Saturday, January 10, 2009

Tripping Through the Valley of the Green Bird

Lighting the hallucinogenic catalpa. [For demonstration purposes only.]

I took a right turn at Bob’s Place, just before the Road Kill Grill, and descended into the Valley of the Green Bird.

Whenever I visit this place, I think of the trilliums that grow here, in abundance, thanks to an anomaly of Appalachian geology. I’ve been told that one hill alone hosts seven different varieties of the flower. Of course, that rainbow of trilliums is hidden underground for the next couple of months.

Here are some things I’ve just learned – trilliums have a symbiotic relationship with ants. The fruit of the trillium matures, splits open, and releases its seeds in late summer. Attached to those seeds are nutritious, lipid-rich elaisomes, especially attractive to ants.

The ants carry the seeds back to their nests, where they eat the elaisomes and discard the seeds intact. Waste disposal sites, enriched by the carcasses of dead ants and ant feces, form fertile seedbeds. The seeds over-winter before germinating. The first year, they develop only a small root; the second year, a rudimentary leaf; a year or two later, a single true leaf. In a couple of more years, the plant produces three leaves and, after another year, the trillium finally flowers. The cycle can take six years or more from seed to flower.

Trilliums aren’t the only evidence of persistence in the valley. The old homesteads and farm fields still look like they belong here.

One of those patches of ground called out to me and I pulled over for a closer look. I could see this land had been farmed for centuries. A large pasture stretched out to the edge of the creek that runs through the middle of this valley. Between the pasture and the road was a garden plot lined by several gnarled apple trees and one cigar tree. Dark slender pods, a foot or longer, hung from all the limbs of that tree better known as the catalpa.

Supposedly, the tree was a totem for the Catawba indians, and it was only due to a transcription error by a botanist that the name "Catalpa," rather than "Catawba" was applied to the tree. To my way of thinking, it’s one of those humble trees that doesn’t get its due respect. With a thick covering of heart-shaped leaves it provides a protected refuge for many species of birds.

If you want to catch catfish, remember this:

The tree is favored by the Catalpa Sphinx moth. The caterpillars of that moth eat the leaves of the catalpa, and are such an excellent live bait for fishing that some dedicated anglers maintain small groves of the trees, just to have a reliable source of "catawba-worms".

Indians smoked the catalpa seed pods for the hallucinogenic effect, which is why the tree became known as the "Indian Cigar Tree." I’d be more than happy to report on anyone else’s experience in this regard. I believe I’ll pass, but I do have a couple of pods for anyone who wants to give it a try.

Go ahead.

Light up.

Tune in. Turn on. Drop out.

Who knows? Maybe the Green Bird will make an encore appearance.


joe said...

Back where I'm originally from (the Chicago area) we had what I presume to be a northern catalpa next door, all throughout my youth (we called it a cigar tree). And after I moved away years ago, my dad convinced the neighbor to cut it down. You know, you can't really not understand, being the normal dude he is--what with the mess of flowers and pods it left all over the suburban lawn--but I always thought it was quite a mysterious tree. Had I known of its fish catching and hallucinogenic qualities, well, I might have been more adamant of its right to be. But it's good to learn these things later than never.

kanugalihi said...

never heard about smoking a catalpa. i know someone who might try it.

trilliums are often inconspicuously absent from reclaimed old fields in the smokies. i would never have thought about this but a few summers ago a friend was looking for some trillium patches to study the ant dispersal of the seeds. if you drive above twin creek on the loop road above gatlinburg there are many old fields that still have remains of fence rows and terraces.

there are no trilliums.


around the edges, in what had remained more or less intact forest, you may find trilliums. they have not managed to diffuse across the landscape via our formicine friends in the 75-80 years since the inception of the park.

what other wonders such as these are hidden from our view by the veil of ignorance, by not having ever watched an ant visit a plant.

happy new year.

GULAHIYI said...

It would be a stretch to call myself even an "amateur" naturalist. I'm still trying to ID the individual specimens of plants and animals that I see when I go for a walk. But things get really interesting when you get to the next level and learn about the relationships, like the ant and the trillium or the moth and the catalpa.

Thank goodness for those who have taken the time to watch an ant visit a plant. It's worth knowing about, if anything is.

The Appalachianist said...

Gulahiyi, Bob's Place down off of the Pickens Highway is comonly known as "Scatter Brain's". Story is someone got mean and the proprietor blew his brains out with a shotgun. I don't know how far back that was, I heard it when I was a little kid.

Duck Hunter said...

On my way out to some waterfalls I always know to turn at Bob's Place. Not sure what road that is... just turn at Bob's.

There are always people sitting on the porch up there with a drink. Doesn't appear a place for a stranger to visit.