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..

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..

A mask is a mechanism employed to cover the face as a protective screen or disguise. For protection, they have been utilized for centuries by medieval horsemen, welders, fencers, hockey goalies, and so on. Their most intriguing uses, however, have been as a devices of disguise, as in a theatrical production or as part of the paraphernalia of religious and/or cultural ritual.

We don’t have to go to darkest Africa or the remote jungles of South America to find recent and extensive use of a variety of masks in this latter context. Until very recently they were an important element of Cherokee ritual.

A visit to the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual Inc. or other outlets in Cherokee will turn up a variety of the contemporary masks being produced by the reservation's carvers. They sometimes use skins or gourds, but for the most part masks are carved from buckeye or other suitable wood and then colored with natural dyes, paint, clay, charcoal, or shoe polish.

Often these modern masks simply depict a man with horns (the buffalo mask) or maybe a bear’s face. I am especially attracted to those haunting masks that are presented unadorned as a skull-like rendering. A favorite theme of some carvers is that of a man’s head topped by a coiled rattlesnake. And then there are those grotesque or sometimes even obscene productions known as “booger masks.”

If you take the time to look up and talk with a Cherokee mask-maker, you’ll get a friendly enough reception (especially if you’re actually shopping for a mask), but you’re not likely to get much insight into their themes. These people just don’t make their living talking. They’ll say something like, “Oh, that’s just a snake that happens to be on that man’s head”; or, “Funny thing, I started in to carving and it just turned out that way”; or, “You think it looks like a what?”

Unless you happen upon an unusually talkative mask-maker in an unguarded moment, your best sources for detailed information on the Cherokee mask tradition are the book-length study Cherokee Dance and Drama (1951) by Frank G. Speck and Leonard Broom, and the article by Raymond D. Fogelson and Amelia B. Walker titled “Self and Other in Cherokee Booger Masks” that appeared in the fall 1980 issue of the Journal of Cherokee Studies.

Cherokee Dance and Drama was written in collaboration with Cherokee mask-maker and cultural authority Will West Long. Others who contributed to the book were Long’s elder sister, Roxy, his elder half-brother Lawyer Calhoun, Deliski Climbing Bear, and Mrs. Sampson Owl. This book is the real thing.

Will West Long — the son of Sally Terrapin and John Long, a Baptist minister — was born about 1870 in the traditional Big Cove section of the Qualla Boundary.  After attending a school near High Point, he returned to Cherokee at the time the famous ethnologist James Mooney was there collecting data for his book subsequently published in 1900 as Myths of the Cherokee. Mooney hired Long as a scribe and interpreter.

Long later attended Hampton Institute and lived in New England until he was in his mid-30s. He returned once more to Cherokee shortly before his mother died in 1904, married, and spent the remainder of his life on the reservation.

His mother's interest in such matters, along with Mooney’s influence, created in Long a passion for preserving the quickly fading history and social customs of the Cherokee. He acquired manuscripts and insights from the medicine men that would otherwise have been lost. Long is rightly considered by many to be the authoritative scholar of his people’s customs during his lifetime.

In addition to his other interests, Long helped preserve the traditional dances and became one of the community’s foremost mask-makers, a craft he learned from a cousin, Charley Lossiah. Allen Long succeeded his father as the tribe’s top mask-maker during the early 20th century.

As described in the sources cited above, the Booger Dance (also called the Mask Dance) was a ritual performed after the first frost that featured masks which exaggerated human features; that is, they represented racial types: Indian man (a dark red face); Indian woman (light red face with paint on cheeks) white man (woodchuck or opossum fur as a beard); black man (charcoal colored); and so on.

What made the booger masks exceptional were the sometimes grotesque, often humorous, and usually obscene elements incorporated into them that suggested European features like bushy eyebrows, mustaches, chin whiskers, big noses, ghastly white pallor, and bald heads.

The boogers — generally depicted as older men — represented “people far away or across the water” (Europeans, blacks, northerners, southerners, alien Indians) who intrude upon the peaceful social dances of the Cherokee. Upon entering the dance house, they break wind, chase women, and generally behave as barbarians.  Asked what they want, the boogers first reply “Girls!” then announce that they want “To fight!” Instead of reciprocating, the Cherokee allow them to dance out their hostilities.

This ritual has been interpreted in several ways. It was a way to deal with “the harmful powers of alien tribes and races, who, as living beings or ghosts, may be responsible for sickness or misfortune.” It also served as “condensation of the acculturation process as seen from the Cherokee perspective: first the white man tried to steal women; second he wanted to fight; and then, finally, he was satisfied to make a fool of himself.”

It’s also clear that many of the ingeniously crafted masks used in the ceremony simply poked fun at boorish masculine traits in general, including the “excessive preoccupation with sexuality” and the desire to be “in charge.”

And so, my friend, always remember that masks are mirrors ... the next time you spot a Cherokee booger mask in a shop, at one of the craft festivals, or in a museum, pause and take a closer look ... it just might be looking back at you.

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.

Belted kingfishers are one of my favorite birds, so much so that I wrote a poem years ago about anticipating their return to our creek each spring titled “Kingfishers Return.” A pair fishes along the small creek on our property during the breeding season. In winter they move downstream to the Tuckasegee River and Lake Fontana, although the male will make infrequent appearances, probably to maintain control of his hunting territory. Each March they return for good, raising a ruckus as they fly over our cove with rattling calls that are a part of their mating ritual.

With most bird species, the male is usually the more conspicuous. The female kingfisher is an exception, however, having a chestnut breast band in addition to the gray one shared by the male. Because she broods her young deep in the ground, the female’s maternal duties don’t make her an easy target for predators. She has no real need for the sort of subdued protective coloration characteristic of female cardinals, towhees, and numerous other bird species. Her decorative breast band makes her one of the few female birds in the world with plumage more colorful than her mate.

If you have kingfishers that are active in your vicinity from March into early summer, look for their nesting dens. Situated in a steep bank, the entrance is about the size of a baseball. If it’s being used, there will be two grooves at the base of the hole where the birds’ feet drag as they plunge headfirst, in full flight, into the opening. The tunnel leading to the nesting cavity may be from three to 15 feet in length. Kingfishers have toes that are fused together, which help them excavate more efficiently. Obviously designed to prevent access by predators, these nesting dens can be located some distance from water, often in roadway cutbanks or where there has been excavation around a building site.

It’s not surprising that such a conspicuous bird would have a place in Cherokee bird lore. They composed stories that accounted for the kingfisher’s fishing tactics and incorporated the bird into their medicinal ceremonies. One can learn about the natural world by direct observation or from scientific studies. Or you can come to another sort of understanding by paying attention to the lore handed down by the Native Americans.

When James Mooney was collecting Cherokee lore here in Western North Carolina during the 1880s, he recorded two accounts of how the kingfisher (“jatla” in Cherokee) got its bill. Some of the old men told him the animals decided to give the bird a better bill because it was so poorly equipped to make its living as a water bird. “So they made him a fish-gig and fastened it on in front of his mouth.”

A second version Mooney recorded was that the bill was a gift from the benevolent Little People, the Cherokee equivalent of Irish leprechauns. They had observed a kingfisher using a spear-shaped fish as a lance to kill a blacksnake that was preying upon a bird’s nest. So they rewarded him his own spear-shaped bill.

This outsized bill accounts for the kingfisher’s success as a fisherman. One of the prettiest sights in the bird world is that of a kingfisher hovering over the riffles in a small stream before plunging headfirst underwater after its prey. Its success rate is phenomenal.

Before going fishing, the Cherokees evoked the kingfisher in magical formulas that would hopefully insure equal success.


Kingfisher’s Return

Belted kingfishers are permanent residents of the southern mountains, wintering along the larger waterways that do not often freeze over. In early spring, they reappear on smaller creeks within individual breeding territories.


Rosy maple hazes tree line.

Catkins pendant over creek.

Hepatica glows in leaf-litter.


For days now you have been

watching & waiting.

But not till you are least prepared is she suddenly there …

sculling upstream with swift strokes

rattling the morning into being

weaving her territory with sound

painting the air blue-gray and rust-brown

as her kind has for so many thousand years.


She is beyond all thinking

instinctively keen to a fuller world

than you or I could ever hope …

but if she should notice she notices

that you scribble the rocky soil ...

if she should expect, she expects failure of you

for she is the intuitive gardener of those more subtle

regions: the magic water &

the clear flowing air.


If she ever remembers she remembers

the camps laid here so long ago and

the darker people who also worried

the dirt & also shouted with joy

into the sunrise at the glory

of those flashing wings!


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..

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..

Lots of people write haikus or haiku-like verse. This past year we had several haiku-writing fests at our house. House rules during Lands Creek haiku fests are that each haiku must be of three lines with a 5-7-5 syllabic structure.

More wine was consumed than haikus produced. And as the evenings wore on the quality descended. But it was great fun and interesting to see how individual minds worked as they tried to turn out reasonable verse in a group setting. Han Shan would have laughed until his sides split. Some pretty good widely-published poets (I won’t name names) cranked out some miserable haiku that has been confiscated by the authorities.

Here are the Dec. 11, 2011, first- and second-place winners, which aren’t all that bad. Nothing qualified for third place.


still catching late sun

Uncle Luther Hyde’s old place

above the creek bend


cold December day

counting syllables with wine

ground hard as haiku


Kids like haiku a lot and have nimble minds, which is a plus. When our granddaughter, Daisy (11 years old), was visiting from Colorado last summer, we had a 20 or so minute haiku-writing session each evening after supper and put together a hand-bound gathering we call The Suppertime Poems. Here’s one of hers:


in the rainy mist

silent wolves moved down the ridges

always out of sight


She counted “ridges” as one syllable, which I would have, too. Here’s another one of Daisy’s:


sittin’ here waitin’

iron griddle & hot butter

cornbread on my mind


And I like this one that we wrote together. It’s a riddle (the answers to the three riddles in this column are on below in a box):


perched along the river

dark angels with outspread wings

waiting for the light


Writing haiku is therapeutic, especially when composed in a Mead composition book. I prefer the wide-ruled 100-sheet  9¾-by-7 black-and-silver model #09918 designed by Jackson Pollock …  especially those with the inside back covers featuring the multiplication tables (9-by-7 has been a lifelong difficulty) and the differences between lay and lie (another problem area) … not a journal … not a diary … no dates … no themes … mostly illegible pages decorated with mustard stains and bottle rings. Here’s the second riddle from my magic composition book:


weathered board monarch

frozen sky-tailed in the sun

dark crack slither gone


And the third riddle:


rocks without mortar

framing pathways with quiet care



Answers: (1) buzzards; (2) a skink; & (3) CCC work.

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..

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