mtn voicesGreen used to be the color that caught my eye. Now it’s blue. So much so that I wrote an ode (of sorts) to the color blue that is in my book Permanent Camp. It goes like this:

back thenSome plants like Jack-in-the-pulpit and Dutchman’s-pipe have evolved methods of entrapping insects in their flowers so as to assure pollination. But only a few plant species in North America actually devour insects so as to obtain life-giving sustenance. The carnivorous plants of North America that come to mind are the various pitcher plants, sundews, bladderworts, and butterworts, as well as the infamous Venus’ flytrap, known only from the coastal plain of the Carolinas.

out hempFor me, those plants found here in the Smokies region that have verified practical human uses are, in the long run, of more interest than those with often overblown reputations for sacred or medicinal uses. For instance, the history of the common roadside plant Indian hemp is, for me, fascinating, while the lore associated with ginseng — which has reached near-mythic proportions — is somewhat tedious. If you have an interest in plants and have lived in the Smokies region for awhile, it’s probable that you already know all that you need to know about ginseng, while Indian hemp is an equally interesting plant that you perhaps know very little about.

mtnvoicesThis is about critters and plants that sting and itch. There are lots of things out there in the woods that can cause discomfort or worse: hornets, poison ivy, poisonous serpents, poison sumac, ants, skunks, no-see-ums, and so on. Two that I experience on a regular basis are stinging nettles and yellow jackets.

mtnvoicesLong before the first Europeans arrived, the Cherokees developed ceremonials that focused on the spiritual power of running water. When ethnologist James Mooney arrived on the Qualla Boundary in the summer of 1887, those beliefs, which he described as the “The Cherokee River Cult,” were still in place.

Mooney observed that purification in moving water was an integral part of day-to-day life and tribal ceremony. Water dipped from chosen waterfalls was employed on special occasions. Even in winter whole families would go to water at daybreak and stand in prayer before plunging into the cleansing element together.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about scarlet tanagers, a showy rather common species I assumed most were familiar with. But at least 10 readers emailed or otherwise contacted me to say they had located and seen their first scarlet tanager because I had described their vocalizations. In that regard, let’s see what we can do with rose-breasted grosbeaks.

“The scarlet tanager flies through the green foliage as if it would ignite the leaves.

You can hardly believe that a living creature can wear such colors.”

— Henry David Thoreau


This seems to be a scarlet tanager kind of year. I’ve been seeing and hearing them at my house, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and in the Great Smokies. No bird in our region is more striking. Jet black wings on a trim red almost luminescent body, the male is impossible to overlook. And it’s easy to recognize by both song and call.

I almost never encounter the summer tanager (whose entire body is rosy red) in Western North Carolina, but the scarlet tanager is encountered every year — to a greater or lesser extent — during the breeding season (mid-April to mid-October) in mature woodlands (especially slopes with pine and oak) between 2,000 and 5,000 feet in elevation. The bird winters in northwestern South America, where it enjoys the company of various tropical tanagers that do not migrate.

Keep in mind that the female doesn’t resemble her mate except in shape. She is olive-green or yellow-orange in color. Also keep in mind there is a variant form (morph) of the male tanager that is orange rather than scarlet in color. I suspect this variant is the result of something peculiar in its diet. My first and only encounter with an orange scarlet tananger was in the Lake Junaluska area several years ago.

The call note used by both the male and female is a distinctive “chip-burr … chip-burr.” The male’s song is not pretty. He sounds like a robin with a sore throat; that is, the notes in the song are hoarse and raspy. When gathering nesting material, the female sometimes sings a shorter “whisper” song in response to the male’s louder song.

Males in adjacent territories often engage in combative counter-singing and will, as a last resort, go beak-to-beak. On our property, a creek sometimes serves as a boundary — the line drawn in the sand, as it were. The males sing defiantly at one another across the water and sometimes make forays into enemy territory. Meanwhile, the female is busy incubating her eggs. When not squabbling with a nearby male, her mate brings food.  

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..

The announcement in November 1989 that the remote 6,300-acre Panthertown Valley tract in Jackson County had passed into the public domain was welcome news for knowledgeable outdoor enthusiasts throughout the southeastern United States. After years of private management, this truly unique region encompassing the headwaters of the Tuckaseigee River was opened for use by the general public. Those with a penchant for exploring backcountry areas have found that Panthertown is their ticket to paradise.

After being sparsely settled in the 19th century, the extensive tract passed into private hands about the turn of the century. After World War I, property rights were acquired by a lumber company that initiated operations in the 1920s. A rail spur connecting the valley with the Southern Railway system was run from three timber camps operating along the watershed. Logging operations ceased by the late 1930s, but traces of the old rail line can still be located, especially where it crossed over rock outcrops in Panthertown Creek in the uppermost portion of the watershed. In the early 1960s, the tract was purchased by a land investment corporation associated with a South Carolina-based insurance company. Through the years a few tracts on the edge of Panthertown were sold and various development possibilities considered — including a lake that would have inundated Panthertown Valley — but little development actually occurred other than minimal road improvements and ornamental tree plantings.

In January 1988, Duke Power Co. purchased the tract from the insurance company for a 230-kilovolt transmission line it wanted to run from a generating facility at Jocassee, S.C., to its proposed subsidiary, Nantahala Power and Light Company, for connection at a substation located in the Tuckaseigee River watershed. After extensive hearings on the local and state levels, Duke Power was cleared for the Nantahala Power purchase and the right to run the transmission line across the valley. The company required but 800 or so acres for the line right-of-way and sold the remainder of the tract for $7,875,000 to the North Carolina Nature Conservancy, which in turn promptly signed the deed over to the U.S. Forest Service for approximately that amount. Panthertown Valley is curently administered by the Highlands Ranger District of the Nantahala National Forest. Commercial timber production is unlikely as the tract is being managed under a Forest Service 4-C classification.

The most direct and scenic route to Panthertown Valley is to turn east at the crossroads in Cashiers onto U.S. 64 and proceed 1.8 miles before turning left onto Cedar Creek Road. At 2.1 miles, turn right onto Breedlove Road and proceed 3.3 miles to the gated trailhead. Study the map posted at the trailhead. Also consult the “Big Ridge” and “Lake Toxaway” U.S. Geological Survey quadrants, available at numerous outfitters in the Highlands/Cashiers area.

An excellent description of Panthertown Valley is provided by James H. Horton in a chapter titled “Physical and Natural Aspects” contributed to “The History of Jackson County” (1987). An article titled “Saving Panthertown Valley” by Vic Venters appeared in the May 1991 issue of “Wildlife in North Carolina.”

A short walk down the roadway and around the first bend leads to Salt Rock, one of the most delightful views in the southern highlands. From this overlook on the southwest rim of the Panthertown watershed a series of extensive rock outcrops that rise from 200 to 300 feet above the valley can be observed. (As power lines go, the one that Duke Power ran across the valley is not particularly obtrusive; you have to know just where to look to spot it, and even then the darkened steel towers blend in with the landscape as they are not silhouetted against the sky.) The broad valley floor and almost vertical rock-face terrain has led some to describe the area as “The Yosemite of the East.”

Western Carolina University biologist Dan Pittillo makes the point that Panthertown Valley resembles what the Yosemite Valley of California “might look like following several million years of erosion.” It’s a region of flat meandering tannin-darkened streams often bordered by white sand banks, extensive waterfall systems that form grottoes in which rare tropical ferns reside, large pools several hundred feet in length, high country bogs and seeps that harbor vegetation not often encountered elsewhere in the mountains, upland “hanging” valleys on the sides of the tract, and rocky outcrops where ravens nest.

Schoolhouse Falls on Greenland Creek is one of the most beautiful settings of its type in the southern mountains. Botanists who have surveyed Panthertown think that it contains “perhaps the largest collection of mountain bogs found south of West Virginia,” and the tract contains “at least 14 species of globally endangered plants.” Approximately three-quarters of a mile below Salt Rock overlook, you’ll come to a point where the road branches in three directions. The middle fork takes you down the left side of Panthertown Creek (the main headwater stream of the Tuckaseigee River) to a large pool, a bridge crossing, and access to Schoolhouse Falls. The right fork will lead you past a primitive camping site to a bridge. Turn right after crossing this bridge along a trail that will quickly bring you to a waterfall and pool area that’s a superb place for relaxing.

Editor’s note: This Back Then article first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in May 2001.

George Ellison can be reached 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..

“Ere the bat hath flown

His cloister’d flight … to black Hecate’s summons

The shard-borne beetle with his

drowsy hums

Hath rung night’s yawning peal,

there shall be done

A deed of dreadful note.”

— Shakespeare, Macbeth


There are a number of beetle species known as carrion beetles because they feed upon the carcasses of dead animals. The most interesting ones within this general type are called burying or sexton beetles because they bury their food source before devouring it. One of the ancient duties of a church sexton was the digging of graves for deceased members, hence the same sexton beetle.

Burying beetles have a keen sense of smell that enables them to locate dead animals from considerable distances. A male that discovers carrion climbs on a stone or plant and signals his mate by emitting a special odor and a harsh rasping call.

Along a pathway near my home where I grew up in Virginia, I once saw a dead bird that appeared to be slowly sinking into the earth. This seemed unlikely so I sat down so as to observe what was going on. After the bird had sunk an inch or so below ground level, two glistening black beetles about 1-1/2 inches in length with red body patches emerged from below and commenced piling the excavated soil over the bird. Before long the burial was completed and the beetles themselves disappeared underground.

That sent me to an encyclopedia. Therein I read that once the carrion is buried the female beetle lays her eggs on or near the carcass. When the hatched larvae are large enough to do so they feed on the carcass.

If the soil below a carcass that’s been located is soft, burying beetles go right ahead and conduct the burial on that site. If the ground is unduly hard or rocky, they pitch in as a team and move it to a more suitable place. The male and female laboriously roll their find by butting it over and over. Another carcass-moving technique they utilize is to turn over on their backs and apply leverage with all six of their powerful legs at once. A pair of burying beetles have been known to move a large rat several feet in order to find a suitable burial ground.

In “Macbeth,” Shakespeare associated “shard-borne beetles” (those with hard wing cases) with “night’s yawning peal” and deeds of “dreadful note” such as murder. But as gruesome as their role in the natural order of things may at first seem, the contribution burying beetles make to the recycling of energy systems is — in the long run — life giving.

Unfortunately, the populations of American burying beetles have declined to such an extent that seeing one these days is much less likely than when I was a boy.

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..

Through the years I have attempted to describe the flora of the Smokies region for newspaper, magazine and book readers. I have learned that describing the “botanical architecture” of trees, flowers, fruits, etc., can be tricky business. Drafting a “sketch” in words that a reader can “visualize” isn’t always as easy as falling off a log. And I have also learned that when describing wildflowers the temptation is to employ too many superlatives (wonderful, exquisite, beguiling, etc.). Through the years many of my attempts have fallen flat. Here are some I think are OK. I hope they will remind you of your own encounters with plants and be a reminder to always take “a closer look.”

• What we watch for in winter are the less obvious evergreens that brighten the leaf-litter on a slushy winter day: rattlesnake plantain and cranefly orchis (orchid species that display their leaves only in winter); pipsissewa and wintergreen (two upright partially woody plants sometimes described as “sub-shrubs” because of their diminutive stature); and trailing arbutus and partridgeberry (two prostrate plants sometimes described as “creepers” because they don’t climb like true vines).

• Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) can spread over fairly large areas, carpeting roots, small rock outcrops, and stumps. In winter the opposite dark-green oval leaves with their yellowish-green veins make a pleasant sight. In May and June four-lobed lilac-scented white flowers appear. Closer observation reveals interiors clothed with velvety white hairs. Note that the ovaries of each pair are fused. These produce a red (rarely white) berry composed of two equal parts. In winter you can readily observe two sets of sepals on the end of each berry.

• Trailing arbutus is an evergreen sub-shrub. The ovate leathery dull-green leaves are blunt-tipped, displaying distinctive wavy edges. I often find it growing alongside galax, which has a papery shiny-green round leaf. Delve under the arbutus leaves and surrounding leaf litter so as to expose the clusters of from six to ten flowers. Each will be tubular shaped and up to a half-inch long before expanding into five waxy lobes. They are white to pale pink after first blooming — but the pink intensifies with age. In order to attract insects for pollination purposes, trailing arbutus is among the most fragrant of our flowering plants. I don’t have a very keen sense of smell; nevertheless, I often detect the fragrance before I locate the plant.

• In a mischievous mood, Thoreau hailed them as “plump fellows.” But acorns are elegant, one of our most satisfying tactile and visual natural structures. They are sometimes produced in such numbers that we tend to take them for granted. I try each year to remind myself to gather a handful from each of our species. You can’t help but admire the economy of form. The rough-textured cap is an enlarged and stiffened version of the small overlapping leaves that protected the female flower before it blossomed. The smooth-textured nut is the flower’s ovary, grown large and hardened into a protective shell around the single seed within.

• Growing in the dappled shadows of rich woodland borders and openings, back cohosh seems to illuminate the forest when its long white-flowered candelabra-like stalks bloom in mid-summer. You probably know black cohosh when you see it, but you may not be aware there is a similar species here in the Smokies region. Both display leaves divided into numerous egg-shaped or oblong sharply-toothed leaflets. The flowers are mostly composed of fluffy stamens. The most common species (Cimicifuga racemosa) is the one known as black cohosh. It has ill-scented flowers that bloom from early June into August. These bear a single (female) pistil. The other species (Cimicifuga americana) is sometimes called false bugbane. Its flowers, displayed from August into September, are not ill-scented. Each bears three or more pistils.

• Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is surely one of our most widely admired wildflowers. Notice how the lobes of the kidney-shaped leaf encircle the fragile stem even after the flower has blossomed. This is a structural mechanism that protects and stabilizes the stem and flower during times of high wind or even from falling branches.

The leaf also has the ability to tilt from a horizontal to a vertical position so as to most directly capture energy-giving sunlight. After the flower has withered and the canopy closes in overhead, bloodroot leaves expand and become much rounder and larger. Leaves as large as 12 inches across are sometimes encountered. This growth habit allows the plant to continue processing sunlight in an effective manner even when growing in shaded conditions. To my eyes, bloodroot plants display combinations of color and symmetry that are aesthetically pleasing. The light green leaf perfectly accentuates the pearly-white petals and golden-yellow stamens. The number of stamens (16-24) is almost always exactly twice that of the petals (8-12).

• Occuring along the banks of most streams, shrub yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) is quite common here in the Smokies region. Look for a plant about eight to 24 inches high that resembles a minature palm tree in that all the leafy green growth is at the top of stem. The flowers emerge as graceful drooping racemes about three inches in length. Each flower consists of five purplish-brown sepals (no petals) about a half-inch in diameter. The most distinctive feature of the flower is the bright yellow dot in its center.  This is the pollen used to attract insects. Wherever you find one yellowroot plant, look around for others.  They almost always form colonies with extensive intergraded root systems. These help the plant maintain a foothold when flooded. Another flood-disaster prevention feature is a bare flexible stem that offers little resistence to raging water. And the yellowish follicles or fruits produced in summer disperse seeds that float away on inflated capsules. Scrape some bark off the stem at ground level with your fingernail and you’ll see that that genus designation is perfect (“Xanthorhiza” translates to “yellowroot”). The tissue under the bark is a bright yellow hue that rivals the color of fine butter. Cherokee women have for ages used pulp rendered from the plant to obtain the yellow dye used to tint the wooden splints they weave into traditional baskets.

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..

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