Yellowroot, kingfishers and waterstriders
The upland waterways of the southern highlands provide one of the region’s most interesting natural areas. Unlike most upland habitats — which generally occur as blocks or patches — streams form long corridors that afford rich and varied niches for plants and animals that have adapted their lifestyles accordingly.
Within the water there’s a variety of animal life, ranging from native brook trout to grotesque hellbenders to water shrews equipped with hairy feet that allow them to hunt underwater. In quiet nooks of pools and eddies, waterstriders skate on film provided by the surface tension of the water.
Over the water corridor, kingfishers, dragonflies and other species establish linear territories. Along the edges, Louisana waterthrushes hunt for worms and snails that they take to their young hatched in nests built back under the banks.
Within the spray zones of waterfalls and cascades, there’s the shimmering emerald world of the mosses, liverworts, ferns and other moisture-loving plants. Then, somewhat farther back — in the miniature flood plains or wash zones created by periodic overflows — a variety of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants form thick walls of undergrowth and overhanging canopy that define the outer edges (or walls) of the corridor.
Shrub yellowroot (Xanthoriza simplicissima), one of the most distinctive and important plants found here in the Blue Ridge, occurs along the banks of most streams. Yellowroot is distinctive because of the handsome tassel of flowers that sometimes appear as early as February and the strategies it has devised for growth and seed dispersal in areas often invaded by raging currents. The plant is also economically and socially important because of its medicinal use and the yellow dye Cherokee women extract from the plant’s inner pulp for tinting basket splints.
If you’re not familiar with yellowroot, look for a woody plant about 8- to 24-inches high that looks to me like a miniature palm tree; that is, all the leafy green growth is at the top of the stem. A participant in one of my plant identification workshops disagreed, saying that it looked like carrot tops.
The flowers emerge on graceful drooping racemes about 3-inches in length. These flowers consist 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 — the pollen used to attract pollinators.
The yellowish follicles or fruits produced in summer disperse seeds that float away on inflated capsules. That makes wonderful sense of why the plant favors a streamside habitat and of how it becomes distributed downstream.
The tissue under the bark is a bright yellow hue that rivals the color of fine butter. The slender roots have long been used for medicinal purposes. Doug Elliott, in his neglected little book Roots (The Chatham Press, 1976), advises that “many people who do use it, including myself, chew a section of the bitter root regularly as a general tonic with an especially beneficial effect on the gastric system.”
Many years ago, Martha Ross, a resident of the Big Cove Community on the Qualla Boundary and a member of family well known for their basketry, told me that her mother, Charlotte Lossiah, “didn’t use yellowroot as a dye too much except with honeysuckle. She liked to use bloodroot. But I like yellowroot. We also use butternut and walnut and bloodroot. You can gather yellowroot anytime, but it’s best in spring when you get a brighter color. It’s a little dull in winter. The roots can be used if you beat them with a hammer, but I like the stems to get the prettiest yellow. You scrape the pulp into a kettle of boiling water on the stove. Pull the splints out to the edge so that the yellow fills up a little hole in the center. After 30 or 40 minutes it’s ready. I never dye a big batch at once, just enough to make a few baskets.”