Northerners in our southern climes

Elevations above 4,000 feet in the Blue Ridge Province can be thought of as a peninsula of northern terrain extending into the southeastern United States, where typical flora and fauna of northeastern and southeastern North America intermingle.

Many plants and animals find their southernmost range extensions in the Blue Ridge, which extends from southern Pennsylvania (just south of Harrisburg) into north Georgia (just north of Atlanta), inclusive of portions of central Maryland, western Virginia, eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, and northwestern South Carolina. These include Blue Ridge St. John’s-wort, blue-bead lily, pink-shell azalea, witch-hobble, rosebay and purple rhododendron, mountain wood fern, narrow beech fern, mountain ash, table mountain pine, mountain and striped maples, fire cherry, Fraser magnolia, red spruce, northern flying squirrel, least weasel, woodland jumping mouse, rock vole, New England cottontail, bog turtle, brook trout, muskellunge, saw-whet owl, ruffed grouse, common raven, and numerous salamander species.

Not a few of these high-elevation species are endemic to the province, being found no place else in the world. Some are only encountered in a few counties and no place else in the world. But most are “northerners” who have discovered there is suitable habitat down south.

No wildflower outing into the upper elevations of the mountains would be complete without an observation of Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense). Rather inconspicuous in regard to individual plants, this member of the Lily Family often forms dense colonies that carpet the forest floor.

It flourishes in the high-elevation, cool, moist, spruce-fir region above 6,000 feet, as well as, less frequently, in northern hardwood forests between 6,000 and 4,000 feet. From May into June the plant displays dense clusters of small, white flowers described by botanist Peter White in Wildflowers of the Smokies (1996) as “having a starburst appearance.”

White also noted that Canada mayflower “is a rather unusual member of the Lily Family in that the flower parts are in twos and fours instead of the usual threes and sixes.” Flowering colonies are quite fragrant, producing a sweetish odor that can be detected along a high trail during the moist morning hours.

The spreading, underground stems of the plant produce erect stems from two to eight inches tall that are zigzagged in appearance. Each stem usually has two heart-shaped shiny leaves with lobed bases that clasp the stem. Those producing but one leaf will not bear flowers.

The generic designation Maianthemum means May-flower, while the species tag canadense is also appropriate in that the plant is primarily northern in distribution, ranging throughout Canada, the northeastern United States, and southward in the mountains.

A good place to look for Canada mayflower is the picnic area at the Balsam Mountain Campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This location in the park is accessed via a spur road off the Blue Ridge Parkway above Cherokee. Also look for a dense stand at the trailhead adjacent to the Bear Pen Gap parking area alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 427.6.

Any place that you encounter this glistening little “northern” groundcover will be a fine place to be.

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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