A glimpse of the past

Departments - Native tongue

Native plants and places deserve our protection.

Jill Jones is with a younger tulip poplar from the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.
Photos by Bill Jones

The natural beauty that can be found all over our country is truly amazing. On occasion, in some of these incredible places, we can also be reminded about our history. Some of these places, and their flora and fauna, are even more astounding when we consider they appeared so many years ago.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of those incredible places. It’s the most visited of all our national parks. People spend weeks there, year after year. Not far from there is the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. It is there that you can get a taste of what the Smoky Mountains, in fact all the Appalachian range, used to hold. It is an old growth forest. Standing next to tulip poplars with 6-foot wide trunks, realizing that American chestnuts were 10-feet wide, allows you to imagine how magnificent the forests of America truly were. If you have ever been to an old growth forest you know. If not, go and be astounded.

An old-growth tulip poplar in the same area.

In May 1850, Simon Pokagon was camping at the headwaters of Michigan’s Manistee River. He later wrote the sound he heard seemed as if “an army of horses laden with sleigh bells was advancing through the deep forests towards me.” “As I listened more intently, I concluded that instead of the tramping of horses, it was distant thunder; and yet the morning was clear, calm and beautiful.” The mysterious sound came “nearer and nearer,” until Pokagon deduced its source: “While I gazed in wonder and astonishment, I beheld moving toward me in an unbroken front millions of pigeons, the first I had seen that season.” Passenger pigeons were perhaps the most abundant bird species on the planet. In 1871, their great communal nesting sites had covered 850 square miles of Wisconsin’s sandy oak barrens — 136 million breeding adults, naturalist A.W. Schorger later estimated. Wow, can you imagine millions of those birds flying overhead?

Many plants and animals can no longer be seen or heard. Buffalo and elk used to wander the woods all over the Eastern U.S. Over a billion chestnut trees were growing in more than 20 states. Passenger pigeons, Carolina parakeets, ivory billed woodpeckers, plants such as Roan Mountain false goat’s beard or Appalachian yellow asphodel are things we will never get to see.

It takes more than seven hours and 430 miles in a car to go from Wilmington, North Carolina, on the coast to Murphy, North Carolina, in the far reaches of Appalachian Mountains. Across the state, like many others, we have certain groups of plants that are under tremendous pressure for survival.

Beautiful American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) grows in the deciduous forests of the Eastern and Midwestern states. It has been harvested for trade since the 18th century for use in herbal remedies. The 2019 price of wild ginseng was $550-$800 per dried pound, taking 30 to 100 roots to produce. As prices continue to skyrocket, more people are traipsing through national forests, state parks and even private property to hunt and poach ginseng, leaving the plant's survival in doubt. Unfortunately, small fines as well as minimal jail time have proven ineffective in curbing poaching.

The Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) is a monotypic genus, which means there is only one species in the world. It is native to select boggy areas in North and South Carolina with all known current sites within 90 kilometers of Wilmington. Because of people's fascination with the flytrap, most have been collected. In fact, they are currently listed on the endangered list because of overharvesting.

Galax urceolata (also called wandplant, wandflower or beetleweed) is native to the mountains of the Southern U.S. and found at elevations over 1,500 feet. Galax and ginseng are two of the most threatened plant species in the Southern Appalachians due to poaching, according to Tim Francis, district ranger for the Pisgah District of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The galax  industry in North Carolina was expected to bring as much as $20 million to local harvesters. No wonder between 80% and 95% of the galax patches along the Blue Ridge Parkway had been targeted by poachers, according to a general survey conducted by the Appalachian Highlands Inventory and Monitoring Network in 2011.

Protecting places such as the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest with its old-growth trees is already done. It is too late for us to experience what a flock of a million passenger pigeons sounds like or to even see the green and yellow feathered beauty of a Carolina parakeet that stood a foot tall. But working to protect species under severe pressure like American ginseng, venus flytraps and galax, as well as the places they grow, is something we all can agree to do. When your chance comes, speak up.

Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GIE Media, Inc.

Bill Jones is president of Carolina Native Nursery in Burnsville, North Carolina, a specialty grower of native shrubs, perennials, ferns and grasses. www.carolinanativenursery.com