The Naturalist’s Notebook


For several years, I was The Naturalist’s Notebook columnist for The Appalachian Voice, a publication of the environmental advocacy organization Appalachian Voices. All those articles are presented below...


[All photographs are by Kelly Coffey except where noted otherwise.]

The Paradox of Pokeweed: Poison or Peculiar Cure?
Pokeweed

The Paradox of Pokeweed: Poison or Peculiar Cure?

Modern medical researchers believe that the pokeweed may lead to dramatic medical breakthroughs, while at the same time, warn of its carcinogenic characteristics.

As summer begins to fade, pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) begins to dominate open areas of the southern Appalachian landscape. The plant is a familiar feature in traditional mountain cookery, and widely used as a folk remedy. Paradoxically, folklore also identifies pokeweed as a lethal poison.

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In Search of the Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker – Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

In Search of the Pileated Woodpecker

Both the sight and sound of a pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) are unforgettable. Most folks who spend any amount of time outdoors will probably recognize the sound, even if they cannot identify the source. Its exotic voice is matched by its tropical-like size and plumage.

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Sassafras in America
Sassafras

Sassafras in America

While the Southern Appalachian Mountains abound in flora traditionally known for their medicinal properties, few equal the sassafras tree in its historical economic impact.

The tree triggered a health craze in Europe upon its discovery in North America, when it gained a reputation for curing everything from wounds to rheumatism. Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) became a major commodity for early America, and continues to have economic significance today.

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Hickory Tree
Hickory Tree

The Virtues of the Hickory Tree

Considering all its merits, its remarkable economic history, and its few- if any limitations, the hickory (Carya spp.) would be a strong candidate for the all-around perfect Appalachian tree.

When European settlers arrived in America, they found an abundant nut tree unknown in the Old World. Native Americans had a curious practice of pounding the nuts and tossing them into boiling water. The heat separated a cream-colored oily substance from the nuts, which was skimmed off and stored as a pasty material the Indians called “pawcohiccora” in the Algonquin tongue. Indians used pawcohiccora in ways similar to butter; i.e. as a spread and an ingredient in corn cakes and other dishes. English-speaking settlers soon shortened the Indian word to “hickory,” broadened its meaning to the name for the tree itself, and referred to the creamy nut extract as “hickory milk.” This oily substance became economically valuable in colonial trade; one quart of hickory milk, for example, could be exchanged for 19 pounds of pork.

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Hickory Nuts
Hickory Nuts
Sunroot: A Forgotten Food
Sunroot

Sunroot: A Forgotten Food

A historically accurate Thanksgiving meal should include sunroot (Helianthus tuberosus), which was readily available in New England and Virginia in late fall and winter, and a food the Indians would likely have provided to hungry colonists.

As the sun weakens at the end of the growing season and flowering plants fade to brittle remnants, gardeners and wildflower lovers resign themselves to a few months estranged from nature’s brilliant colors. But one wildflower - the Jerusalem artichoke...

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Mountain Weather
Mountain Weather

Mountain Weather

Southern Appalachian weather is dynamic and diverse, often surprising, but never dull.

A major characteristic of southern Appalachian weather is the large amount of precipitation we receive. Certain locations record the second highest annual rainfall in North America (after the Pacific Northwest), and even fit the definition of a temperate rainforest.

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Eulogy for the Carolina Parakeet
Carolina Parakeet – Photo by James St. John
Licensed by Creative Commons

Eulogy for the Carolina Parakeet

The sad saga of this native North American bird (Conuropsis carolinensis) reveals the numerous factors involved in the extinction of a species, and a lost world never to be experienced again.

Think of the most remote Appalachian wilderness you have ever visited and imagine that landscape if you time-traveled centuries into the past. Would it look much the same as it does today? Not likely, even though it may be “untouched.” The landscape would be filled with seemingly exotic species: towering chestnut trees, vast expanses of river cane, wolves, elk, panthers, and maybe even buffalo. The strangest sight, perhaps, would be that of a Carolina parakeet.

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How Our Native Strawberry Became World Famous
Native Strawberry

How Our Native Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) Became World-Famous

Professional gardener Peter J. Hatch aptly describes the wild strawberry’s legacy by stating, “One wonders if any other native eastern North American plant has made such an important contribution to the world’s horticulture.”.

One day as 18th-century botanist William Bartram traveled on horseback through the southern mountains, he discovered he had entered a field so thick with strawberry plants that the crushed berries had dyed his horse’s legs deep red.

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Beech: Thin Skin, Shallow Roots, Long Life
Beech Tree

Beech: Thin Skin, Shallow Roots, Long Life

An aging beech is perhaps the Appalachian forest’s most tenacious survivor.

In a wooded area near my house stands a large, impressive American beech (Fagus grandifolia). Curious about its age, I measure the tree’s girth and consult a simple table developed to estimate the age of beech trees. This method is not entirely reliable, but useful nevertheless for determining a broad age range.

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Holly
Holly – Photo by PublicDomainPictures.net

Holly and Mountain Ash

American mountain ash (Sorbus americana) and American holly (Ilex opaca) generally occupy separate ranges in North America. Their domains, however, converge in the Southern Appalachians, where the two trees exhibit an interesting duality along the mountain slopes.

Mountain ash is found along the highest peaks, while holly is abundant farther downslope. Both trees, though, are generally absent in a belt between 3,000 to 4,000 feet in elevation. A familiar feature of the mountain South is the archipelago of Canadian “islands” along the spine of the Appalachian range. Peaks and ridges above 4,000-5,000 feet have climate and vegetation very similar to that of southern Canada and northern New England. American mountain ash (Sorbus americana) is a typical northern species also native to the highest reaches of Southern Appalachians. It shares a habitat with red spruce and Fraser fir. The plant is also known as the “rowan tree,” a name apparently borrowed from the European mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia), a species with similar characteristics. The Scandinavian word rowan means ‘red,’ referring to its bright berries. Roan Mountain, on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, supposedly received its name because of the numerous native rowan trees growing near its summit.

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Mountain Ash
Mountain Ash
The Apple: America's Adopted Fruit
Apple

The Apple: America’s Adopted Fruit

America added new dimensions to the Old World apple. Its wildlike cultivation led to the development of hundreds, if not thousands, of new varieties.

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Magnolia Tree
Magnolia Tree

Magnolia and Fir: The John Fraser Connection

Two trees that are so botanically different have surprising similarities.

Range maps of firs and magnolias generally show the trees to be located hundreds of miles apart. The flowering magnolia is popularly associated with the balmy South; the fir- a conifer-with the frigid North. Yet, as is true of so many other plants, the unique geography of the Southern Appalachians has brought two species of these trees together: Abies fraseri (Fraser fir) and Magnolia fraseri (Fraser magnolia). The only place in the world where these particular species are found is in the southern mountains. Fraser fir and Fraser magnolia have a number of common characteristics. In addition to the name they share, both trees have a limited range in the southern Appalachians. As a result, the two species were discovered relatively late compared to other North American trees.

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Fir Tree
Fir Tree
The Lore of Boneset, Joe Pye Weed and White Snakeroot
Boneset

The Lore of Boneset, Joe Pye Weed and White Snakeroot

These summer plants have interesting stories behind them and have been valued in the past for their healing properties.

Spring plants get all the attention. Trillium, trout lily, mayapple, lady’s slipper, bloodroot, and other forest-floor plants are constantly photographed and praised for their beauty. Although these plants deserve the glory they receive, their counterparts in the meadow, maturing in late summer and fall, are often neglected. Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum), white snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum), and other end-of-season flowers rarely grace magazine covers or draw the interest of many naturalists. Perhaps the time of year affects our attention span. The fresh and colorful spring plants set against the bare, brown forest floor demand more than a glance, and after several months of winter drabness we are eager to see green growth. In contrast, by late summer the wet southern Appalachian climate has produced, for several months, massive amounts of lush foliage.

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The Lore of Boneset, Joe Pye Weed and White Snakeroot
Joe Pye Weed
The Lore of Boneset, Joe Pye Weed and White Snakeroot
White Snakeroot
Discovering the Underworld of the Crawdad
Appalachian Brook Crayfish – Freshwater and Marine Image Bank at the University of Washington

Discovering the Underworld of the Crawdad

The unpretentious crawdad (Cambarus bartonii) is a reminder that the natural world is much more nuanced than we usually realize.

The names “crayfish,” “crawfish,” and “crawdad” can be used interchangeably and refer to the same animal, although “crawdad” is perhaps more common in the Appalachians. The names evolved from a medieval origin in the French word ecrevisse, referring to its habit of hiding in crevices.

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Sugar Maple
Sugar Maple

Sugar Maple

Maple sugar production was a common practice for early inhabitants of the southern Appalachians.

Sugar Mountain. Sugar Grove. Sugar Hollow. Sugar Knob. The word “sugar” appears on maps of almost every region within the southern mountains. A bit of our pioneer past is evoked every time these place-names are spoken, and the names themselves reveal the natural history of those particular locations. “Sugar” refers to the sweetener made from the sugar maple tree (Acer saccharum), an important forest food resource to the early settlers of the Appalachian frontier.

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When Cane Was King: The Story of Native Bamboo
Native Bamboo

When Cane Was King: The Story of Native Bamboo

Vast stretches of river cane (Arundinaria gigantea) once blanketed mountain bottomlands.

Traveling around the southern Appalachians, I occasionally glimpse a peculiar plant that does not seem to fit into any conventional category. It is tall enough to be a tree yet has no other “tree” characteristics. The plant’s grassy foliage is attached to rigid (though not woody) stems that resemble corn stalks. These individual stalks grow so close together in dense patches that no other vegetation can compete within the jungle-like colony.

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Wild Native Bees
Andrena carolina Wild Bee – Photo by Laurence Packer

Wild Native Bees

North America’s 4,000 species of wild native bees are critical for pollination.

A few years ago I invited a local beekeeper to place a hive on my farm. I naively assumed a honey bee colony would increase pollination and thus help maximize crop production. On a preliminary visit he stopped near a mist of insects hovering around a patch of blooming blackberry briars.

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The Foothills Mountain Range
The Foothills Mountain Range – Click To Enlarge Map

The Foothills Mountain Range

A significant aspect of southern Appalachian geography, the Foothills Range - South Mountains, Brushy Mountains, and Sauratown Mountains - is rich in history, full of geological curiosities, and offers abundant scenery and recreation.

Stop at almost any east-facing overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway in northwestern North Carolina and you will see layers of mountains retreating into the distance. Most people assume that they are looking at the Blue Ridge Mountains. While spurs of the Blue Ridge range do taper to the east, the most prominent peaks and ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains end at the escarpment. So, what are those ridges that make Parkway views so spectacular?

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The Locust Tree
Locust Tree

The Locust Tree

Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) doesn’t provide the fancy furniture and fall foliage of other species, but its many practical uses — food, fencing, and fertilizer — have been greatly appreciated by Indians, early settlers, and modern inhabitants of the Appalachian Mountains.

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Hail to the Poplar
Poplar Tree

Hail to the Poplar

A soaring poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) focuses our attention on a vertical dimension the same way a spreading oak draws our eyes horizontally. It is the tallest hardwood in North America.

In 1807 Thomas Jefferson planted a tulip poplar near the west entrance of his home. Over the course of two centuries, this tree and another nearby have grown to massive proportions, perfectly framing his impressive house.

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The Sarvis Tree
Sarvis Tree

The Sarvis Tree

Sarvis deserves a place alongside other summer berries as a useful wild food.

The sarvistree (Amelanchier arborea) is widespread throughout eastern North America, being found as far south as the Gulf Coast. Despite its ubiquity, we seem to have a special claim on the tree here in the southern Appalachians, perhaps because flowering sarvis trees are highly visible on the vertical mountainsides, and consequently more recognized. Most mountain residents are familiar with early spring sarvis blooms, even if they cannot identify the tree itself. While almost all other trees are still dormant, white masses of flowering sarvis cannot be missed on the hills void of foliage. The sarvis is seemingly forgotten, however, as other trees leaf out and literally overshadow it. But the sarvis tree is possibly at its finest in early summer when its berries- the result of those brilliant blooms- are ripe and readily available for a variety of uses.

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The Sarvis Tree
Sarvis Tree
Sourwood Tree
Sourwood Tree

Life on the Edge

The variety of life along the forest edge is remarkable and useful. Three edge plants in particular- the sourwood tree (Oxdendrum arboreum), the elderberry shrub (Sambucus canadensis), and the purple-flowering raspberry (Rubus odoratus) represent the diversity found there and the practical value humans have found in these species over the ages.

The sourwood tree is widely associated with the Appalachians, from the old Appalachian fiddle tune “Sourwood Mountain,” to the familiar sourwood honey sold at roadside stands. Its core habitat in the southern and central Appalachians is obvious on the tree’s range map, although its territory extends into much of the southeast. Sourwood honey is perhaps more familiar to most people than the tree itself, and the irony of such a popular, sweet substance produced from a tree with “sour” in its name is evident (the name refers to the bitter taste of the leaves). Nectar from its small, white flowers yields a light, almost clear honey that is coveted for its smooth taste. The tree, however, has ornamental qualities that should not be overlooked. Its small to medium mature height; dense, glossy foliage; and symmetrical shape make it ideal in many landscaped settings. While individual sourwood flowers are tiny, the bell-like blooms hang in lineal groups, giving the tree a “dripping” appearance in mid- to late summer. Sourwood’s deep red foliage in the fall also adds to its appeal.

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Elderberry Shrub
Elderberry Shrub
Trout Lily
Trout Lily

Trout Lily and Trillium

Early spring offers a short window of opportunity for many woodland plants known as spring ephemerals. In their habitat beneath the forest canopy, they must emerge, bloom, and complete their life cycles before the trees leaf-out and block the warm sun.

Two familiar spring ephemerals are the trout lily (Erythronium Americanum) and the trilliums. Many explanations exist for the origin of the name “trout lily”, and all are plausible. The spotted leaves resembled the mottled scales of a trout. Trout lilies are common along streams and usually emerge at the same time that trout become active and fishing season opens. The Cherokee chewed the root of the trout lily and spat into the stream, claiming that substances in the root encouraged trout to bite. A colony of trout lilies can appear to be nothing more that narrow leaves lying flat on the ground, with no apparent stems.

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Trillium
Trillium
When the Buffalo Roamed
Buffalo

When the Buffalo Roamed

American bison in the Appalachian Mountains.

A curious characteristic of Appalachian geography is the number of features- creeks, knobs, hollows, etc. - with “buffalo” in their name. This beast from the western plains seems as out-of-place in the forests of Appalachia as a saguaro cactus on the Blue Ridge. In colonial times, though, buffalo were found throughout much of eastern North America.

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The Spooky Nature of Witch Hazel Trees
Witch Hazel Trees

The Spooky Nature of Witch Hazel Trees

The witch hazel tree (Hamamelis virginiana) is one of the strangest plants native to the Southern Appalachians. It blooms around Halloween and “spits” its seed with a startling pop. Its gnarled and misshapen limbs confirm that the tree is appropriately named.

It creates a tingling sensation when applied to the skin. Its wood supposedly has special powers to detect underground water and salt, as well as gold, silver, and other precious metals. Such characteristics lend an eerie quality to the witch hazel tree, making it an intriguing plant to observe around Halloween. Ghost stories and horror movies often emphasize out-of-season phenomena — flies in mid winter, chilly air in the summer — as evidence of the supernatural. Because of its unusual life cycle, witch hazel also seems to be responding to an otherworldly force, operating on a different calendar than most plants. The typical pattern for a plant is to bloom in the spring, develop seeds over the summer, and, after the seeds mature, go dormant in the fall. Witch hazel, however, begins to bloom in late October as it is shedding its leaves, and often continues to bloom after the tree is completely dormant.

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Witch Hazel Tree
Witch Hazel Tree
The Decline and Rise of the Deer
Deer – Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The Decline and Rise of the Deer

The greatest impacts on the deer population in the past were colonial economic forces that reached far into the Appalachians. By the late 1600s, deerskin was an international commodity.

Anyone with a farm, garden, or landscaped lawn is probably aware of the exploding population of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Their browsing eating habits result in millions of dollars’ worth of damage to crops, vegetables, and ornamental plants. In one state, the Farm Bureau has threatened to sue wildlife officials for allegedly allowing deer numbers to get out of control.

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The Bobcat: Apparition of the Appalachians
Bobcat – Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The Bobcat (Lynx rufus): Apparition of the Appalachians

Though its presence is often concealed to the eyes, the “wood’s ghost” who prowls just beyond view retains an element of danger and an air of mystery.

Wild animals appeal to us for various reasons- the freedom of birds, the gracefulness of deer, the majesty of elk, and the strength and danger associated with bears. The fact that wild cats seem to possess all these characteristics in one animal may explain our fascination with them.

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The Raven: Oracle of the High Peaks
Raven – Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The Raven: Oracle of the High Peaks

Over the centuries the raven · · (Corvus corax) has worked its way into folklore perhaps because of its high intelligence, unusual behavior, and its somewhat mysterious ability to command our attention.

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[Since this article was written, I have learned that a raincrow is not the raven, but a species called the yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus). Nevertheless, the call of the raincrow is similar to croaking noises made by ravens. Apologies for the error.]
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