The Asian connection
I’ve never been to Asia, but ever since I was a youngster I have, from time to time, fantasized about doing so. For years, I read every adventure-travel book I could find about the region. And I still love happening upon new books about plant exploration in remote China, Tibet, and adjacent regions.
My wife, Elizabeth, and I will probably never make it to Asia, so you’ll excuse us if we sense a bit of the Asian spirit here in the southern mountains. Our visual images of Asian landscapes and flora are necessarily garnered from reproductions of ancient paintings, often scrolls, and modern photography.
For more than 40 years, Elizabeth has made an intensive study of Oriental painting and papermaking styles. While visiting her gallery here in Bryson City, numerous visitors have through the years commented upon the Oriental influences in her landscapes depicting the southern Appalachians. This is entirely appropriate; after all, those disparate landscapes do have established affinities in regard to terrain and vegetation that she somehow manages to capture.
When walking a trail in the Smokies or Nantahalas or Great Balsams or wherever, we sometimes pause to observe the rocks and trees and cliffs and imagine that we’re in the Chinese mountains. Have you ever encountered the dainty little cane that grows in our woodlands? Commonly known as switch cane, the plant is only about waist high. One hardly notices it except in winter when it turns a straw-yellow color, thereby lending a distinctly Oriental touch to our landscape. At least, that’s the way we see it.
All botanists are familiar with a concept sometimes known as “The Asian Connection.” In his fine book Hollows, Peepers, and Highlanders: An Appalachian Ecology (Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press, 1994), George Constantz devotes an entire chapter to this topic.
“Here’s a claim that my surprise you,” Constantz noted. “The forests of eastern Asia and southern Appalachia are so similar that if you were swept from one to the other you would be hard pressed to tell them apart.”
He went on to explain that—“at the genus and species levels”—this similarity “involves more than 50 genera of Appalachian plants – plants that are restricted to eastern North America and eastern Asia and, except in fossil form, are absent in between.”
The ginseng trade was, of course, established due to this connection, with the North American species being closely related to the various Asian species and supposed to have similar medicinal virtues. And, as Constantz also pointed out, “More than two-thirds of the total orchid genera of temperate North America are related to orchid species in eastern Asia.”
In The Woods of Time (NY: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1957), Rutherford Platt listed other plants that have exact or very closely related genera and species, one residing in eastern Asia and the other in the Appalachians: oak, elm, basswood, beech, hickory, maple, birch, hemlock, persimmon, yellowwood, sassafras, tulip poplar, sumac, bittersweet, columbine, hepatica, Dutchman’s-breeches, dwarf ginseng, skunk cabbage, wild geranium, May apple, partridgeberry, sassafras, silverbell, witch hazel, stewartia, Hercules-club, rockcap fern, cinnamon fern, Christmas fern, and maidenhair fern. Various lichens and mosses could also be added to the list.
Why do we have an Asian connection? Here’s the short answer. When the giant super continent of Pangea was being formed between 300 and 250 million years ago, numerous plant communities were contiguous across a circumpolar landmass that included Asia, Europe, and North America. When Pangea split up some millions of years later, the vestiges of this plant community died out in Europe, western Asia, and western North America, leaving the Asian and Appalachian communities intact but widely separated.
In turn, these remnant communities survived the more recent Ice Ages (the last truly cold interval, the Wisconsin epoch, reached its apogee about 18,000 years ago) because the southern Asian mountains and the southern Appalachians escaped being glaciated. This was because both terrains have north-south conformities that impeded the oncoming ice sheets.
I do not know how far south glaciation extended in Asia, but in the Appalachians there was no true glaciation any farther south than northeastern Pennsylvania, although it was, of course, very cold here in the Blue Ridge and adjacent upland terrains. On the other hand, in the Mississippi River valley, where there were no uplands capable of resisting glaciation, the ice sheets extended much farther south.
Platt explained that this trans-world plant connection wasn’t revealed until after trade was opened with Japan in the mid-19th century and plant hunters like E.H. Wilson of the Arnold Arboretum began to return to America with extensive collections that matched our southern Appalachian flora.
By this time, the European-born glaciologist Louis Agassiz had journeyed to American and announced “the sensational discovery of the Big Ice visit to the United States.” Asa Gray, this country’s first great botanist, “put together the Big Ice story and the discovery of the same flora, separated by half the world, and announced in a sensational address, in 1858, that the Big Ice had arranged the world that way.”