Wednesday, April 28, 2010

On the Porch with Bascom Lamar Lunsford

This is just flat out amazing stuff, with a great finale...

Lunsford visits Bill McElreath - dancer, banjo player and singer.

Video clip above from "Bluegrass Roots"

Lunsford and McElreath at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival

Much more on BLL in this story from someone who is compiling a box set of his recordings:

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Raw and Real

From the notes for this Youtube video:

Way back in 1964, New York filmmaker, David Hoffman was headed down with his new 16mm hand held camera (weight 49 lbs!) to spend three weeks driving the backcountry around Madison County, North Carolina, in the center of Appalachia, with the 82 year old founder of the pioneer Asheville Mountain Music and Dance Festival, Bascom Lamar Lunsford.

The resulting film, "Bluegrass Roots" lets you hear and experience the hard scrabbling, dirt road real people sounds that dominated the back country of the southern mountains 40 years ago. It presents a string of the most extraordinary singers, players and dancers the BlueGrass Mountains had to offer.

Many later became famous. Some were never heard from again. Most of the songs are classics, including Lunsford's own tune, "Mountain Dew." This scene was filmed at Bascom's home with a local dance group came to dance in Bascom's living room.

When this film aired on Public Television in 1965, TV Guide gave it a full-page positive review, because Americans had never seen a documentary on the roots of Bluegrass and Country music.

Today, the dirt roads and the moonshine counties are largely modernized, and Bluegrass Roots, stands as a record of a uniquely talented group of people at a time just before the coming of television, changed them.

To get this entire 1 hour video, go to

The following video features Bascom Lamar Lunsford, but a higher quality version can be viewed at

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Rude Toponymy, Three

Historian Arthur Herman has an interesting take on the early settlement of the backcountry South, and in particular, the naming of places. From How the Scots Invented the Modern World:

From the point of view of the colonial government and locals, they had come at the right time. English emigration to America had fallen off; and non-English settlers such as Germans and Hugenot French had not yet appeared in large numbers. The Scotch-Irish settlements began pushing the frontier further and deeper into the Appalachians. Unlike many of their early English predecessors, they did not expect an easy time of it. Prepared for the worst, they carved a new life for themselves out of the wilderness, taking land from neighbors or natives when it suited them. The habits of colonizing Ireland and seizing arable land from Catholic enemies carried over to the New World. Their insatiable desire for land, and the willingness to fight and die to keep it, laid the foundation of the frontier mentality of the American West….

Across southwest Virginia, North Carolina, and eventually Tennessee, their extended families spread out – Alexanders, Ashes, Caldwells, Campbells, Calhouns, Montgomerys, Donelsons, Gilchrists, Knoxes, and Shelbys – establishing a network of clanlike alliances and new settlements. They named their communities – such as Orange County (in North Carolina), Orangeburg (in South Carolina), Galloway, Derry, Durham, Cumberland (after the Border county in England), Carlisle, and Aberdeen – after the places and loyalties they had left behind. In North Carolina they founded towns called Enterprise, Improvement, and Progress; and in Georgia and western Virginia, towns called Liberty.

Placenames and language reflected their northern Irish or southern Lowlands origins. They said ‘whar’ for ‘where,’ ‘thar’ for ‘there,’ ‘critter,’ for ‘creature,’ ‘nekkid’ for ‘naked,’ ‘widder’ for ‘widow,’ and ‘young-uns’ for ‘young ones.’ They were always ‘fixin’’ to do something, or go ‘sparkin’’ instead of ‘courting,’ and the young’uns ‘growed up’ instead of ‘grew up.’ As David Hackett Fisher has suggested, these were the first utterings of the American dialect of Appalachian mountaineers, cowboys, truck drivers, and backcountry politicians. The language was also shamelessly intimate and earthy: passersby were addressed as ‘honey’ and children as ‘little shits.’ They dubbed local landmarks Gallows Branch or Cuttthroat Gap or Shitbritches Creek (in North Carolina)….

The Presbyterian Ulster Scots also brought over their burning hatred of Episcopalians (especially since, as British subjects, they had to pay taxes for the established Anglican Church in America). When one Anglican missionary tried to preach in the Carolina mountains, the locals “disrupted his services, rioted while he preached, started a pack of dogs fighting outside the church, loosed his horse, stole his church key, refused him food and shelter, and gave two barrels of whisky to his congregation.” The missionary, an Englishman, learned to hate his would-be Scotch-Irish converts with a passion. “They delight in their present low, lazy, sluttish, heathenish, hellish life,” he wrote, “and seem not desirous of changing it.”

Closer to home, Horace Kephart, that observer of Appalachian culture and master maker of lists, cataloged place-names in Our Southern Highlanders:

The qualities of the raw backwoodsmen are printed from untouched negatives in the names he has left upon the map. His literalness shows in Black Rock, Standing Stone, Sharp Top, Twenty Mile, Naked Place, The Pocket, Tumbling Creek, and in the endless designations taken from trees, plants, minerals, or animals noted on the spot. Incidents of his lonely life are signalized in Dusk Camp Run, Mad Sheep Mountain, Dog Slaughter Creek, Drowning Creek, Burnt Cabin Branch, Broken Leg, Raw Dough, Burnt Pone, Sandy Mush, and a hundred others. His contentious spirit blazes forth in Fighting Creek, Shooting Creek, Gouge-eye, Vengeance, Four Killer, and Disputanta….

A sardonic humor, sometimes smudged with "that touch of grossness in our English race," characterizes many of the backwoods place-names. In the mountains of Old Virginia we have Dry Tripe settlement and Jerk 'em Tight. In West Virginia are Take In Creek, Get In Run, Seldom Seen Hollow, Odd, Buster Knob, Shabby Room, and Stretch Yer Neck. North Carolina has its Shoo Bird Mountain, Big Bugaboo Creek, Weary Hut, Frog Level, Shake a Rag, and the Chunky Gal. In eastern Tennessee are No Time settlement and No Business Knob, with creeks known as Big Soak, Suee, Go Forth, and How Come You. Georgia has produced Scataway, Too Nigh, Long Nose, Dug Down, Silly Cook, Turkey Trot, Broke Jug Creek, and Tear Breeches Ridge.

Allowing some license for the mountaineer's irreverence, his whimsical fancies, and his scorn of sentimentalism, it must be said that his descriptive terms are usually apposite and sometimes felicitous. Often he is poetically imaginative, occasionally romantic, and generally picturesque. Roan Mountain, Grandfather, the Lone Bald, Craggy Dome, the Black Brothers, Hairy Bear, the Balsam Cone, Sunset Mountain, the Little Snowbird, are names that linger lovingly in one's memory. …

What matter that the plenteous roughs about us were branded with rude or opprobrious names? Rip Shin Thicket, Dog-hobble Ridge, the Rough Arm, Bear-wallow, Woolly Ridge, Roaring Fork, Huggins's Hell, the Devil's Racepath, his Den, his Courthouse, and other playgrounds of Old Nick--they, too, were well and fitly named.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Rude Toponymy, Four

The actual location for that Buncombe County waterway named "Shit Britches Creek" remains a mystery to me. But I won't leave this subject without a whirlwind tour of a few more oddly named places in North America.

Loveladies, New Jersey
Hooker, Oklahoma
Hooker Hole, Louisiana
Romance, Arkansas
Horneytown, North Carolina
French Lick, Indiana
Sweet Lips, Tennessee
Fanny, West Virginia
Busti, New York
Bird in Hand, Pennsylvania
Big Beaver, Pennsylvania
Butts, Georgia
Buttzville, New Jersey
Dicktown, New Jersey
Erect, North Carolina
New Erection, Virginia
Dickshooter, Idaho
Intercourse, Pennsylvania
Loving, New Mexico
Climax, Georgia
Conception, Missouri
Fidelity, Missouri

Bigfoot, Texas
Blow Me Down, Newfoundland, Canada
Bonanza, Colorado
Celebration, FL
Chicken, Alaska
Climax, Michigan
Crackpot, England
Crotch Lake, Ontario, Canada
Cut and Shoot, Texas, USA
Deadhorse, Alaska, USA
Dildo, Newfoundland, Canada
Ding Dong, Texas, USA
Earth, Texas, USA
Egypt, Texas, USA
F**king, Austria
French Lick, Indiana, USA
Frostproof, Florida, USA
Gun Barrel City, Texas, Oregon
Happy, Texas
Hell, Michigan
Holy Moses, Colorado
Hot Coffee, Mississippi
Humansville, Missouri
Hygiene, Colorado
Intercourse, Pennsylvania
Jot 'em Down, Texas
Knockemstiff, Ohio
Last Chance, Colorado
Looneyville, Texas
Mary's Igloo, Alaska
Monkey's Eyebrow, Arizona
Nameless, Texas
Needmore, Texas
Ninety-Six, South Carolina
North Pole, Alaska
Nothing, Arizona
Notrees, Texas
Okay, Oklahoma
Santa Claus, Indiana
Shorter, Alabama
Smackover, Arkansas
Sopchoppy, Florida
Study Butte, Texas
Toad Suck, Arkansas
Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico
Two Egg, Florida
Valentine, Texas
Vulcan, Alberta, Canada
Waterproof, Louisiana
Why, Arizona

a day in the park

A Day In the Park,
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
April 23, 2010

Friday, April 23, 2010

Rude Toponymy, Two

This got started when I was perusing a summary of wills filed in Buncombe County, North Carolina in 1899. Sound-minded Hannah J. Burnett mentions a body of water previously unknown to me:

BOOK D: Page 272
In the name of God, Amen. I, Hannah J. Burnett being of sound mind and knowing the uncertainty of life do make this my last will and testament ... to my beloved nephew, J. D. Burnett ... my sister, L. C. Burnett ... joining the land of M. L. Reed on the waters of what is known as "Shit Britches Creek".
Signed Hannah Burnett
Attested : J. A. Sowells and M .L. Reed.
Severally sworn and subscribed this 22 day of April 1899, before me.
Marcus Erwin, CSC.

Shit Britches Creek?

Why’d they name it that?

I’ve not learned much about Shit Britches Creek. I did discover that California had its own Shit Britches Creek, which enjoyed more prominence and longevity than the North Carolina edition of same.

M. L. Reed, who was mentioned in the will, might be a useful clue for anyone striving to get to the bottom of the story.

Marcus Lafayette Reed (1853-1938) was a leading Buncombian in his day. He served in the General Assembly and chaired the Buncombe County commission. It shouldn’t be hard to figure out where his land and thus - Shit Britches Creek - was located.

My guess?

Somewhere in the Swannanoa Valley between Asheville and Black Mountain.

Though it no longer names a creek in Western North Carolina, “shit britches” continues to serve a purpose in contemporary parlance. From The Urban Dictionary, here’s one definition:

Baggy pants worn by young men that hang low on the hips and have a crotch down to the knees.

That’s about the extent of what I could dig up on “shit britches, 1899-2010.”

I did find a scholarly reference to other, even ruder, place names in the early American South. On page 654 of Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Hackett Fischer cites Richard Beeman’s The Evolution of the Southern Backcountry for this tidbit of knowledge:

“In Lunenberg County, Virginia, two small streams were named Tickle Cunt Branch and Fucking Creek.”

What were they thinking in old Lunenberg County?

We’ll assume those names have passed into oblivion.

Despite that, a plethora of peculiar place-names persists. Here’s one list I found for North Carolina. (I grew up near Big Lick and Frog Pond, both fabulous wide spots in the road, so I know these are for real.) Should you plan and complete a trip involving visits to each place on this list, you would know the Tar Heel state as few people ever have:

Bat Cave
Big Lick
Blowing Rock
Frog Level
Frog Pond
Gum Neck
Kill Devil Hills
Meat Camp
Lizard Lick
Tick Bite

[ Source: ]

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Rude Toponymy, One

I’ve been attempting to track down information on what was, undoubtedly, one of the rudest place names ever for a creek in Buncombe County.

Along the way, I stumbled upon this recent article, published by the Telegraph (London).

Britain's rudest place names
As locals in West Yorkshire win their battle to reinstate the name of Tickle Cock Bridge, we list the rudest place names in the country.
Published: 11:21AM GMT 18 Feb 2010

1. Cocks, Cornwall
2. Minge Lane, Upton-upon-Severn, Worcestershire, England
3. Bell End, Worcestershire, England
4. Twatt, Shetland (note, there is another Twatt in Orkney)
5. Sandy Balls, a long-established holiday centre in New Forest, Hampshire, England with a name dating back to Henry VIII
6. Fingringhoe, Essex, England
7. Back Passage, City of London, an alleyway in the EC1 postal district
8. Shitterton, Dorset, England
9. Slag Lane, Merseyside, a residential street in Haydock, England
10. Hole of Horcum, North York Moors, England
11. Fanny Hands Lane, Lincolnshire, England
12. Inchinnan Drive, Renfrewshire, Scotland
13. Cockshoot Close, Oxfordshire, England
14. Funbag Drive, Watford, England
15. Fanny Avenue, Derbyshire, England

16. Beaver Close, Surrey, England
17. Dick Court, Lanarkshire, Scotland
18. Felch Square, Powys, Wales
19. Lickfold, West Sussex, England
20. Rimswell, East Riding of Yorkshire, England
21. Spanker Lane, Nether Heage, Derbyshire
22. Cocknmouth Close, West End, Surrey
23. Friars' Entry, Oxford, Oxfordshire, England
24. Butt Hole Road, Conisbrough, South Yorkshire
25. Cockermouth, Allerdale, Cumbria
26. Fine Bush Lane, Ruislip
27. Ladygate Lane, Ruislip
28. Hornyold Road, Malvern, Worcestershire, England
29. Crotch Crescent, Marston, Oxford, England
30. Cumming Court, Pitville, Gloucestershire, England

Another article in this vein appeared last year in the Bangkok Post -

When Home is Pratt's Bottom

by Roger Crutchley

Last weekend, The New York Times carried an entertaining article by Sarah Lyall about some of the multitude of strange place names in Britain. The feature was datelined Crapstone, a tiny village in Devon which set the theme and included some familiar names including Ugley in Essex, Scotland's East Breast, North Piddle in Worcestershire, a Kent village called Pratt's Bottom and the splendid Spankers Lane in Derbyshire....

We must not overlook the wonderful sleepy villages of Norfolk, Great Snoring and Little Snoring, believed to be popular with Thai officials transferred to inactive posts. Nearby there is also a village called Seething, which prompted the local newspaper one day to come up with the splendid headline: "Little Snoring Man Marries Seething Woman."...

The North Piddle mentioned in the NYT article used to have some relations further south where the delightfully named River Piddle flows through Dorset. At the turn of the 19th century, among the numerous settlements on the river's banks were Tolpiddle, Alfpiddle and Piddletown. The ladies in these places were not too happy with the never ending juvenile jokes about their villages and they succeeded in changing the piddle to puddle in 1838. So were spawned Tolpuddle, Alfpuddle and Puddletown. History teachers really owe these ladies a vote of thanks, as you can imagine how schoolkids would have reacted to lessons about the heroic "Tolpiddle Martyrs". However, it's pleasing to know the River Piddle retained its name. ...

Gotta love the British sensibilities.

Next – naughty names on this side of the big pond, including that creek in Buncombe.


The Yellow Violet

The Yellow Violet
-William Cullen Bryant

WHEN beechen buds begin to swell,
And woods the blue-bird's warble know,
The yellow violet's modest bell
Peeps from last-year's leaves below.

Ere russet fields their green resume,
Sweet flower, I love, in forest bare,
To meet thee, when thy faint perfume
Alone is in the virgin air.

Of all her train, the hands of Spring
First plant thee in the watery mould,
And I have seen thee blossoming
Beside the snow-bank's edges cold.

Thy parent sun, who bade thee view
Pale skies, and chilling moisture sip
Has bathed thee in his own bright hue,
And streaked with jet thy glowing lip.

Yet slight thy form, and low thy seat,
And earthward bent thy gentle eye,
Unapt the passing view to meet,
When loftier flowers are flaunting nigh.

Oft, in the sunless April day,
Thy early smile has stayed my walk;
But midst the gorgeous blooms of May
I passed thee on thy humble stalk.

So they, who climb to wealth, forget
The friends in darker fortunes tried;
I copied them--but I regret
That I should ape the ways of pride.

And when again the genial hour
Awakes the painted tribes of light,
I'll not o'er look the modest flower
That made the woods of April bright.


[Photo - Yellow Violet, near Big Witch, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 4/14/2010]

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dicentralization, Part Three

I’ve walked the Oconaluftee River Trail many times, but never saw it prettier than it was last week. It is hard to surpass a riverside blanket of Phlox and Fringed Phacelia (Phacelia fimbriata) for spring splendor.

The delicate cup-like flowers of phacelia are fun to photograph although their pure white color can be a challenge when trying to get the proper exposure. The purple anthers against the white of the flowers are a nice touch. The Fringed Phacelia is a winter annual, so next year’s crop depends upon the successful maturation and dispersal of the plant’s seeds this spring.

With so many flowers blooming, this walk reminds me how much I to learn about wildflower identification. A flower as distinctive as Dutchman’s-Breeches cannot be confused with anything else. However, the methodical taxonomist must take greater pains to identify other plants. Violets and phlox and yellow flowers in the aster family all have me flummoxed.

Phlox can be quite variable in form, making it more difficult to assign a specimen to a particular species. Certainly, the phlox I saw along the river displayed a wide range of colors, from blue to purple and pink. One plant I’ve seen before, and couldn’t identify, was growing alongside a patch of blue phlox. After some study I’ve concluded that it might be a phlox as well:

To get serious about wildflower identification, it’s not enough to study the blooms. Often, a positive I.D. is only possible by studying the stems and leaves of the plant, something I neglect in my haste to take pictures. On my next wildflower trip, maybe I'll leave the camera at home and take along a botanical key instead.

Here’s a frustrating example from the Oconaluftee:

In one of my field guides, I did find a perfect likeness of the bloom – Jerusalem Artichoke. But it is far too early for Jerusalem Artichoke to be blooming now. Could it be a ragwort? A closer examination of the subject would be required for me to answer that.

One habit I have tried to adopt is the use of Latin names for the plants. Common names can apply to many different plants. That Bloodroot is distinct from a plant generally referred to as “puccoon” I have seen puccoon listed as an alternate name for Bloodroot.

Among the rare plants to be found in the Appalachian wetlands is something called “swamp pink.” The Swamp Pink on my wish list is Helonias bullata. However, “swamp pink” also refers to another rare wetland plant, Arethusa bulbosa. At this point I would consider myself fortunate to find either.

I’ve learned, though, that scientific names are not written in stone. Even some of my field guides, just thirty or forty years old contain Latin names for plants that have since been abandoned. One instance of this involved the wild gingers, some of which have been shifted from the Asarum genus to Hexastylis. My trusty – old - guidebook might identify Little Brown Jugs as Asarum arifolia, but these days the correct terminology is Hexastylis arifolia…at least for now. (More on this at: )

On the banks of the Oconaluftee, I saw hundreds of May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) but only one in bloom so far:

The flower will develop into a plum-sized fruit, and despite the toxicity of May Apple’s other parts, it can be used for jelly. Some people refer to May Apple as “mandrake”, not to be confused with the true Mandrake, Mandragara officinalis, a European plant in the nightshade family.

And May Apple is not to be mistaken for Maypop (Passiflora incarnata), another odd fruit of the Appalachian woodlands. Maypop, or Purple Passionflower, is the state wildflower of Tennessee. The Cherokee called the Maypop “ocoee.” Thus, the Ocoee River in Polk County, Tennessee is actually named after the Maypop…

...not be mistaken for May Apple, which is called Mandrake, although it really isn’t.

In Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons devotes a whole chapter to May Apple. He suggests mixing may apple juice with wine, and he provides a recipe for May Apple Marmalade.

He also attempts to describe the flavor of a ripe may apple:

I am reminded of several tropical fruits, the guava, the passion fruit and the soursop, but I can't honestly say that it tastes like any of them.

Finally, anyone who has recently consumed May Apple is hazardous to a garden patch of melons. According to James Mooney in Myths of the Cherokee :

One who has eaten a May-apple must not come near the vines under any circumstances, as this plant withers and dries up very quickly, and its presence would make the melons wither in the same way.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Dicentralization, Part Two

The dicentra quest carried few expectations. Though I’d found them blooming April 14 last year I figured the past cold winter might have delayed their growth. Would I encounter anything more than the feathery foliage of Squirrel Corn and Dutchman’s- Breeches?

I traveled a stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway that is inexplicably unfamiliar to me. Climbing to an elevation of about 4,150 ft., I exited onto a gravel road and the spot I’d observed D. canadensis blooming last year.

Only after getting out and strolling around I began to notice quite a few blooms.

Smells like hyacinth

This time I knew to look for the “kernels” of Squirrel Corn, and by pulling the soil away from the base of the plant, I saw they were, in fact, there:

And I had read, too, that some bees can manage just fine to pollinate AND rob nectar at the same time...

...while other bees unable to reach the nectar through open blooms simply snip holes in the flowers. Looking closely, I found that to be the case:

Nearby, on the edge of the Parkway I saw lots of different early spring flowers:

Star Chickweed – Stellaria pubera
Rue Anemone – Thalictrum thalictroides
Bloodroot – Sanguinaria canadensis
Yellow Violet – Viola rotundifolia
Halberd-Leaf Violet - Viola hastata
Trout lily – Erythronium americanum
Spring Beauty – Claytonia virginica
Toothwort = Cardine concatenata
Cinquefoil - Potentilla reptans

I revisited the rocky seep where I’d found Dutchman’s-Breeches growing last year - lots of plants, but only one in bloom. I did see a stray yellow violet nestled in a soft pillow of green moss, festooned with what resembled tiny stuffed olives!

A little farther down the mountain, I saw the forest floor covered with lush blue-green foliage. When I got out to explore I found Dutchman’s-Breeches (D. cucullaria) blooming in all directions. As I set up one camera shot, I saw movement inside a flower. Either an ant or a small fly or beetle was thrashing about in search of nectar (inside the second bloom from the left):

When I returned to the Oconaluftee River (elevation 2,000 ft.) I scrambled down to the trail beside the water, the trail that leads to the Pioneer Homestead and Park Visitor Center. But with all the flowers in bloom, I wasn’t going to make it that far…

(to be continued)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Dicentralization, Part One

I look upon the pleasure we take in a garden as one of the most innocent delights in human life.

No sane wholesome colours were anywhere to be seen except in the green grass and leafage; but everywhere those hectic and prismatic variants of some diseased, underlying primary tone without a place among the known tints of earth. The Dutchman's breeches became a thing of sinister menace, and the bloodroots grew insolent in their chromatic perversion.
-H.P. Lovecraft
"The Colour Out of Space"

"My" Bleeding Hearts, Dicentra spectabilis (?)

It’s about time to start looking for the dicentras.

Last April, I happened upon Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) and Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) but never did find the more elusive Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia).

On a visit to Clemson University last summer I had a chance to purchase a nice specimen of Bleeding Heart and transplanted it to the side of a trail in the nearby woods. Several days ago, a flash of magenta informed me that the plant survived the winter and was starting to bloom.

To be precise, my plant isn’t the native but rather the Asian Bleeding Heart (D. spectabilis) or some other species, larger and showier than D. eximia.

Dicentra is quite a genus. Eight species comprise the genus but only the first three of the aforementioned species grow wild in the southern mountains. One species, that grows along the West Coast, is Dicentra uniflora or the Longhorn Steer’s Head, for obvious reason:

Photo and more on this species at Yosemite Explorer -

“Dicentra” means “two spurs” and you can see how that is reflected in the various forms taken by the members of this genus.

To understand why Dicentra canadensis is called “Squirrel Corn” it is necessary to scratch leaf litter away from the base of the plant. The tuberous growths resemble kernels of corn. I have yet to see any squirrels gathering the morsels, but perhaps they do. Even closing in for a macro shot of the blooms I didn’t experience that fragrance of the flowers, but I’ve read that they smell like hyacincths.

Squirrel Corn, Dicentra canadensis

Squirrel Corn and Dutchman’s-Breeches have also been called “Little Girl Plant” and “Little Boy Plant” respectively. Their flowers are pollinated by bees. However, some bees lack proboscises long enough to reach the nectar. Those bees will resort to snipping holes through the flower to rob the nectar. In taking this shortcut they fail to pollinate the plant.

The dicentras are poisonous to grazing cattle, presumably due to the alkaloid content of the plants. Many plants produce alkaloids, the botanical compounds that yield caffeine, nicotine, morphine, quinine, yohimbine, mescaline and opium. All parts of the dicentra can be poisonous if ingested. Despite that, it has been used medicinally, both past and present,

Dutchman's Breeches, Dicentra cucullaria

Native Americans and early white herbalists found the dicentras useful for syphilis, skin conditions and as a blood purifier. I found the following in reference to someone who had used a tincture of D. formosa therapeutically:

Internally he has found it effective for the aftermath of accidents, attacks, trauma, especially if the after effect is a continued racing heart or the beginning of an asthma attack. It can be useful for quickly induced depression caused by the former. It breaks the cycle of grief-shock, and allows the person to function. He has used it on himself when his mother suddenly passed away and he was barely able to function the week before her funeral.

It can also be used for the type of trauma that causes the body to have hyper-sensitivity. Clothes feel like weights...and wool feels like a hair shirt...

Our Southern Appalachian dicentras - Bleeding Heart, Squirrel Corn and Dutchman’s-Breeches - tend to grow in the rich woods or on rocky cliffs. They have some of the more unusual flowers you’ll ever see and they also display lush, feathery foliage almost blue-green in color.

A linguistic note...

The term “Dutchman’s Breeches” has also found employment as a weather descriptor. According to Admiral William Henry Smyth's A Sailor's Wordbook (1867):
"Dutchman's breeches, the patch of blue sky often seen when a gale is breaking, is said to be, however small, 'enough to make a pair of breeches for a Dutchman'."

The photos above, of Squirrel Corn and Dutchman's-Breeches, were taken on April 14, 2009. I returned today to the same places, not knowing what to expect. Trip report and photos to follow...

Links on dicentra:

The first ones link to the very helpful USDA Plants Database:

Dicentra cucullaria - Dutchman's Breeches

Dicentra canadensis - Squirrel Corn

Dicentra eximia - Bleeding Heart

Dicentra uniflora – Longhorn Steer’s Head

A recent scientific paper explores the potential medicinal qualities of Dicentra scandens and its use by traditional healers to treat diabetes, high blood pressure and gastritis (among other conditions) -


Hemlock Ghost

Hemlock Ghost, April 2010

Donald Culross Peattie:

In the grand, high places of the southern mountains Hemlock soars above the rest of the forest, rising like a church spire — like numberless spires as far as the eye can see — through the blue haze that is the natural atmosphere of those ranges. Sometimes even its branches reach out like arms above the crowns of other trees. But though the Hemlock’s top may rejoice in the boldest sun and brave any storm, the tree unfailingly has its roots down in the deep, cool, perpetually moist earth. And no more light than a glancing sunbeam ever penetrates through the somber shade of its boughs to the forest floor...

Approaching such a noble tree, you think it dark, almost black, because the needles on the upper side are indeed a lustrous deep blue-green. Yet when you lunch on the rock that is almost sure to be found at its feet, or settle your back into the buttresses of the bole and look up under the boughs, their shade seems silvery, since the underside of each needle is whitened by two lines. Soon even talk of the tree itself is silenced by it, and you fall to listening. When the wind lifts up the Hemlock’s voice, it is no roaring like the Pine’s, no keening like the Spruce’s. The Hemlock whistles softly to itself. It raises its long, limber boughs and lets them drop again with a sign, not sorrowful, but letting fall tranquility upon us.

- from Peattie's A Natural History of North American Trees

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Views of Saturn

More to be said later on the Galileoscope.

A truly noble concept.

So far, I have examined craters on the surface of our moon via the GS. I read that the scope permits a view of Saturn's rings (of course, nothing like the detail of these satellite images).

For more than the ones posted, here's a slideshow of the exquisite Cassini Saturn pics:

And a link for more JPL images of Saturn from the Cassini Mission:

It would be easy to spend a few hours at this NASA website of astronomical photos:

It is marvelous indeed to watch on television the rings of Saturn close; and to speculate on what we may yet find at galaxy's edge. But in the process, we have lost the human element; not to mention the high hope of those quaint days when flight would create ''one world.'' Instead of one world, we have ''star wars,'' and a future in which dumb dented human toys will drift mindlessly about the cosmos long after our small planet's dead. -Gore Vidal

Jet Propulsion Lab image of Enceladus, a moon of Saturn

-by Barbara Lefcowitz

the round walls of old cities
bracelets of flamenco dancers
cambium layers fingerprint-whorls

no metaphor can elucidate
why so many rings within rings

ice, rocks, and dust
some braided, some a pale red
knotted thin elliptical

but this much I know
from my earthly, my only

the saturnine need
such labyrinths of light

to see the contours of their darkness
especially its edges and rims

lest they forget that as children of winter
they have a flair for the slanted
shapes of light, door-cracks, thin stripes

the facets of diamonds
to be plucked from the snow

if they dare break
the circumference of sadness

Another Lefcowitz poem, RINGS, BAGELS, SATURN, opens:

Wandering from its orbit, perhaps drunk or merely bored, one of Saturn’s moons shed its icy skin, which gravity’s dark matter then spun into a ring. The moon’s dense core, filled with cosmic debris, kept wandering, perhaps to intrude some time later into another planet’s orbital path....

The entire poem is at:

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Behind the Times at Big Creek

I was able to complete my annual wildflower pilgrimage to Big Creek yesterday, but it wasn’t easy.

If there’s a better place to visit early spring wildflowers than Big Creek, on the northeastern corner of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I’d like to hear about it. But with the closure of Interstate 40 near the state line, getting to Big Creek from anywhere besides Tennessee is tough.

If you’ve ever driven into Cataloochee Valley you might remember one point where you take a left turn for the final descent into Big Catalooch. At that point, a sign informs you that Big Creek is sixteen miles dead ahead. So instead of taking a left, I kept going straight. Now, Cove Creek Road, up to that point is a narrow gravel road with lots of blind curves and precipitous banks. If you can travel the whole length without having to squeeze past an oncoming horse trailer, consider yourself lucky.

However, Cove Creek Road to that point is a thoroughfare compared to the section extending on toward Big Creek. Forty-five bone-rattling minutes after leaving the fork in the road, I reached the metropolis of Mount Sterling, North Carolina where I listened for the faint echoes of Bonaparte’s Retreat still wafting through the air.

[For the story of what happened here on April 10, 1865, see The Grooms Tune on the Road to Mount Sterling, ]

From there, it’s only a short drive to the parking lot at the Big Creek Picnic Area.

I’ve come here during the first week of April for several years running and have taken hundreds of photographs while launching my education in wildflower identification. I was eager to see what there was to see on this warm and sunny day.

Impressive displays of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) were the first flowers to greet me. I figured the Yellow Trillium (Trillium luteum) would be next as it grows abundantly along the entry road and near the parking area.

It was there, alright, but not yet in bloom. On all previous visits, the trillium had been in full flower.

Sparsely scattered about were the purples and yellows of violets. But I saw neither the purple Long-spurred Violet (Viola rostrata) nor the yellow Halberd-leaved Violet (Viola hastata) that I’ve seen in years past.

I knew that I wouldn’t have to walk far to get a bead on the progress of spring on Big Creek. The trail overlooks the magnificent creek. The first part of the trail is lined by a rocky face, facing more or less southeast, and watered by frequent seeps.

In previous years on this date, you could see the blooms of Stonecrop Sedum (Sedum ternatum), Star Chickweed (Stellaria pubera), Robins-Plantain (Erigeron pulchellus) and Fire Pink (Silene virginica). Fringed Phacelia (Phacelia fimbriata) looked like snow on the slopes dropping off toward the creek.

Perhaps the showiest of the lot in previous years was the Purple Phacelia (Phacelia bipinnatifida), generous swaths of it festooning the rock with a shade of purple that pulsates under the right light. Following our colder-than-normal winter, they’re yet to blossom. I did spot one lonely clump of Purple Phacelia.

I remembered a patch of Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) up a dry creekbed and veered off the trail to check it out. The delicate, ferny foliage was where I expected to see it, but nowhere close to blooming.

A few stray Toothworts (Dentaria laciniata ) were in bloom.

At one point, the air was perfumed with a familiar lemony fragrance and, sure enough, I saw several yellow trilliums that had bloomed before any of their comrades.

Seeing that I’d gotten here well before the peak bloom, and feeling the weight of a full arsenal of camera gear on my back, I decided to save a return to Midnight Hole, Mouse Creek Falls, Brakeshoe Spring and Walnut Bottoms for another day.

On the way back down the trail, I spotted newly emerging Squaw Root (Conopholus americana).

I would have time to return to the parking lot, cross Big Creek and take a short stroll on Baxter Creek Trail, one that I had never explored. This is an important trail, leading 6.1 miles up to Mount Sterling (elevation 5842). That’s a climb of more than 4100 feet.

I camped out on Mount Sterling years ago, but took the Pretty Hollow Trail out of Cataloochee to get there. It was less climb and stretched out over a couple of extra miles in distance. Baxter Creek Trail would be a decent workout with a worthwhile destination on the mountaintop. But not today, unfortunately.

Baxter Creek Trail starts off with the opposite exposure of the Big Creek Trail, and the vegetation is just as different. In a lusher and shadier environment, the yellow trilliums are absent, replaced by Large-flowered (?) Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). Long stretches of the trail are lined with Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) and occasional Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica).

There’s no telling how the cold winter has delayed the development of other plants in other places, but I’d estimate the Big Creek plants are at least two weeks behind where they’ve been in recent years.

Photos from top:
Yellow Trillium
Purple Phacelia

(all April 2, 2010)