Adam Bigelow

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I love walking in the woods in the wintertime. Sure, there aren’t any wildflowers blooming, but there are no mosquitos to swat away, no flies or ants to bug your lunch, and no snakes to startle your path either. The long-range views visible through leafless trees give a fresh perspective to familiar trails as all the ridges and hollows are outlined starkly on the hillsides, showing evidence of water and its effect through millions of years of erosion.

Every year on the last night of December, in the dead of winter, the cries go out of “Happy New Year!” We toast our old acquaintance, kiss our sweethearts, celebrate the highs and drown the lows of the previous twelve months in a night of revelry.

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There are many different plants that Appalachian mountainfolk have used for centuries in their decorations and celebrations on or around the winter solstice.

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Many of us may be tired of cranberries by now, having eaten our fill, and then some, at our recent fall harvest celebrations. And whether you were on team fresh cranberry sauce, or you prefer the canned cranberries, you ate the fruit of a plant native to North America called large cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon).

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Every year, the fallen leaves blanket the forest floor in the fall. And every spring the wildflowers have no trouble pushing up through them to bloom.

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Just as most of the other plants, shrubs and trees in the woods are shutting down and preparing to go dormant for the winter, here comes witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) just beginning to flower for the year. Many will not see their blooms, if they notice them at all, until the leaves are gone. But they begin blooming just in time for Halloween, like any good witch would. 

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We have a tendency in our modern culture of celebrating only the young, youthful and new parts of our world, and not enjoying the old, aging and dying parts. We tend to fear death and growing old. Throughout the world, indigenous traditional cultures celebrate and venerate older members of their people as the carriers and imparters of wisdom, knowledge and how to live well on the earth.

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It used to be, when I was first getting into wildflowers, that I would see the gentians begin to bloom, and my heart would sink a bit. The melancholy would start to grow, and I’d get a little sad knowing that the end of the wildflower season was getting near. See, I consider gentians to be the last wildflower to bloom in the fall. Now I know that this isn’t exactly true, as the flowers of witch-hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, only start blooming in the fall and can continue to bloom through December. 

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Very soon, my guided wildflower walks will mostly consist of me walking along a trail and saying, “That’s an aster, that’s a goldenrod. There’s another aster. And this is a different goldenrod.” 

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The stories of plants are what led me in to falling in love with wildflowers, just as much as their pure beauty and color. And it is through story that we learn about and relate to the world around us. It is how lessons about life, both general and specific, are passed down through the generations. Stories evolve into myth, legend and lore, embedding themselves in the culture of a people.

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Goldenrods (Solidago spp.) are among the most widespread, beautiful and important wildflowers in all of Southern Appalachia. There is almost nothing more beautiful than a field of goldenrod in bloom, with a crisp, blue, autumn sky as backdrop. And often they are growing with ironweed (Vernonia spp.) and Asters (Symphiotrichum spp.), creating that beautiful purple and gold color combination that dominates late summer wildflowers.

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Often, when I am giving my introductory talk on the guided wildflower walks I lead, I invite people to play the “What’s That Plant?” game. This is one of my favorite games to play, and the rules are simple. As we are walking along, if anyone notices a plant or flower that I haven’t seen or taught about yet, they can ask, “Hey Adam, what’s this plant?”

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Throughout Southern Appalachia, rhododendrons can be found growing and blooming. And what a show they put on. With flower colors running from white, to pink, to purple with large and small flowers, rhododendrons are among the most iconic flowers in all of Western North Carolina and can be found growing in most of the many and varied ecosystems in these mountains. 

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One of my favorite things in the world to do is walk people into a field of wildflowers that they haven’t seen yet, point one out and then watch as they realize that those flowers are also blooming all around them. It’s not their fault that they didn’t see them at first. Often, until we are shown something, we don’t see it. Once we are shown it, it is difficult to not see it. 

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Hi, my name is Adam Bigelow, and I am a Plant Nerd. 

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