Stories, salad and wildflowers: Plants a passion for Bigelow
Adam Bigelow bears down on the gas pedal of his biodiesel-fueled Jetta, urging it up the steep contours of the Blue Ridge Parkway in search of higher ground. It’s a gardener’s car, through-and-through, the dash covered with dried plant parts, the floorboards papered with garden-related fliers and catalogues.
The only thing that’s missing is a live plant, and even that’s not too far-flung a reality. It wasn’t that long ago, Bigelow recalls, that he looked down from his seat to see a little pea plant growing up, apparently having received just the right amount of water from some mysterious source to take root in the car.
“I kind of liked it,” he said. “Other people might be freaked out.”
The car continues to climb, and Bigelow declares his mission.
“We’re right now traveling backwards in time,” he announces as the car ascends the first of the 3,000 feet to come. “We’re on botanical time travel.”
The month of May is just closing out, the tops of the mountains still brown and asleep to the impending summer. Up at 5,250 feet above sea level, where Bigelow parks the car, summer’s yet a ways off. But spring abounds, a rainbow of blooms covering the roadside meadow near the Grassy Ridge Mine overlook. Bigelow, 45, knows all their names, which makes sense — he’s been chasing them all year, watching these very same species open up for the first time in February at Lake Jocassee in South Carolina, elevation 1,100 feet. They’ve since made their way up the elevation gradient to these higher reaches of the mountains, their last stand for the season.
Stories to tell
“All the plants have stories,” Bigelow says. “That’s what I’m really drawn to, telling the stories of the plants.”
The stories are bound up in their names, their histories as food or medicine, their niche in the natural world, in a whole host of history and biology that Bigelow makes it his business to ferret out.
Take lousewort, for instance.
“The name tells me this plant was used to repel lice,” Bigelow said.
Yarrow is another good example, though the meaning is best expressed through its Latin name, Achillea millefolium. The species name “millefolium” means “thousand leaf,” and anyone who’s looked at the feathery leaves of the yarrow plant would agree that’s an accurate descriptor. But the genus name, “Achillea,” alludes to the Greek god Achilles, who — in addition to having a famously vulnerable heel — was a healer. If you get cut in the backcountry, Bigelow said, the best way to stop the bleeding is to stuff it with crushed-up yarrow leaves.
Stories also lurk in connections to the animal kingdom. Trillium plants, one of the Smokies’ iconic flowers, are successful partially due to a partnership with native ant species, which carry the trillium seeds far and wide due to the delicious, fatty part that grows along with the actual seed. They eat the fatty part and dispose of the rest, which is then free to grow into a new trillium plant. Non-native fire ants, however, eat the whole seed. While fire ants can’t survive high in the mountains where the winters are harsh, Bigelow fears that warming temperatures could allow them to permeate higher.
“The spread of fire ants may lead to a decrease in trillium populations,” he said — it’s all connected.
A salad smorgasbord
For Bigelow, good stories often end with a good meal. When he’s out walking among the wildflowers, he’s not opposed to getting a snack out of the deal as well.
“Eating wild foods is really fun,” he said. “It’s actually filled with nutrition.”
“If you know the flavor of the plant, you can build a wild plant salad that’s nutritious and delicious and doesn’t even need dressing,” he said.
One of his favorites is the stalk of the Solomon’s seal plant just as it’s first shooting up from the ground — it’s got a texture kind of like asparagus, but the inside is soft and sweet, surrounded by a deliciously crunchy outside.
He’s also a fan of sochan, which is the Cherokee term for the plant better known as green-headed coneflower. The young greens, tangy as they are, are packed with energy — Bigelow likes to eat them mixed with milder violet greens — and historically have a cleansing purpose.
“During the winter (in the old days) you were eating a lot of stored foods, starchy things,” he said. “They build up a lot of toxins.”
It was during the time between winter’s end and the first crops ripening that greens like sochan would pop up, giving people a way to get those toxins out of their systems.
As appreciative as he is of a good wild meal, though, Bigelow proceeds with caution — you better know what you’re eating before you eat it, because the wrong choice can result in disastrous consequences.
“Even with my knowledge and everything, there’s always a little fear and apprehension with eating a new plant,” he said.
Becoming the garden guy
The son of a children’s librarian, Bigelow comes by his fascination with stories honestly. But for a horticulturist who manages two community gardens, leads revolving rounds of wildflower classes and makes a regular appearance on the program of the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference, he got his start in botanical know-how later in life.
“My start in plants is owed to Walmart,” said Bigelow. “I hate it.”
Originally from the Virginia Beach area, Bigelow moved to Jackson County more than 20 years ago to study radio and television production at Southwestern Community College. He eventually realized the program wasn’t for him and dropped out, but he decided to stay in the area. So he wound up at the human resources desk at Walmart asking about a job, and when the garden section manager happened to wander by, the human resources person stopped him to ask if he needed help.
“He took a look at me, young and strong, and said yeah,” Bigelow recalls.
Though Bigelow has since determined that Walmart is “the devil,” working there allowed him to work alongside a woman who knew an awful lot about plants. She took him under her wing, and he liked what he was learning.
Eventually, he wound up enrolling in the horticulture program at Haywood Community College and pursuing his newfound passions — wildflowers and organic gardening.
He started leading wildflower classes last year, teaching a course at SCC that turned out to be quite enjoyable. This year, he’s striking out on his own, leading a series of six-week wildflower classes as well as offering his services as a guide for individual groups and organizations. He’s just wrapped up the first go-around of the six-week course.
“We just all have a great time just gently and slowly walking through the woods, talking about the plants and nibbling on some of them,” he said.
There’s nothing he’d rather be doing.
“The things I love the most are sharing my passion for wildflowers and organic gardening with people,” he said.
Walk among the wildflowers
From edibles to orchids and carnivorous plants to towering trees, horticulturist Adam Bigelow will be leading a series of wildflower walks exploring the stories of all manner of Southern Appalachian flowering plants this summer.
• A six-week series of walks will be held 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays, June 21 to July 26, at various outdoor locations throughout Jackson County. $120.
• Anyone can attend a single session of the six-week series without committing to the entire course. $30 per walk.
• Bigelow leads half-day group walks by request. $250.
Bigelow has experience leading hikes and wildflower walks for a variety of groups, including the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference, Highlands Biological Station, Southwestern Community College and North American Rock Gardening Society.
Learn more about native plants
The 2016 Cullowhee Native Plant Conference is coming up July 20-23. The event, hosted by Western Carolina University, includes a variety of classes, workshops, walks and field trips with some of the foremost experts on native plants in the Southern Appalachians.
$125 through July 1. Registration deadline is July 8.