Spring woodland wildflowers of the Smoky Mountain Forest
What a treat to visit the Joyce Kilmer old growth forest near the Smoky Mountain National Park recently . . . Seeing the spring wildflowers in bloom among trees hundreds of years old was like stepping into a fairy land!
Walking along the forest paths, we saw trillium emerging, with her signature triple leaf and flower pattern. Also known as “birth root,” trillium has long been valued by indigenous women. An endangered woodland wildflower, she is one that I only admire, rather than harvest . . .
And I loved seeing star chickweed, Stellaria pubera. She is the larger cousin to the common garden chickweed we often eat in salads at home. Star chickweed’s flower is more defined, embodying her name, Stellaria: star flower.
Like her common cousin, she is edible and delicious. While hiking in the forest, I occasionally nibble a bit as a trailside snack.
We also encountered the lovely trout lily. Erythronium americanum, of the Lily family.
As we sat down among a large patch of plants with dark, almost blue leaves unfurling, I exclaimed, “I’ve never seen this plant before!” After a few moments of admiring her unwinding leaves, waxy stalks, and symmetrically round blooms, I noticed the way the leaf stalks came together in threes to the stem.
Reminded me of trillium . . . and black cohosh. Oh, of course, my heart jumped! I have seen her before--it must been twenty years ago by now when I first moved to these mountains. Then it was midsummer and she was in full bloom. She’s been elusive since then, with only her sister black cohosh visible in my woodland and mountainside treks. I found her once again! In this fairy forest . . .
Blue cohosh. Caullophylum thalictroides, I mouthed, that familiar botanical name I first learned in my studies with Susun Weed, now 25 years ago. I flashed on travelling with Susun to the NYC Midwifery school. Expounding on the content of her first classic Wise Woman Herbal “The Childbearing Year,” she explained to the midwives, the differences between the uses of blue and black cohosh during birth.
Leaving Joyce Kilmer, en route to meet a Cherokee grandmother who has been involved with the women's conference, we noticed road signs written in Cherokee script. It was a vivid and sobering reminder of the indigenous language and culture of this land. When we met up back in the town of Cherokee, she had just returned from gathering spring greens for her daughter, as strengthening and healing medicine for her daughter’s bout with cancer. A devoted farmer, she spoke of the miracle of watching the plants grow, reproducing themselves from such a small shoot into glorious full summer growth . . . "When I measure myself against that plant, I always seem to fall short!," she chuckled.
When I asked her to show me the plants she’d gathered, I was excited to see sochane (Rudbeckia laciniata), as well as bear grass. As I pulled out the camera to share some of these photos of the woodland wildflowers, I sensed the momentary meeting of worlds—mine and hers—through our love for the plants. And we also share a longing for the old ways of our foremothers, her Cherokee and my ancient European, back when our cultures were matrifocal, governed by the circle of grandmothers.
On the way home, I imagined these mountains and forests as they were long ago, when Cherokee peoples roamed and lived in these woods, before they were displaced by the European colonizers.
I thought too of the forests of my own indigenous roots, the ancient old growth of the European fairy forests. I felt the poignancy of loss—and also gratitude for the portal through time I experienced through this spring journey into the old growth forest of these mountains.
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