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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 18 September 2014 by Tim Ingram

The Appalachians, with Katie Price

Forest Wildflowers of North Carolina - talk to the East Kent Group of the AGS, 12th September 2014

Landscapes emerge slowly as you learn of them, travel through them, and read of how they influence others. Aaron Copland's 'Appalachian Spring' captures the awakening of these montane woodlands in music, but Katie Price began her talk to us by reading an excerpt from 'North with the Spring' by Edwin Way Teale, the story of travelling from Florida to Rhode Island in 1947 - a classic of American naturalist literature.

How you read a landscape is very individual, but the effect on those who have walked and studied the Appalachians can, in part, come from a knowledge of the plants that grow there - very many grow in our gardens; the woodland flora is as exciting as anywhere in the world; and even if the region has been heavily exploited for timber and other resources there is a resilience and beauty in the landscape which many American authors and photographers have described (for example: 'In Praise of Ancient Mountains, Old-Growth Forest, and Wilderness' by James Valentine, Chris Bolgiano and William Meadows, and 'A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America in the Appalachians' by Bill Bryson).

Lucy Hart and Katie Price have described some of the landscape and its plants found on their visit in 'The Plantsman' (Vol. 11, p. 116, 2012). These are old and relatively low mountains with no real tree-line and the plants of most interest to the alpine gardener are the wealth of woodland flowers. They include the rare and special Shortia galacifolia, which Katie began her talk with, describing how an herbarium specimen captured the imagination of the great nineteenth century American botanist, Asa Gray,  who eventually discovered it in the wild much later on.

The features of the Appalachians that characterise the flora are their age and north-south orientation, which has allowed species to migrate and persist during glacial episodes. They run nearly 1500 miles from Alabama in the south to Maine in the north, something like twice the distance from Land's End to John o' Groats. The highest peaks reach just over 2000m in North Carolina and it was to the forest wildflowers of this region that we were introduced.

Timber has been so heavily exploited that much of the woodlands are relatively young regrowth but the understory plants can remain rich and fascinating. Trilliums often occur in wonderful abundance and in great variety. Anyone who has gardened with woodland plants will know that they can take many years to establish and develop into mature plantings and this must be an essential appeal of woodlands like these - there is a timelessness about them (even if in reality they may not be truly old) and an heterogeneity which draws you to look closely as well as become immersed in the landscape. There are species like Trillium undulatum - exquisitely beautiful - which are next to impossible to cultivate, but also T. grandiflorum, which ranges widely into Canada and around the Great Lakes, one of the best of all species in the garden.


Woodlands become colourful in spring before the trees leaf out and it was striking to see a picture of Rhododendron (Azalea) vaseyi flowering like this in high oak-hickory forest. The Flame Azalea, R. calendulaceum is the most vivid of all, and the Snowdrop Tree, Halesia tetraptera (carolina), one of the  most lovely and choice trees in both nature and gardens. Many plants, such as Hydrastis canadensis and Panax trifolius, have or have had herbal uses, and others, Erythronium americanum and Iris cristata (as well as trilliums) often form large colonies in the wild by comparison with our individual view of them in cultivation. The list can go on but they are better described in the article in 'The Plantsman' which includes nice portraits of the terrestrial orchid Galearis spectabilis and the annual Phacelia fimbriata, both plants that may be adaptable to similar conditions in British gardens. 

The final part of Katie's talk took us to the Carolina sandhills, a specific habitat with often very acidic soils, hot summers and frequent flash fires. The pine, P. palustris, found here adapts to this ecology by initially developing a strong and supportive root system before a very rapid rate of shoot growth enables it to grow beyond and become established despite the prevalence of fires. The flora is again very rich, but also highly distinctive, with, in more stable areas, rarely cultivated shrubs like Illicium floridanum and Neviusa alabamensis, as well as such familiar ones as Kalmia latifolia. Boggy areas are often rich in sarracenias. One of the most fascinating of herbaceous species is the deep-pink and yellow bicoloured flowers of Tephrosia virginiana; several species of Baptisia make fine garden plants and this would be a good addition to cultivation too.

The climate of North Carolina is comparable to much of the UK and so many of these plants can reasonably be expected to be (and are) successful in British gardens. More valuable still is to see and gain an understanding of their natural environments and our sincere thanks are due to Katie for sharing these with us.

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