Archived Mountain Voices

Intricate flora sometimes defy description

Through the years I have attempted to describe the flora of the Smokies region for newspaper, magazine and book readers. I have learned that describing the “botanical architecture” of trees, flowers, fruits, etc., can be tricky business. Drafting a “sketch” in words that a reader can “visualize” isn’t always as easy as falling off a log. And I have also learned that when describing wildflowers the temptation is to employ too many superlatives (wonderful, exquisite, beguiling, etc.). Through the years many of my attempts have fallen flat. Here are some I think are OK. I hope they will remind you of your own encounters with plants and be a reminder to always take “a closer look.”

• What we watch for in winter are the less obvious evergreens that brighten the leaf-litter on a slushy winter day: rattlesnake plantain and cranefly orchis (orchid species that display their leaves only in winter); pipsissewa and wintergreen (two upright partially woody plants sometimes described as “sub-shrubs” because of their diminutive stature); and trailing arbutus and partridgeberry (two prostrate plants sometimes described as “creepers” because they don’t climb like true vines).

• Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) can spread over fairly large areas, carpeting roots, small rock outcrops, and stumps. In winter the opposite dark-green oval leaves with their yellowish-green veins make a pleasant sight. In May and June four-lobed lilac-scented white flowers appear. Closer observation reveals interiors clothed with velvety white hairs. Note that the ovaries of each pair are fused. These produce a red (rarely white) berry composed of two equal parts. In winter you can readily observe two sets of sepals on the end of each berry.

• Trailing arbutus is an evergreen sub-shrub. The ovate leathery dull-green leaves are blunt-tipped, displaying distinctive wavy edges. I often find it growing alongside galax, which has a papery shiny-green round leaf. Delve under the arbutus leaves and surrounding leaf litter so as to expose the clusters of from six to ten flowers. Each will be tubular shaped and up to a half-inch long before expanding into five waxy lobes. They are white to pale pink after first blooming — but the pink intensifies with age. In order to attract insects for pollination purposes, trailing arbutus is among the most fragrant of our flowering plants. I don’t have a very keen sense of smell; nevertheless, I often detect the fragrance before I locate the plant.

• In a mischievous mood, Thoreau hailed them as “plump fellows.” But acorns are elegant, one of our most satisfying tactile and visual natural structures. They are sometimes produced in such numbers that we tend to take them for granted. I try each year to remind myself to gather a handful from each of our species. You can’t help but admire the economy of form. The rough-textured cap is an enlarged and stiffened version of the small overlapping leaves that protected the female flower before it blossomed. The smooth-textured nut is the flower’s ovary, grown large and hardened into a protective shell around the single seed within.

• Growing in the dappled shadows of rich woodland borders and openings, back cohosh seems to illuminate the forest when its long white-flowered candelabra-like stalks bloom in mid-summer. You probably know black cohosh when you see it, but you may not be aware there is a similar species here in the Smokies region. Both display leaves divided into numerous egg-shaped or oblong sharply-toothed leaflets. The flowers are mostly composed of fluffy stamens. The most common species (Cimicifuga racemosa) is the one known as black cohosh. It has ill-scented flowers that bloom from early June into August. These bear a single (female) pistil. The other species (Cimicifuga americana) is sometimes called false bugbane. Its flowers, displayed from August into September, are not ill-scented. Each bears three or more pistils.

Related Items

• Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is surely one of our most widely admired wildflowers. Notice how the lobes of the kidney-shaped leaf encircle the fragile stem even after the flower has blossomed. This is a structural mechanism that protects and stabilizes the stem and flower during times of high wind or even from falling branches.

The leaf also has the ability to tilt from a horizontal to a vertical position so as to most directly capture energy-giving sunlight. After the flower has withered and the canopy closes in overhead, bloodroot leaves expand and become much rounder and larger. Leaves as large as 12 inches across are sometimes encountered. This growth habit allows the plant to continue processing sunlight in an effective manner even when growing in shaded conditions. To my eyes, bloodroot plants display combinations of color and symmetry that are aesthetically pleasing. The light green leaf perfectly accentuates the pearly-white petals and golden-yellow stamens. The number of stamens (16-24) is almost always exactly twice that of the petals (8-12).

• Occuring along the banks of most streams, shrub yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) is quite common here in the Smokies region. Look for a plant about eight to 24 inches high that resembles a minature palm tree in that all the leafy green growth is at the top of stem. The flowers emerge as graceful drooping racemes about three inches in length. Each flower consists 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.  This is the pollen used to attract insects. Wherever you find one yellowroot plant, look around for others.  They almost always form colonies with extensive intergraded root systems. These help the plant maintain a foothold when flooded. Another flood-disaster prevention feature is a bare flexible stem that offers little resistence to raging water. And the yellowish follicles or fruits produced in summer disperse seeds that float away on inflated capsules. Scrape some bark off the stem at ground level with your fingernail and you’ll see that that genus designation is perfect (“Xanthorhiza” translates to “yellowroot”). The tissue under the bark is a bright yellow hue that rivals the color of fine butter. Cherokee women have for ages used pulp rendered from the plant to obtain the yellow dye used to tint the wooden splints they weave into traditional baskets.

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..

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.