Adam Bigelow

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My dog Magnolia and I have been together for around 16 years. She’s a good dog. We used to wander all over the mountains searching for wildflowers, waterfalls and beautiful views.

There are a few native plants whose names I call out loud like a prayer whenever I see them. This is especially true since the crazy times of the global pandemic and resulting shutdown. One of those is the whorled loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) whose name I slowly pronounce out loud as a benediction, “world, lose strife.” And I mean it. 

Please don’t get me wrong, I love the orchids of springtime. Love them. They tend to be as big and showy and beautiful as springtime itself.  Ladyslipper orchids, both yellow and pink (Cypripedium acaule and C. parviflorum) and showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis) are certainly beautiful and fun to see blooming in the woods in the spring.  

Our culture tends to celebrate youth and youthfulness above all other life phases. Growth and vitality are venerated over age and wisdom. This wasn’t always the case.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to cut it up and use it for heat or timber, is it a waste of resources? Or, put another way, are humans the only reason that all other life on Earth was created?

I wear a few different hats in my world. A big straw hat for working in the garden or walking out in the sun. Wool caps and toboggans for the colder mornings of spring. Party hats for the celebrations. I’ve even been known to wear a tricorne hat when visiting Colonial Williamsburg as a kid. 

Spring has fully sprung across Southern Appalachia, as we are awakened daily to birdsong and the bustling morning activity of bees and butterflies.

In springtime, all things are possible. Everything around you that is alive is imbued right now with the same hopeful energy.

All around Western North Carolina are thousands upon thousands of small to medium trees blooming white, stinky flowers along roadsides, fence lines and driveways.

I’ve been writing this column for over a year and a half and every plant that I have highlighted and celebrated evolved and co-evolved in the bioregion of Southern Appalachia.

There are so many different native plants and flowers that I have yet to see growing in the wild. And I really want to.

To get through the winter, some plants go underground to take advantage of the earth’s insulation, while others stay above ground and protect themselves in other ways.

Hunkered down for the long winter, wrapped in multiple layers and prepared for the cold, I have a lot in common with the flower and leaf buds of woody plants.

In the Cherokee cosmology, evergreen trees were given their ability to hold onto their leaves all winter as a reward for s taying up all night long for seven days, keeping the sacred fire lit.

At the highest elevations of the Southern Appalachians grow two evergreen trees that give the Balsam Mountains their name — red spruce (Picea rubens) and Fraser fir (Abies fraseri).

Whoever first wrote down the phrase, “You reap what you sow” was definitely not a farmer or gardener. I’ve started following that phrase with, “…if you’re lucky.”

Want to hear a corny joke about an oak tree? That was it. 

This time of year, as the wind rustles the leaves and the shadows begin to elongate as the sun lingers lower on the horizon, the veil between the worlds seems to grow thinner and thinner.

Every year at the beginning of fall, an amazing thing happens in North America, and the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

No matter where you are in the world, if you encounter a plant that has a square stem and opposite leaf arrangement — when two leaves grow out of the stem at the same place, but on opposing sides — it is most likely a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae). 

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Among my favorite plants to teach to children is jewelweed (Impatiens capensis & I. pallida).

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Right now, throughout Southern Appalachia, and especially along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Balsam Gap in either direction, one of the most beautiful and iconic flowers in all of Appalachia is in bloom.

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If you find yourself on the campus of Western Carolina University in the summer around the third week of July, you might notice a large and slightly odd group of people walking around.

Trilliums are some of the most beautiful and iconic wildflowers in the world, and the Southern Appalachian mountains are filled with many different trillium species.

Among the many plants that signify the start of summer, perhaps none is more showy than St. John’s wort (Hypericum spp.)

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For the past few years, whenever I encounter the whorled loosestrife growing along a trail or roadside I have been saying its name out loud, and slowly. Like a prayer: “World, lose strife.”

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Plants and butterflies have a long history of evolution and interconnected relationships. Plants serve as food for caterpillars who eat their leaves to gain energy for their growth and transformations. This co-evolved host-plant relationship mostly occurs between native plants and native caterpillars. Many butterflies depend on this relationship for their lives.

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I love coming across a large patch of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) while walking in the woods in the spring. They are beautiful in all stages of growth. Early on, when they first emerge from the soil, they look like turtles poking their heads up. Fully open they look tiny umbrellas at a fancy beach. And as they start to fade, they turn a beautiful shade of yellow. 

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Trilliums are some of the most beautiful and iconic wildflowers in the world, and the Southern Appalachian Mountains are a filled with many different trillium species. Wake-robins, toadshades, bashful trilliums, large white trilliums, painted trilliums, and so many more. There are trilliums with white flowers, red flowers, maroon, yellow and pink flowers. Even some trilliums with variegated patterns on their petals, or variegation or mottling on their leaves. 

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There are three species of toothwort (Cardamine spp.) in the woods of Southern Appalachia, two of which are very common sights on spring wildflower walks. And one that is very rare, and uncommonly seen in the mountains.

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Each spring I am struck by the beauty and encouraged by the support given by bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) as it emerges and begins its process of opening the flower and unfurling the leaf. The flower bud and leaf come up together, poking through the duff of last year’s tree leaves blanketing the forest floor. Before opening, the flower looks like an egg on the end of a long skinny stalk. This top-heavy flower might just flop over, were it not for the leaf wrapped around the stem, like a helping hand holding the flower for us to see.

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Among the duff of last year’s fallen leaves lie many interesting and beautiful shapes to catch your eye on a winter’s walk in the woods. From the mosses and orchid leaves described in previous columns, to newly emerging plants preparing for spring’s full flush, there are many forms and patterns on the winter forest’s floor.

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There’s a change in the air every year around this time. A subtle shift in energy. Days start getting longer, and sunset occurs later each day. Birdsong sings louder in the morning, and the sounds of wood frogs echo through the valleys.

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Among my favorite types of plants that grow year-round, and tend to especially shine in the wintertime, are mosses.

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While there are many plants that stay green throughout the winter, there is only one plant known as wintergreen.

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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.

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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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