A walk on the wild side: Highland County, Virginia

View of Vanderpool Gap, Highland County, Virginia

View of Vanderpool Gap, Highland County, Virginia, looking west into Blue Grass Valley.

 

I am back, in Highland County, Virginia, exploring again, starting off a few feet from these cows. We are headed east in jeep and on foot into a parcel of land that was once cleared, but is growing back into the wild in places. As is usual here, we have to go through several gates before we are into the parcel.

 

My walking companions.

My walking companions.

We are trying to get a sense of the entire topography of this 700-some acre parcel. It’s varied, rarely flat.  We surprise a golden eagle and a bevy of vultures. They scatter in a leisurely fashion, in no hurry to leave the carrion they have found. When we have passed along, they will be back. I am not quick enough to capture the golden eagle with my iPhone, even though it is huge and moving so slowly.

 

Halfway to the top.

Halfway to the top.

 

We arrive at a little glen with a beautiful stream. It’s sparkling and luxuriant with vegetation.

Mountain stream.

Mountain stream.

Here I find a notable Appalachian wildflower: Saxifraga micranthidifolia, commonly known as branch lettuce or mountain lettuce. Native to the Great Smoky Mountains, it flourishes in cold, fast-moving mountain streams and is one of the first plants to show itself in early spring. The early settlers found it palatable and a welcome salad green after a long winter.

 

Mountain lettuce (Saxifraga micranthidifolia).

Mountain lettuce (Saxifraga micranthidifolia).

 

It is not in Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers, so when I discovered it as a young girl in Vinegar Hollow I felt like a genuine plant explorer. I finally tracked it down in Joseph E. Harned’s Wildflowers of the Alleghanies, a book I found by chance at a second-hand bookstore. It has been called “a monumental book,” and there is no doubt that it is–written with grace and comprehensive in scope. “Micranthidifolia” remains one of my favorite botanical tongue twisters.

The mountain lettuce are abundant and so is the plant shown below, which is new to me.

 

False hellebore (Veratrum viride).

False hellebore (Veratrum viride).

 

It takes several hours of searching online to find the name  because for once Peterson and McKenny’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers fails to give me an identification, probably because it was such a big presence there in the stream, but quite small, practically hidden in the top right corner of  p. 370 among the “6-part flowers, lengthwise leaf veins, Lily Family (Liliaceae).” Peterson and McKenny instruct through arrows, using them to point to distinctive, often little-noticed features. They do have an arrow to the “heavily ribbed” leaves. I should have noticed that arrow, but I missed it.

 

Drawing of false hellebore (shown left of center on top) from Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia McKenny's A Fieldguide to Wildflowers (pp. 369-379).

Drawing of false hellebore (shown left of center on top) from Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia McKenny’s A Fieldguide to Wildflowers (pp. 369-379).

 

False Hellebore is also known by a host of other names, including Poor Annie, Tickleweed, and Devils Bite. This plant is not palatable, in fact just the reverse. According to one website, it is highly toxic and can cause “birth defects, gastrointestinal distress, salivation, prostration, general paralysis, spasms, irregular heart beat, difficulties breathing, and death.” That sounds like just about enough results for its toxicity. Large patches of bluets carpet the path the follows the stream up the glen.

 

Bluets or Quaker Ladies (Houstonea caerulea).

Bluets, also known as Quaker Ladies, Innocence, and Little Washerwoman (Houstonia caerulea).

 

Bluets go by many names as well and are extremely  photogenic. It is certainly a pleasure to walk along a path so blue, though I am hopping because I do not wish to crush a bluet or a Quaker lady or a little washerwoman. They are in the bedstraw or madder family (Rubiaceae). The settlers are said to have stuffed their mattresses with the common bedstraw (Galium sp.), which grows in hay meadows and has a sandpapery feel. Probably because I am so dazzled by the mountain lettuce, the false hellebore, and the bluets, I fail to notice two species that we see on our way back through this part of the parcel: the pink lady’s slipper and the pinxter flower, a kind of rhododendron.

 

Lady's slipper orchid

Lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium acaule).

 

Flame azalea nestled into trunk of tree with fern.

Pinxter flower nestled into trunk of tree with hayscented fern.

 

I was dazzled, but now I am delirious. These Appalachian plants touch me deeply. Pinxter flower has had several scientific names, from Rhododendron nudiflorum to the current Rhododendron periclymenoides. Nudiflorum makes perfect sense (flowering without leaves), but I will have to do further research to understand how periclymenoides adds to an understanding of the biology of this species.

We trek on, discovering an old friend from Vinegar Hollow, hound’s tongue, a member of the forget-me-not family–“downy, with a mousy odor; maroon flowers …embraced by velvety calyx scales” according to the description by Peterson and McKenny.

Hound's tongue (Cynoglossum officinale).

Hound’s tongue (Cynoglossum officinale).

 

I think I have caught its downiness in my photograph (enhanced by the slight out of focus). This is limestone country. One of my companions has worked with stone. He points to a rock with a lot of character and shows us where bear have overturned rocks to get at ants.

 

Limestone rock showing fossil creatures.

Limestone rock showing fossil creatures.

 

We lock gaze with a deer.

 

Deer in the undergrowth.

A deer.

 

We reach the top of the parcel.

 

At the top of the parcel.

At the top of the parcel.

The Vanderpool gap is still visible. Two stick-like black locusts stand in the center of view. The locusts are very late leafing out this year. One hopes that a blight or new pathogen is not attacking this very valuable and beautiful species. As we walk back down to the jeep, ticks, rather large ticks, attach themselves conspicuously to our pants and soon appear on our arms. My youngest companion, wearing medium-weight blue jeans, shoos away more than 30 ticks, while my companion with camouflage pants has less than half that amount, and I, with rubber wellies, only attract 10 or so. We speculate about the relative merits of what we are wearing with regard to attracting ticks, but are most preoccupied with just getting the ticks off of our clothing and bodies. One of my companions describes a nature program that showed a moose in Canada driven mad by blood-engorged ticks covering its body. We lament how hard it is to feel charitable towards this particular species. A superfluous hostility, however, should be avoided. Basically little arachnids, ticks are an old species,  having been found in fossil amber dating back to sometime in the Cretaceous (65 to 146 million years ago), according to some researchers. They make their living in an unsavory way, but then so do some humans.

The pinxter flower, the mountain lettuce, the false hellebore, a golden eagle, a deer, vultures, and ticks. These species and many more we have encountered on our walk. We are fortunate to have had this opportunity to walk in the Appalachian mountains of western Virginia in Highland County.

Upon returning to where we started, I find horses by the barn near where the cattle grazed, and a view through a window of that barn.

Back to the beginning. A horse grazes. Vanderpool gap visible through window in barn.

Back to the beginning. A horse grazes. Vanderpool gap visible through window in barn.

 

Our walk is like a view through the keyhole. We have seen so much, but not everything. A parcel of land on the wild side is immense. The diversity of life forms, from bluets to ticks, inspires in me wonder and happiness.

P.S. An excellent article on the topography, biodiversity, and habitat loss of this area, titled “Appalachian-Blue Ridge forests” is available on the World Wildlife website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The jade vine blooms!

Orchids on display at New York Botanical Garden's orchid show.

Cattleya orchids on display at New York Botanical Garden’s annual orchid show (March 9, 2014).

“So, what’s your vote? What’s the most amazing flower here?” a father asked his two young children. He sat on the knee-high edge of a long reflecting pool that ran the length of a stately glasshouse. There was no answer as his children were too busy trailing their hands among the water lilies. It was the second weekend of The Orchid Show: Key West Contemporary being held at the New York Botanical Garden (March 1- April 21, 2014). I was there with my son and grandson, just two.

Son and grandson in a conservatory of the New York Botanical Garden:  son pointing finger one way and grandson pointing  finger the other way.

My son and grandson pointing to different routes in the conservatory of the New York Botanical Garden. The two year old led the way.

“I vote for the jade vine,” the father said, looking up.

Raceme of jade vine flowers dangling over the reflecting pool at NYBG.

Raceme of jade vine flowers dangling over the reflecting pool at NYBG.

I answered the man. “Yes, I agree. The jade vine wins.” After college, I worked for a year at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, UK, as a work-study student. There I met my first jade vine, and came home with a botanical drawing by Margaret Stones that I have carried with me ever since.

Botanical artist Margaret Stone's rendering of the jade vine.

Botanical artist Margaret Stone’s rendering of the jade vine.

To a budding botanist, Kew Gardens was heaven, but my entry into heaven was rough—and the ordeal was orchid related. I arrived in September for my first day of work with a terrible head cold contracted in the dry air of the British Airways flight over. I still remember the skimpy navy blue blanket I huddled under and how cold I was the entire trip. Mr. Pemberton, the director of students, had said he would put me “under glass” in the orchid house for the first three months because (it was clear during my interview that he didn’t like Americans) he assumed that I was a pampered sort I suppose. (I proved him wrong.) We have heard about orchid thieves and orchid addicts, but has anyone heard the story of a naive, young preparer of orchid potting medium? The supervisor of the orchid house set me to work making orchid “soil.” In my botanizing in Highland County, Virginia as a child I had met a number of orchids, beautiful species like the slender ladies’ tresses, which were terrestrial and hid sweetly among the meadow grasses. I was shocked when I saw how tropical orchids were arranged in the propagating house, attached to little gravestone-like boards, hanging row on row, on the side walls of the greenhouse. The “public” never entered this greenhouse. In the jungle these tropical orchids live as epiphytes high up on tree branches on leaf litter, absorbing nutrients through their peculiar spongy roots that protrude like branches into the air. They don’t live on the ground in soil. However, there were a number of tropical orchids that resided in clay pots on waist-high benches in the central part of the greenhouse. They didn’t need “normal” potting soil, but rather a special nutrient-poor potting medium.

Photograph of drawings of ladies' tresses orchids (Spiranthes) from Peterson & McKenny's A Field Guide to Wildflowers.

Photograph of drawings of ladies’ tresses orchids (Spiranthes) from Peterson & McKenny’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers (p. 18). The slender ladies’ tress grows in Vinegar Hollow, Highland, County, Virginia.

Making orchid compost with a bad head cold proved to be a nightmare. First, I snipped clumps of dried sphagnum moss into smaller pieces with scissors. Sphagnum moss is a wonderful vehicle for water retention when it is moist, but dry, it’s like fiberglass insulation. Luckily I didn’t know about sporotrichosis, the rose-gardener’s disease, but maybe that’s why I suffered so. Bits and pieces flew around and went up my nose where they tickled and prickled, causing profound irritation. Then I had to separate clumps of charcoal into smaller pieces using sieves the size of dinner plates. Clouds of charcoal dust surrounded me, invading my nostrils and sinuses.  The final step was to mix the chopped sphagnum and charcoal chunks with shredded bark. Hooray for shredded bark, a relatively “quiet” substance. After mixing, voila, a suitable substrate to anchor the orchid in its pot where it never wanted to be! I made orchid potting medium for a month and got sicker and sicker. I could hardly breathe and I couldn’t sleep at night for the coughing and snuffling and expectorating of greeny black effluent. Each day when I got on the tube to go to my flat, I looked like a chimney sweep, blackened snot dripping from my nose, my hair gray, my eyes red.

Another treasured moment from my year at Kew Gardens, a print of the squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium).

Another treasured momento from my year at Kew Gardens, a print of the wild squirting cucumber (Momordica [Ecballium]  elaterium), a copy of an 1842 Burnett botanical print). I met the squirting cucumber in the order beds, where species were arranged by family, and  watched fruits explode.

  Fortunately things just got better (no, I forgot about the horrible, horrible episode of potting up practically an entire greenhouse of Primula obconica, one of the woolly primroses, from which I got a gargantuan [not quite the right word here, but I am trying to make the overall point clear] case of hives that drove me insane). For my last “tour of duty” at Kew, I spent three months in the great Palm House, doing this and that (other stories…).  It was full of palms, obviously,  historic cycads, tall gingers, and many other wonderful tropical plants that dazzled me. There were vines too, dripping from the rafters of the greenhouse. I was lucky. For the first time in many years the jade vine flowered when I was there. Just one raceme in late winter that dangled to the top of my head in the North end of the glasshouse, as I yelled “Closing Time” in my best British accent. Just as stuffy as Mr. Pemberton in my own way, I didn’t think it proper that an American should be doing the honors at such an important moment. When the jade vine puts on a show in the conservatory of a botanic garden, it usually makes headlines in the local newspapers. On April 7, 2003, The Oxford Times ran a piece with the headline “Our vine isn’t jaded” and quoted curator Louise Allen who said “It’s incredibly difficult to grow and you can never guarantee it is going to flower.” They were proud to have 60 flowers “spikes” according to the newspaper. The more proper term is raceme to describe the huge pendant clusters of wisteria-like flowers. The headline in The Hindu Times on July 2, 2005 included the words “as precious as jade.”

Peacocks roam the outdoor eating area at NYBG scarfing up french fries and the like.

Peacocks roam the outdoor eating area at NYBG scarfing up french fries and the like.

I would say the specimen at NYBG is growing like topsy, as “rampant” and “rank” and “aggressive” (all words applied to the growth habit of the jade vine) as it can get in the still relatively confined space of a conservatory. In the wild of its native Philippines, it can grow to 80 feet and each raceme can carry 100 flowers. But it’s the color that makes you stop dead in your tracks.  I think it safe to say that there is no other flower in the plant kingdom so strangely, alluringly, and bizarrely colored. It is like jade, but the hue in plant tissue takes on a startling iridescent sheen. I picked up a blossom that had fallen to the floor and put it in a small plastic address box I carry. By evening the blossom was shot through with the colors of the northern lights– pinkish, pale bluish, lavenderish, pale jadish.

Close-up of Margaret Stones' botanical drawing of the jade vine.

Close-up of Margaret Stones’ botanical drawing of the jade vine.

Its shade has been scrupulously characterized in a lovely book published in 1976, Flowering Tropical Climbers by Geoffrey Herklots.  The author, botanist and ornithologist, developed a hobby of cataloguing sightings of the great tropical vines of the world and drawing them, beautifully, both in color and in line drawings. For the jade vine, he names three colors with numbers, probably in reference to an artist’s color chart that apply—Jade Green HCC 54/1 and 54/2, Viridian Green HCC 55/1, and Chrysocolla Green HCC 56/1. Interestingly, jade, viridian, and chrysocolla are all mineral stones. There is something mysteriously unplantlike about the color of the jade vine, as if it’s the result of being crossed with a lizard or a chameleon or rare gemstone.

Rampant, "agressive" growth of jade vine.

Display of jade vine’s vigorous growth.

The shape of the each blossom adds to the intrigue. A member of the Fabaceae (Leguminosae) or Pea Family, the blossoms have the characteristic architecture of pea flowers, but on a grand scale. The jade vine’s awkward-sounding Latin name derives from the Greek “strongylodon” meaning spherical and “botrys” meaning raceme or cluster.  Grouped en masse, the blossoms’ “claws” or “keels” zigzag swingingly down the stalks, sultry scimitars just looking for a fight. The flowers are the opposite of flimsy, often described as “fleshy” or “waxy.”

Informative display in the greenhouse, reminding us "no plants, no people!"

Informative display in the greenhouse, reminding us “no plants, no people!”

The jade vine is losing its place in the wild, although a recent expedition of botanists to Palanan Point in the Philippines has found locations where it still climbs freely. Known to be bat pollinated, specimens have not been happy setting seed in the conservatory setting, but researchers at Kew Gardens have recently enabled a plant to set fruit. A few years ago their website showed a heavy pod attached to the vine with a little help from a supporting macramé like mesh. In Puerto Rico, bees are vigorous pollinators, tearing apart the flowers for nectar in the process. So what is the world’s most beautiful flower? The question is unanswerable. Is it one of the orchids– the voluptuous cattleya?  the delicate slender ladies’ tresses? or is it the sea-foam green jade vine flower? (Or is it the peacock’s tail?)

Cover of NYBG's Spring/Summer Catalogue, listing classes and events.

Cover of NYBG’s Spring/Summer Catalogue, listing classes and events.

Who is the fairest of us all? That is not a good question, and the young father did not ask that question. He asked, “What is the most amazing flower here?” Yes, the jade vine. It was then in early March, and still now, the most amazing flower at the orchid show at NYBG and the most amazing flower I saw during my year at Kew Gardens. The fairest?  Each organism is the fairest of us all. We need every speck of diversity, as E. O. Wilson, the great naturalist has said over and over. Working with plants, in horticulture–sowing seeds, digging, planting, weeding, mulching–has always made me feel grounded, literally and spiritually. Plants have been for me, from a young age, a lifeline to sanity (except for those few experiences mentioned above). I look at each individual plant and feel rooted in partnership as his or her neighbor on the Earth. Support your local botanic garden. Take classes. Draw plants. Write about plants. Grow plants. Weed, yes, but place the weeded gently in the compost. Remember the words on NYBG’s display sign: “After all, plants make life on Earth possible–no plants, no people.” If we are what we need, then people are plants, and, why not consider the reverse,  plants are people.