he tentatively offered several suggestions based on 30 years or so experience: “Look up from time to time and make eye contact even if you’re taking notes. Be in control of the beginning, middle, and end. But your main job is to listen. We’re not interested in your story. The most significant thing you learn probably won’t be what you anticipated. People will say the damndest things.” Or something like that. Those were the most words I ever heard Jim say at one sitting. He was a fine person.

I never became a very good interviewer and currently avoid doing them like the plague. But I did learn to listen a little better, especially if I liked someone or the subject matter or where we were. To a great extent, I was always more interested in how things were said than in what was said. I’ve rummaged around in my files and found my favorite interview … one of the few I wouldn’t mind doing all over again.

I have always envied firetower wardens. To a man (and woman) they have always presented themselves as down-to-earth sorts who do not romanticize their work in the least bit. I suspect, however, that more than one is, in reality, a closet romantic. When I heard about Pearly Kirkland, I called and asked if I could interview him at his home in the Skeenah community south of Franklin. How Pearly, a Swain County native, who was 88 when I visited him, came to live down in Skeenah is interwoven with his experiences as a longtime firetower dispatcher at three high-elevation sites in Western North Carolina. On that bright autumn day, the memories slowly flooded his mind, Pearly relaxed on his front porch, talking and laughing about the old days “up on the mountain at the top of the world”:

I was born on Chambers Creek in what now is the park. My father, Albert, was from Bear Creek and my mother, Dolly, was from Bone Valley on Hazel Creek, both places being in the Smokies. I went to he Chambers Creek School, which was a church house, but I was mainly interested in the outdoors in hunting and fishing and walking around. Jack, one of my brothers, became ranger at Forney Creek and that’s how I got into the firetower business.  I’d been a logger at $1.50 a day … 75 cents of which went for board, so I agreed to go up and be lookout from the tower at High Rocks on Welch Ridge between Hazel and Forney creeks.

You can see all the south end of the North Carolina side of the Smokies from there and into the Nantahalas. I walked up to the tower from Chambers Creek and lived in the thing. What did I eat? Why I just ate rough rations – whatever was easy to fix because I had to carry the food up with me on my back on a pretty steep trail. I’d stay there the fire season until it got wet enough to come down. That’s where I picked up the habit of talking to myself. No one else up there except the bears, or I just got to talking to myself about this and that. I still talk with myself about the same things. Never have broke that habit.  You get pretty much lonely in a tower during a long dry spell of nobody to talk to. …

I was at High Rocks for about three and a half years or so, beginning in the early 1940s, as I remember. The last time I was up at the tower was when they were flooding Lake Fontana. When I came down from the tower the lake was flooded and everybody had left Chambers Creek, which was along the north shore. My wife and family had up and moved and I didn’t even know where I lived!  It took me awhile to find out they were down here in Keenah, which is where we’ve been ever since. My wife, Hattie, was a Woody from Forney Creek. She died three years ago. We raised seven children.

Then I was several years at Albert Mountain here in Macon County between Bearpen Gap and the head of Hurricane Creek. That was where I got my biggest scare. A storm came up that was awful. Lightning was everywhere and constant. It was kindly eerie. O my gosh, I’m not exaggerating, the bolts would strike the tower and balls of fire just flowed down the wires that grounded the tower. They lit up everything like pure daylight.

From Albert Mountain the forest service moved me as dispatcher over to the tower at Cowee Bald, which is located in Macon County near where it corners with Jackson and Swain in the Big Laurel country. I was ten years at Cowee, which I liked best because it was easiest to get to. Did I like it up there in those towers?  Why no, I didn’t. It was lonely with no family and nobody to talk with.

To me it was just a job. It was hard times and firetower work was a way to make some money and support your family. That’s all. No sir, I don’t recollect anything romantic about it whatsoever.

As indicated in recent Back Then columns, I've been of late walking some of the old trails along creeks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that were as recently as the early 1940s populated to a considerable extent. Occasionally, I'll detect an old home site by a chimney left standing. Flattened areas above creeks or old roadbeds are also likely spots for a dwelling or outbuilding of some sort.

Some of the best indicators are certain plants not native to the region that were propagated by the earliest settlers and their descendents. There are three plants that are a dead giveaway in spring. Vinca major (large-leaved) and Vinca minor (small-leaved), also called periwinkle, were planted in yards, on banks, and in cemeteries as a groundcover.

Forsythia — still called "yaller-bells" by some old-time mountain women — has prospered without human care along creek banks or other damp areas. Different species and varieties have interbred to such an extent through the years that it's virtually impossible, for me at least, to tell one from the other. This, however, doesn't bother me in the least as I can thoroughly enjoy stands of forsythia without knowing the exact species or subspecies.

Mountain folks were — and still are — inordinately fond of daffodils. Not only were they planted in gardens and around home sites, borders of them were sometimes planted along steams or woodland edges. Don't you agree with me that nothing is prettier in early spring than a stand of daffodils waving in a gentle breeze?

A daffodil is, of course, also called narcissus, jonquil, or buttercup. As with forsythia, distinguishing the species and subspecies is tricky. It seems that every plant book has a different "formula" for determining which is which. To my way of thinking, all of them can be correctly called daffodils. Those with dark, rounded leaves I designate as jonquils. Those with flattened leaves I think of as narcissi (the plural of narcissus). But if it's a great big butter-yellow daffodil with flattened leaves, I also think of that as a buttercup. If these categories don't suit you, feel free to devise your own.

The genus Narcissus — to which all of the above belong — is a member of the Amaryllis family. The word narcissus is derived from the Greek word "narke," meaning numbness or stupor. Some attribute the naming of the flower to its narcotic fragrance while others debate that it is associated with the poisonous nature of the leave's bulbs, a defense against grazing animals and underground rodents.

Those of you with children, grandchildren, or herbage-devouring pets need to be reminded of just how potent these poisons can be. According to the volume Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America (Timber Press, 1991) by Nancy J. Turner and Adam F. Szczawinski, "The entire plant, particularly the bulbs, contain toxic alkaloids ... and a glycoside. These cause dizziness, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes diarrhea. Trembling, convulsions, and death may occur if large quantities are consumed, but usually recovery occurs within a few hours."

Whenever I encounter a stand of daffodils in full bloom above a pool of water in some remote watershed, I'm reminded of Narcissus. In classical mythology he was the lad so enamored with himself that he stared at his reflection in a pool of water for so long that he forgot to eat or drink and passed away of sheer weakness. When the nymphs came to remove his body to the funeral pyre, they found no corpse. In its stead was a single narcissus in full bloom.

Most Narcissus species are natives of southern France, Spain, northern Africa and the surrounding Mediterranean areas. But various species of Narcissus have been cultivated for hundreds, even thousands, of years, so that they reached the northern European mainland and the British Isles early on. The Scotch-Irish and other nationalities that peopled the southern mountains brought these lovely flowers with them as reminders of their homelands and their relatives left so far behind. Along with periwinkle, forsythia, and numerous other plants, daffodils now serve as mute reminders of home sites occupied not so long ago.

Editor's note: This column first appeared in a February 2004 edition of The Smoky Mountain News.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart's Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney's History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Like dimly-lit rhododendron tunnels or ancient sphagnum-layered bogs, creek bends are special places that invariably precipitate beauty.

Sitting in the blue-gray shadows of my porch, I watch lower Lands Creek flow by on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Down past the old outhouse, the creek bends southeastwardly and with mindless precision slices like a blade into a bluff of hornblende gneiss. Random glints of low-slanted evening light trace the graceful arc of the bend.

Horneblende is an aluminum silicate of iron and magnesium that may contain potassium. On slopes and in creek bends where flora is especially varied and lush, horneblende gneiss is often the key ingredient.

The bluff Lands Creek has been sculpting for thousands of years is shaded by a dense canopy composed of basswood, slippery elm, various white and red oak species, butternut, beech, striped and red maple, silverbell, serviceberry, black cherry, dogwood, ironwood, and various species of hickory. The under story is composed of rosebay rhododendron, mountain laurel, and dog-hobble. There are grape vines and tangles of greenbrier. Ferns that come to mind are cinnamon, Christmas, New York, glade, lady, hay-scented, ebony spleenwort, winged beech, and maidenhair. There are mosses, liverworts, sedges, ground pine, and grasses. The spring wildflowers are prolific.

In other words, the factors that created a bend in a creek exposed various levels of a mountainside containing horneblende gneiss and, in the process, also created a small natural garden of great beauty, without any “help” whatsoever from any person.

My favorite tree in the bend is a good-sized butternut ... the perfect tree for this setting. The butternut walnut (Juglans cinerea), which some people call white walnut, is surrounded by several of its close cousins, the ever-present black walnuts (J. nigra). But you can distinguish the smaller butternut walnut in a heartbeat.

Butternut has a large terminal leaflet, whereas black walnut has either a small terminal leaflet or no terminal leaflet at all. The bark of mature butternut walnut trees is gray-white and divided into deep furrows that form a characteristic rough diamond-shaped pattern. Its leaves and fruit drop early revealing conspicuous, 3-lobed (inversely triangular) leaf scars on twigs, each of which is surrounded by a raised, downy, gray pad or “eyebrow.” These scars make the leaf scars look for all the world like a ram’s face.

Unlike black walnut — which bears dark-green rounded fruits that turn dark black-brown — butternut walnut displays oblong fleshy light-green fruits that turn a light-brown buttery color with maturity.

Cherokees traditionally used the inner bark as a carthartic and harvested the nuts as food. To this day, they make a black dye to color basket splints from butternut roots and carve the soft wood for masks and other items. Mountaineers used the inner bark and fruit husks to obtain a yellow or orange agent to dye homespuns; hence, during the Civil War backwoods Confederate troops dressed in homespun “uniforms” of butternut-dyed cloth became known as “Butternuts.” In country churches here in the mountains, an altar carved of a satiny light-brown wood and displaying bands of paler sapwood might well be made of butternut.

Unfortunately, butternut walnut — like so many tree species — is being infested by a killing agent. In the butternut’s instance, the agent is a fungus first identified during the late 1960s in eastern North America. This canker has now spread throughout the entire range of the tree from Minnesota south to Arkansas and from New England south into Georgia.

In Charles E. Little’s The Dying of the Trees: The Pandemic in America’s Forests (Viking, 1995), the lens-shaped cankers that are formed when a tiny fungus spore enters the tree through an injured limb or trunk are described as “necrotic lesions of the bark and cambium layer” that “spread throughout the tree, even to the nut husks, eventually girdling the main limbs and trunk and causing the tree to die. The death is slow, taking several years, but certain.”

For the time being, however, the evening light that glints off the arc of water below our place is still refracted by the patterns in the bark of the butternut tree … diamonds in a near-perfect creek bend.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Each July since 1991, I’ve led field trips along the Blue Ridge Parkway offered as part of the Native Plants Conference sponsored by Western Carolina University. This year’s outings (July 25) will have taken place by the time you read this.

Between Waterrock Knob and Mt. Pisgah, the eight participants in my group will identify perhaps eight fern species, several grasses, a few lichens, maybe a mushroom or two, and more than 100 wildflower species, including wild quinine, large-flowered leafcup, bush honeysuckle, green wood orchis, starry campion, Indian paintbrush, enchanter’s nightshade, Small’s beardtongue, downy skullcap, tall delphenium, pale Indian plantain, tall bellflower, southern harebell, horsebalm, round-leaved sundew, Blue Ridge St. Johnswort and false asphodel.

No group of flowering plants along the Parkway, however, will be of more interest to participants than the “Monardas,” a genus in the mint family that includes the ever-popular bee balm. There are two other distinct “Monarda” species — wild bergamot and basil balm — that appear in this section of the Southern Blue Ridge Province in addition to a hybrid backcross called purple bergamont.

“Monardas” are sometimes called horsemints because “horse” signifies “large” or “coarse,” and the members of this genus are generally larger, coarser plants than many other members of the mint family.  In this instance “coarse is beautiful.” Most of the horsemints have quite appropriately been introduced into cultivation.

Here’s a checklist of those three horsemint species and the hybrid found in the Western North Carolina mountains. All flower from mid-June into September and can be readily located along the parkway, especially in the areas of the Grassy Ridge Mine (milepost 436.8) and Standing Rock Overlook (milepost 441.4).

Bee balm, also called crimson bee balm or Oswego tea (Monarda didyma): occasional in moist, shaded situations; adapted by scarlet color long tubular shape of flowers for pollination by hummingbirds, but often “robbed” by bees and other insects that bore “bungholes” at the base of the corolla tube; note the reddish leaf-like bracts just below the flowers; called “bee balm” because it made a poultice that soothed stings; sometimes called Oswego tea because of its use as a steeped medicinal by the Oswego Indians of New York; generic name honors an European botanist, Nicholas Monarda, who had an interest in medically useful plants from the New World. No red flower — save, of course, cardinal flower — is more resplendent. And like cardinal flower, this member of the mint family often haunts a lush and dark setting so that when it catches slanting light the flaming crimson gleams like a beacon.

Wild bergamot (M. fistulosa): common but variable species flowering in open fields, meadows, and on dry wooded slopes; petals are usually lilac or pinkish-purple (rarely white) with the upper lip bearded at the apex; bracts often pink-tinged; frequently visited by butterflies; oil with an odor resembling essence of bergamot was once extracted from the plant to treat respiratory ailments; brewed as tea by the Cherokee for many ailments, including flatulence and hysterics.

• Basil balm (M. clinopodia): occasional in both moist and dry woods and thickets; similar to wild bergamot but with paler pink or white flowers that have purple spots on lower lip and whitish bracts; common name indicates that it was used like bee balm as a poultice. Wild bergamot and basil balm often interbreed along the parkway.

Purple bergamot (M. media): an infrequently encountered natural hybrid backcross of the above species displaying deep reddish-purple flowers and dark purple bracts; habitat about the same as bee balm, so look for color differences between scarlet of that species and deep purple for the hybrid; despite the hybrid status it’s reliably distinctive and exciting to encounter.

Note: Excellent colored illustrations of each of these horsemints appear opposite p. 92 of Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1977).  Dotted horsemint (M. punctata), which has purple-spotted yellow flowers, is primarily a species of the piedmont and coastal plain that does not — to my knowledge — appear in the Southern Blue Ridge Province.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

While crossing the Blue Ridge north of present Asheville in the early 1540s, Hernando de Soto’s scribes entered some brief descriptions of the landscape in their journals. In all likelihood, a letter written in 1674 by Abraham Wood, a Virginia merchant and Indian trader, contained the first descriptions of the mountainous terrain of Western North Carolina penned in the English language.

Upper world guardians

We are all fascinated by birds. In addition to being pretty (even buzzards are pretty in their own way), they can sing and fly. Unlike me, many of you can actually sing; so, you will not be as awestruck by that capability as I am. But my guess is that few of you can fly, except in your dreams.

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Reading Room

  • A strange mix of books crosses my desk
    A strange mix of books crosses my desk The first weeks of 2018 have seen some offbeat books shamble across my desk and into my fingers. First up is John Buchan’s Mr. Standfast, also known as Mr. Steadfast. Buchan, a Scottish novelist and politician who served as Governor General of Canada from 1935…
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