In a lurch about larch: Mystery tree leaves retired professor probing for answers
To the untrained eye, the tree looks like just another evergreen, just another species thrown into the mix of natural diversity along the Blue Ridge Parkway. But the American larch tree growing opposite the pull-off for Courthouse Valley Overlook fails on both counts: though it’s in the pine family, it is not an evergreen, and it is not a native.
“This just blew me out of the water a little bit,” said Dan Pittillo, the retired Western Carolina University botany professor who found the tree. “I didn’t expect it.”
This tree, larix laricina, called Eastern larch or tamarack, loses its needles in the winter and is home in much more northern climates. It grows in southeastern Canada, south to New England and west to Minnesota, with a separate population growing in mountain bogs in West Virginia and western Maryland. But not in North Carolina.
“I’m suspicious that it didn’t get here on its own,” Pittillo said.
But as to how, exactly, it arrived, Pittillo has only theories. Could the seed have blown in from a larch tree someone planted nearby? Pittillo doesn’t know of any Eastern larches in the area, but he’s looking for informants. Maybe the N.C. Arboretum had a larch planting at one time? Of course, that site is 30-plus miles away from this tree, so the chances are slim. Or maybe a storm sucked a seed from some far-off larix laricina into the upper atmosphere, dropping it here on the Blue Ridge Parkway?
Someone might have planted it purposefully, but the location, smushed between the road and a rocky bank, is far from optimal for an ornamental planting. Perhaps the topsoil brought in when the parkway was made had a larch seed embedded in it somewhere? Or maybe, just maybe, the tree is a relic from glacial times, a seed that lay buried under the soil until parkway construction dredged it up. Though he readily defines the idea as “far-fetched,” it’s Pittillo’s favorite theory, if only for the romance of thinking that the tree stumping his 40 years in academia has a history beginning thousands of years before Pittillo’s birth.
“The chance of that is extremely small,” the retired professor concedes. “That’s not to say it couldn’t have happened.”
For an area as well-visited as the parkway, it might also seem unlikely that a non-native larch tree could grow, unnoticed, on a dry ridgeline directly across from an overlook long enough to reach 6 inches in diameter at breast height.
But Pittillo makes it his business to notice. He has since childhood.
“When I started collecting as a high school student in Henderson County, between milkings, I was interested in plants and animals, too,” Pittillo said.
The dairy farmer’s son hung his insect collection on the wall of his school’s science lab and eventually a plant collection, too, though that endeavor didn’t end well.
“The room got hot in the summer and the tape came off,” Pittillo recalled.
The whole thing came crashing down, but his interest in the natural world stayed intact. From high school, Pittillo went to Berea College, a school that provides its students a tuition-free education while doling out jobs to go along with their studies.
“They turned me loose in the Berea College forest and said, ‘Go collect plants.’ I said, ‘Great. That’s exactly what I want to do,’” Pittillo said.
And that’s exactly what Pittillo was doing when, 50 years, three degrees and 40 years of teaching later, he spotted the larch tree. It was in October 2011, and he was cruising the parkway as part of his work with the Blue Ridge Parkway Flora List, a volunteer effort to scour the route for species not formerly documented there. Though it’s in the same family as pine, spruce and fir, larch needles turn yellow-orange in the fall and drop off. Pittillo’s pass by the site just happened to coincide with the larch’s showiest season.
“It begins to turn yellow before it drops its leaves,” Pittillo said. “I saw that and said, ‘What in the world is that doing here?’”
Of course, the larch tree isn’t the first new species that Pittillo has ever documented on the parkway. Asked his total, Pittillo replied, “I’ll have to look that up. Because I’ve lost track.”
Upon further investigation, his total for the parkway survey turned out to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 species, but he’s documented even more in a separate survey with Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Like the parkway survey, the goal of the Vascular Plants of North Carolina Region of Great Smoky Mountains National Park survey is to identify any plants within the park boundary that had not been found there before. So far, Pittillo has identified four new plants, possibly six.
And all that despite the fact that he has been retired since 2005. The bug for discovery is something he just can’t shake, especially when it comes to the natural world.
“It’s seeing the unknown,” he said. “It’s what a scientist often does — it’s probing depths that have not been probed as much as I think they might could be.”
Sometimes, it’s surprising to see which species require the most probing. One of the new species Pittillo documented in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was none other than viburnum nudum, a type of viburnum common just a tad farther east but apparently not found in the national park before.
Then there was the rose bush that completely stumped Pittillo at first sight. Rose might seem like a pretty simple identification, but this plant happened to be sterile. With nothing but leaves and stem to go on, the verdict was a hard one to come by. After doing some digging, he was able to dub it Rhodotypos scandens, a Chinese species that has naturalized regionally.
“Usually you know a species before you discover it,” Pittillo said. “But you don’t always get to do that because sometimes you bump into something you have no earthly idea what it is.”
But that’s all part of the fun.
“It’s like doing forensics,” Pittillo said, a methodical putting together of clues until the correct answer emerges, solving yet another mystery of the diverse world around.
And sharing that thrill is just another benefit of exploration. Driving up the parkway to present the larch tree to a curious reporter meant a two-hour roundtrip from Cullowhee, but Pittillo had no misgivings.
“I wouldn’t have come up here if it wasn’t gratifying,” he said.
Got any ideas?