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To Be Evergreen

The continuing discoveries of a 21st century artist and naturalist …

Now that the leaves have faded and berries are replacing blooms, I’m turning to the plants we see and enjoy throughout winter days.  Sempervirens is Latin for evergreen and literally means ‘always green’.   On a summer day, when gray storm clouds create the backdrop for the green of deciduous trees, their color seems more vibrant than at any other time.  I find it fitting that, in the gray of winter, the main color seen in the woods is the green of those plants that don’t lose their leaves.  There are many of these species, but I am including only those I have actually photographed.  Most are trees and shrubs but some are plants that grace the woodland floor throughout the winter days.

Living in the southeastern part of the USA I’ve grown up seeing the majestic Magnolias all seasons.  I always wanted to plant one but knew that, due to their slow growth, I would likely not see it fully mature.  Selfish of me perhaps but then I did leave behind two maturing orchards at two homes in which I lived.

I have been told, by forestry folks, that the entire southeastern United States was once one huge Magnolia forest.  As one of the oldest plant species, dating back to the Cretaceous Period of the Mesazoic era, I can see how that might be possible.  However, when it first came into existence the Atlantic Ocean extended to the Appalachian Mountains so that’s the ‘southeast’ we would be talking about.  Even if it was not the case it is a beautiful vision to have.

One of the more interesting notes I found about this beautiful tree is that it existed before bees and was pollinated by beetles.

Sweet Bay Magnolia

Bloom Time:  April – July

Family:  Magnoliaceae; Genus:  Magnolia; Species:  virginiana

Larval Host for Sweetbay Silkmoth

Catawba Rhododendron (A.K.A. Mountain Rosebay)

Family:  Ericaceae; Genus:  Rhododendron; Species:  catawbiense

Bloom Time:  June

The name Rhododendron originates from the Greek Rhodon – a rose and Dendron – a tree.  Dendron is the root of the word Dendrology or the study of trees.    The Catawba Rhododendron has pink to purple blossoms unlike the Great Rhododendron (Rhodendron maximum)  which blooms later and has white blossoms.

Their round clusters of blossoms can be as much as 5 to 6 inches in size.  The leaves are thick and leathery, typical of most evergreens.  This variety of Rhododendron, genus that includes azaleas, is native to the Southern Appalachian mountains in the United States.

This plant comes with a warning tag – Caution Highly Toxic – Do Not Ingest Any Part.  Ingestion causes convulsions, progressive paralysis of the arms and legs, coma and even death.  Beekeepers have to be cautious about placement of hives so their honey does not get contaminated with Rhododendron nectar.

Mountain Laurel

Family:  Ericaceae; Genus:  Kalmia; Species:  latifolia

Bloom Time:  June and July

This relative of the Rhododendron was erroneously called Laurel by the English and does not belong t the same family as English Laurel.  It does share the poisonous nature of both its relative and Laurel whose leaves contain prussic acid.  All parts of the Mountain Laurel is highly toxic and shares the same poisonous substance as others in the Ericaceae family – Andromedotoxin.

Reading about the Mountain Laurel in 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names by Diana Wells makes me want to find publications of Peter Kalm’s journals.  He was the student of Linnaeus who discovered the Mountain Laurel.  Linnaeus named the plant after his prize pupil whom he described as loved as his own child.  The two had traveled to Russia together but Linnaeus was ill when Kalm came to America to locate plants for Sweden with medicinal and dye plants that would grow in northern latitudes.  The descriptions he provides in his journals, at least from the excerpts in this book, are almost poetic.

In writing the fact that Mountain Laurel had no scent he says:

“…so equally and justly does nature distribute her gifts; no part of the creation has them all, each has its own, and none is absolutely without a share of them.”

Kalm describes the flower on the Mountain Laurel:

“..their beauty rivals that of most of the known trees in nature [and the pink-fading-to-white flowers] resemble ancient cups.”

Of the sound of hummingbirds:

“…little turning spinning wheels.”

On glowworms:

“…[they make the ground seem] as if it were sown with stars.”

Even though all parts of the plant are poisonous it was documented that Native Americans at one time made their spoons and trowels from its wood.  The hard wood of the Mountain Laurel was also used to make “axles of pulleys and weaver’s shuttles”.

American Holly

Family:  Aquifoliaceae; Genus:  Ilex; Species:  opaca

While we are on the subject of poisonous evergreens we can’t forget to add our lovely holly to the list.   The only part it that is poisonous, though, are the berries.  The holly has male flowers on some plants, female flowers on others and both are required for berries to be produced.  The berries are only found the female tree.

The first settlers in America were reminded of their English Holly back home and so used the American variety in the same holiday traditions as they had back in England.  Eventually, this resulted in it having the nickname of Christmas holly.

I’ve included some photos of goats and Great Pyrenees I used to own in a holly grove in their pasture.  The browsing of the goats created a nice bower because, although they nibbled the limbs and leaves they could only do so to a certain height.  The holly grove became a nice place to get out of the hot summer sun.

Another type of evergreen familiar to most everyone is that of conifers.  Below are two that I have photographed even though I’ve seen most of the varieties of the southeast at one time or another.

Virginia Pine

Family:  Pinaceae; Genus: Pinus; Species:  virginiana

The Virginia Pine has clusters of 3 to 5 cones rather than singular or simple pairs like most pines.  This characteristic makes it easier to delineate from other species of pine trees.

Carolina Hemlock

Family:  Pinaceae; Genus:  Tsuga; Species:  caroliniana

A native to the Appalachian Mountains the Carolina Hemlock has a range restricted to in southwest Virginia, western North Carolina, extreme northeast Georgia, northwest South Carolina, and eastern Tennessee and at elevations of 2300 – 3900 feet.  It is classified as critically imperiled in Georgia and vulnerable in North Carolina and Tennessee probably due to its susceptibility to the Asian-introduced hemlock woolly adelgid.

oh be evergreen

never lose the gloss of life

or endure bare limbs.

– Lea Booth


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