If you suffer from hay fever, blame the ragweed

mtnvoicesAllergies are a type of immune reaction. Normally, the immune system responds to foreign microorganisms, or particles, like pollen or dust, by producing specific proteins, called antibodies, that are capable of binding to identifying molecules, or antigens, on the foreign particle. This reaction between antibody and antigen sets off a series of reactions designed to protect the body from infection. When this same series of reactions is triggered by harmless, everyday substances, it is called an allergy.

Let the fall wildflower fruit displays begin

mtnvoicesMost wildflower enthusiasts quite naturally hone in on the showy flowering phase of a plant’s life cycle for observation, identification and enjoyment. Only slowly do we learn to appreciate the post-flowering phase.

Cardinal flower among the most popular in U.S.

back thenThe late summer wildflower season has arrived. Along roadsides and woodland edges some of our more robust native plants are now coming into full bloom. By “robust” I mean high growing and stout. These would include wild lettuce, common mullein, Joe Pye weed, green-headed coneflower, bull thistle, various species of woodland sunflowers, crown beard, boneset, white snakeroot, New York ironweed, cardinal flower, and many others.

The evocative power of the color blue

mtn voicesGreen used to be the color that caught my eye. Now it’s blue. So much so that I wrote an ode (of sorts) to the color blue that is in my book Permanent Camp. It goes like this:

Marvelous moss: Mossin’ Annie worships the lush and lovely bryophytes

out frBy Melanie Threlkeld McConnell • Correspondent

A rolling stone gathers no moss, so says the proverb, but it would if Annie Martin had her way — and be the better for it.

Martin, also known as Mossin’ Annie, is leaving her mark on the world — literally — with moss, and she’s hoping others will too, after they see her signature moss garden at the Highlands Biological Station.

Lesser known plants after more tangible awards

out hempFor me, those plants found here in the Smokies region that have verified practical human uses are, in the long run, of more interest than those with often overblown reputations for sacred or medicinal uses. For instance, the history of the common roadside plant Indian hemp is, for me, fascinating, while the lore associated with ginseng — which has reached near-mythic proportions — is somewhat tedious. If you have an interest in plants and have lived in the Smokies region for awhile, it’s probable that you already know all that you need to know about ginseng, while Indian hemp is an equally interesting plant that you perhaps know very little about.

Lily here and lily there

I was in the Grandfather District of the Pisgah National Forest the other morning preparing to go to one of my Forest Service bird points when I noticed two tall white flowers at the edge of the woods. My first thought was fly poison, Amianthium muscaetoxicum, but then I thought it’s a little early for fly poison; I ventured over for a closer look. I found two, nearly 3-feet tall, stalks with terminal racemes of white flowers about 5 inches in length. So at a distance, there is a resemblance to fly poison, but upon closer inspection there were obvious differences.

The lily I had stumbled upon the other morning is known as turkeybeard or eastern turkeybeard, Xerophyllum asphodeloides. It gets its common name from the wiry grass-looking clump of basal leaves that, with a little imagination, could resemble the “beard” that protrudes from the breast of Tom Turkey. The basal leaves of fly poison are a little more lily-like – flat and up to 3/4 of an inch wide. Turkeybeard also has long (4-5 inch) needle like cauline (stem) leaves that are smaller near the top of the plant. The cauline leaves of fly poison are only about an inch long.

The genus Xerophyllum has two North American species, X. asphodeloides (turkeybeard) in the east and X. tenax or beargrass in the Northwest. Turkeybeard is found in two disjunct and, at first glance, totally different habitats. It is found in the pine barrens of southern New Jersey and in xeric (dry) oak and pine communities at mid to high elevations along the Southern Appalachians from Virginia and West Virginia through the Carolinas to Georgia. There are historic records from Delaware and Kentucky.

While these two habitats appear to be opposite ends of the spectrum, they actually have a lot in common. They are both composed of dry, acidic, sandy or rocky soils and share other same or similar plant species like blackjack oak, pitch pine and blueberries.

Turkeybeard is recorded from 41 counties across its range. It is endangered in parts of its range and has been included in the U.S. Center for Plant Conservation’s National endangered Plant Collection.

Turkeybeard is well suited for its dry environment. The genus name, Xerophyllum, means “dry-leaved” and the thin coarse leaves conserve water by minimizing evaporation. In the Southern Appalachians, Turkeybeard is most often found on west or northwest-facing slopes and its primary source of water is from rain and/or fog.

Recent studies by Norman A. Bourg and others at the University of Maryland have shown that turkeybeard seems to benefit from fire and suggests that it could be fire-dependent. The plant’s large rhizome could allow it to store water and become dormant underground where it could survive a fire. Seeds collected in 1988 by the New England Wildflower Society were still viable in 1995, suggesting that turkeybeard is capable of seed-banking, so there would be seed available after a fire or other disturbance.

The fire scenario fits well with the turkeybeard I discovered in Grandfather the other day. I’ve been doing that point since 2007 and I enter the woods at the same point every year and within a week or 10 days of the same date and this is the first year I’ve seen the flowers. I could have walked by the basal leaves without noticing them but there’s no way to miss the flowers. And there was a fire a couple of years ago. I don’t know if it was a wildfire or a controlled burn but there were no flowers in the years before the fire but lily is definitely present now.

Late summer is an awesome time to botanize

Spring is the appointed time for the various wildflower pilgrimages and outings that attract thousands of visitors to the mountains of Western North Carolina each year. In April and May, it’s a piece of cake to locate spring beauty, hepatica, trailing arbutus, painted trillium, trout lily and all of the other showy wildflowers that appear in profusion before the leaf canopy fully closes in overhead.

Springtime wildflowering is easy pickings. No bugs. No sweltering heat. No beggar’s-lice. No sudden afternoon thunderstorms that leave you drenched and far from home.

As you read this column, however, it’s mid-August and all of the negative factors cited above are out in full force. Yet, the dog days represent one of the very best times to get out and botanize. Sweat may run off your brow into your eyes while you’re trying to key out an unknown species, but — if you persist — you’ll encounter many of the more spectacular wildflowers our region has to offer.

Most summertime wildflowers are located along open roadsides, woodland borders, and in upland pastures or meadows. The edges of creeks, rivers, lakes, and ponds are productive. Whenever I’m driving along and encounter an exposed rockface with water seepage, I hardly ever fail to pull over and take a look.

Wet rockfaces are especially promising when there are moss mats that provide a footing for plants like round-leaved sundew, a carnivorous plant that captures small insects with its glistening, sticky leaves. Sundews exude enzymes that dissolve the insect.  The insect’s proteins are then converted into nitrogen so the plant can inhabit its acidic, nitrogen-deficient habitat.

In damp pastures and meadows, Joe Pye weed and New York ironweed are making their appearance. The former is recognized by almost everyone, but do you know ironweed? It grows from three- to seven-feet tall, with a leaf-spread of about three feet. It’s easy to spot from your car. Whereas Joe-Pye-weed produces soft rounded plumes of lavender-pink flowerheads, ironweed presents a rugged, flat-topped appearance with numerous flowerets of a vivid deep purple (sometimes blue) hue gathered into a head about a foot wide.

My favorite late summer wildflower is cardinal flower. Look for it along stream banks or back in the shade of moist woodland borders. About two- to four-feet high, the plant displays spikes of scarlet flowers above toothed leaves that alternate along the main stem. The one-inch long flowers are so vivid they seem to glow as they beckon hummingbirds and other pollinators.

You never know what you’ll encounter if you get out and poke around.  Several years ago, I stopped alongside U.S. 64 in Macon County with a natural history workshop from the John C. Campbell Folk School to take a look at a wetland area situated below the road embankment. We talked about wetland types (marshes, swamps, and bogs) for awhile until a belted kingfisher diverted our attention with rattling calls as it circled back and forth. Had we not been looking out over the wetland through binoculars at the kingfisher, we wouldn’t have spotted one of the more dense stands of spiked blazing star that I’ve ever encountered.

Spiked blazing star grows up to five-feet high with lovely spires of lavender-purple flowers. In its natural setting — as viewed from a distance through binoculars — the graceful plants moved slightly in the wind against a background of rushes and alder, creating an August wildflower setting that was memorable.      

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..

The nice ones are all red and shiny

By David Curtis

If you are driving west along U.S. 23/74 and nearing exit 102, the Waynesville exit, you will see growing along side the road, a tree radiating a brilliant red. Chances are, you will also say something like, “Wow! That’s a nice one.”

Beauty of the cardinal flower

The fall wildflower season has arrived. Along roadsides and woodland edges some of our more robust native plants are now coming into full bloom. By “robust” I mean high growing and stout. These would include wild lettuce, common mullein, Joe Pye weed, green-headed coneflower, bull thistle, various species of woodland sunflowers, crown beard, boneset, white snakeroot, New York ironweed, cardinal flower, and others.

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