Seeing Old Friends for the Very First Time

I remember visiting the Appalachians for the first time.  It was 1971 and with my new driver’s license firmly in hand, I accepted an invite from my older sister and her girlfriend, Francie, to go camping in Vogel State Park in north Georgia.

Purple Wakerobin, Trillium erectum

Purple Wakerobin, Trillium erectum

We loaded my sister’s manual-shift ‘68 Camaro, which started life brown but had recently been painted a striking shade of Canary yellow, with all our gear and set off.  My sister decided to give me a lesson in down-shifting and though I knew how to drive a stick shift on level ground, the mountains were proving a challenge and my sister’s patience soon dissolved.  Thereafter, my sister was happy for me to simply gaze out the window from the rear seat.

Growing up in Miami, I had never witnessed the transformation of spring and, to this day, I can still recall marveling at the translucent spring leaves as they fluttered in the breeze.  It was a transforming trip.  But, as I’ve found over the years, the Appalachians have that effect.

Blue Ridge Trail

Blue Ridge Trail

In college, many long weekends were spent stealing away to the cool mountains of North Carolina, visiting Cherokee, Bryson City, Maggie Valley, Mt Mitchell, Sylva, Dillard and Asheville.  When our daughter was only weeks old, we took her to an Etowah bed and breakfast, just to get away.  With teenagers, we continued to find time to sneak away every chance we could to Brevard, Toxaway, Boone, Beech Mountain, Banner Elk, Sapphire, Blowing Rock, names all so alluring to me.

Last fall, when I ran through my mind all my favorite places and pondered the myriad of destinations for our fall tour, the mountains of the Smokies naturally came to mind.  We had been there a million times but every time I visit the Appalachians, it’s like I’m seeing them for the very first time because they’re constantly changing…. and so am I. 

Catesby's Trillium

Catesby's Trillium

So we set out for the three highest peaks in the states of Georgia (Brasstown Bald), North Carolina (Mt Mitchell) and Tennessee (Clingmans Dome).   September in Florida is hot and balmy so what better place to spend a week but in the cool, rainforests of the Appalachians.  What we found was a botanical paradise.  Spring was in a dozen stages of development depending on the elevation. 

Our first stop, Brasstown Bald, had just opened for the season.  The shuttle driver picked us up in the parking lot and chatted away as we drive the half mile to the top.  The Visitor Center was a stone museum with a path that winds around the building to the entrance.  As I passed the stone base, I was attracted to the flowers clinging to the stones.  As I stepped off the trail to take a closer look I was startled by a small bird that darted from the profuse mosses that clung to the stones, narrowly missing my brow.  On closer inspection, I spied her nest, neatly tucked into the blooms of stonecrop, ferns and mosses with 4 creamy white eggs, speckled with brown.  If she had not fled, her nest would have remained her secret alone.

Brasstown Bald - Birds nest

Brasstown Bald - Birds nest

As we proceeded north into the Carolinas, the valleys were rich and green with dogwoods, trilliums, fire pink, sweet shrub, dog hobble, white violets, rhododendrons and mountain laurels in bloom, while the peaks were still leafless with only vast parades of early bluets and dandelions afoot.  The Blue Ridge was a drive of distraction as we attempted to steer our vehicle and catch sight of every new blanket of flame azalea, trillium or red elderberry on the roadside.  Unable to pull over, the cars piled up behind us.  As we climbed in elevation, the winds swept the clouds across the road, reducing visibility.  Craggy Gardens at 6,000+ ft was totally fogged over with visibility at 10 feet as we stumbled into the visitor center to escape the frigid, wind gusts and warm up by their wood burning stove. 

Mt Mitchell had been closed the week prior due to a late spring storm that blanketed everything with 2 inches of snow and, as I hiked the trails, the peak was still shrouded in clouds.  The mosses and lichens dripped with the remnants of a recent shower.  Along the forest floor, early violets and trilliums were starting their annual procession.

Young Fir cones

Young Fir cones

The front moved through the following day and we had spectacular blue skies for what seemed 100 miles from the top of Clingmans Dome.  I decided to hike to Andrews Bald about 1.7 miles from Clingmans but on a nearly level plane.  One of the rangers told us they should have spectacular fall wildflowers there and wanting to check it out, I started with no provisions but a straw hat.  A mile in the mountains is not the same as a mile in Florida, even though the path was well worn.  An hour later I emerged from the shadows of the deep wood onto a gorgeous, mountain top meadow.  Several people were picnicking with friends and I was reminder how silly to have not brought a snack or even a bottle of water.

Clingmans Dome - View of Mt Mitchell

Clingmans Dome - View of Mt Mitchell

Driving back down the mountain we had to pause to allow a flock of turkey hens across the road.  Before long, they would be trailing a cluster of fluffy poults. 

We left the mountains the following day after seeing it as never before.  Not as a teen, a college student or young mom but with an appreciation of the beauty of a fresh spring, and again I was reminded of how I have changed and how every time I visit the Appalachians, it’s like I’m seeing old friends again for the very first time.

If you’ve been to the Appalachians before, come with us to visit old friends.  If you haven’t been, come with me and I’ll introduce you to some of mine!

 
Devon Higginbotham
North Alabama

Northern Alabama: Discovering Natives with our Neighbors

Though I’ve travelled throughout the United States, it never seems to be enough.  The United States is so huge, and every state and region has its own unique features; sugar white beaches, rocky cliffs, huge peaked mountains, rolling hills, prairies and alpine meadows.   Every state is diverse, and each season brings different wildflowers and foliage. Spring is nothing like fall, winter or summer. Newly emerging leaves in spring are translucent, ephemeral, pale green.  Fall evolves to the crisp oranges, reds and yellows. I want to see it all……over and over.

 

Last October, my husband and I set off “to see what we could see”.  We had never spent much time in north Alabama, but it was a day’s drive away and far enough north to support different plant communities than Florida.  In anticipation, we poured through magazines, websites and joined the Alabama Wildflower Society (AWS), the Alabama equivalent of our Florida Native Plant Society.  

 

Then we found Linda.  Actually, I think, Linda found us; two lost souls wandering through the Alabama Wildflower Society website.  You see, Linda has been involved in the AWS for quite some time and she was thrilled to hear that some of the Florida members are interested in her state. We became fast friends, just over the phone.  But that’s the south, where everyone is “Darlin” and no one is a stranger even if you just met, especially if you are another native plant lover.  The world does not know more welcoming people than native plant people!

 

When we arrived in Birmingham, Linda was waiting for us, along with about 20 other local native plant enthusiasts.  You see, she had already contacted the native plant members in her area and they were ready and eager to showcase their state.   

 

Marty Shulman, the retired Land Manager of Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve, explained how Birmingham became one of the top steel producing regions in the country, first utilizing Longleaf Pines for the process, then moving on to coal, just as the pines were nearly depleted. Iron ore, coal and limestone are the three ingredients needed to make steel and central Alabama has all three.  Thus, explains the 56-foot-tall cast iron statue of Vulcan, the Roman God of fire and forge, in the center of Birmingham.

 

Charles Yeager, Manager of Turkey Creek Preserve, in the heart of the Birmingham, explained how this inter-city preserve had been abandoned by all and utilized by gangs who drove their cars into the river to wash them.  When the land was at its bleakest point, the city proposed building a prison on the site. But to the local residents, this was the last straw. They rose up, banded together and demanded the city preserve it.  Today, it is a beautiful urban renewal project, much loved and used by the local residents.

 

While visiting the Birmingham Botanical Gardens we met John Manion, Curator of the Kaul Wildflower Garden, a 17-acre garden within the main Garden.  John is the charming personality who created the native plant studies program at the Gardens.   He also manages one of the world’s rarest plants, the Tutwiler’s spleenwort, Asplenium tutwilerae, a fern so rare that less than 5 acres of land hold the only known population in the world.

 

As we ventured north from Birmingham, the terrain became more rugged, sporting steep canyons with gorges sliced by rivers and streams.  

 

Linda set up a meeting with more locals, like Jim and Fay Lacefield, two school teachers who saved their own salaries and bit-by-bit bought up 700 acres of canyon land with coursing streams, then, gave it away!  In perpetuity, Cane Creek Canyon Preserve will remain a wilderness area protected by The Nature Conservancy, thanks to two people who had the love and foresight to preserve it.

 

On to Huntsville where the US Space and Rocket Center is located, the sister facility to Cape Canaveral, and Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, a 37,000 acre preserve for migrating birds, established by FD Roosevelt.  Just to the east is Scottsboro and underground is one of the most beautiful caverns in the United States. Cathedral Caverns State Park has some of the largest chambers in a cave system that I’ve ever seen.  One stalagmite is the size of a school bus and bears witness to the earthquakes the region has recently endured.

 

As we fanned over to the northeast corner of the state we crossed a national preserve, part of the US National Park System. Cousin to our western parks, and equally impressive, the Little River Canyon National Preserve sports a river flowing atop a mountain. The steep canyon walls, appropriately named "Little River", are the most extensive canyon and gorge system in the eastern United States, and habitat for the carnivorous green pitcher plant and Kral’s water plantains.

Devon Higginbotham