Marvelous plants of Appalachia’s spring forests

Marvelous plants of Appalachia’s spring forests

Spring might be the best time of year to explore the many plants and flowering trees of the Appalachian mesophytic forests, which are second only to the Amazon rainforests when it comes to biological diversity. One of my botany professors said if you stand in a forest in the Appalachian counties of Ohio and do a 360-degree turn, you should be able to count 20 different tree species just about every time.

One can find black oak, pin oak, chestnut oak, burr oak, tulip poplar, red maple, sugar maple, sassafras, shagbark hickory, hickory, slippery elm, hophornbeam, American beech, birch, American sweetgum, black walnut, black cherry, eastern hemlock, eastern white pine, quaking aspen, catalpa, blackjack oak, chinkapin oak, buckeye, black locust, dogwood, redbud and others.

We have 14 of these species on our small 4-acre piece of land. Ash and elm trees used to be plentiful, but sadly, most have been killed by both invasive beetles and a fungus.

Currently, redbud trees are in full bloom — loaded with reddish violet buds. You can see their displays as you travel any country road. This member of the pea family is native to the region. A favorite of birds, the red buds are high in Vitamin C and delicious. The buds can be used in salads, syrups, vinegars, jellies and jams. We often eat them raw or use them in stir fry. After it buds, the branches are covered with heart-shaped leaves till fall.

While on a recent hike, a friend and I came across a “mother lode” of ramp plants. The slopes in the area where we were hiking were covered with wild ramps. It has been a long time since I’ve seen that many ramps in one place. When I was a kid, my grandmother Rose and great-aunt Zana used to gather these plants or get them from friends. They were abundant along the hillsides of the Ohio River Valley. There were several ramp festivals in West Virginia and even a 5k ramp race at Bethany College. Runners jogged through a wooded area that was so rich with ramps you could smell onions during most of the race.

Ramps are one of the first green plants to appear in spring and were prized as a spring tonic by Native Americans and American settlers. After a long winter, these green plants were heartily welcomed. They are high in vitamins and minerals, and although they’re associated with the Appalachian culture, they have found their niche in high-end restaurants. My grandma fried the bulbs of the plants with scrambled eggs and bacon. They taste like a cross between garlic and onions.

Another plant appearance that marks the beginning of spring is coltsfoot. These wildflowers are often mistaken for dandelions but bloom well ahead of them. The key identifying trait: they have no leaves in the spring. You can see the yellow bloom and scaly stalk devoid of any other vegetation as early as mid-February. The genus name means “cough dispeller,” and that was one of the popular uses for coltsfoot in early America.

If you pick the flower of a bloodroot plant, you will realize where its name originated. When I first picked a bloodroot flower as a kid, I was shocked by the bloody red sap that oozed from the flower stem. Its scientific name is “Sanguinaria canadensis.” The leaf also is interesting as it looks like an odd green leathery mitten. The plant was used by Native Americans to cure several illnesses, and the red latex sap was mixed with oils to make a skin dye. Studies show it contains alkaloids, but no definitive medicinal use has been identified.

One of my favorite spring wildflowers is wild ginger. The dark-green leaves are heart-shaped and fuzzy. It has a small brownish-red cup-like flower that is less than an inch long and has three pointed lobes on it. The flower grows close to the ground and is pollinated by small flies. It too was used as a medicinal plant by the Native Americans. Locals also use the plant as a substitute for ginger as the rhizomes have a similar taste. These rhizomes are usually boiled with sugar water. I think the plant is adorable, and I enjoy having it around in my wooded wildflower areas.

Another plant that pops up in spring is yellowroot or goldenseal. The plant is a member of the buttercup family. It used to be common all over the Appalachian region, but overharvesting and habitat loss have necessitated it be listed as “threatened.” It is now rare to run across goldenseal in the landscape. It too has many medicinal uses. Our family has tried a salve made from the yellow roots. If you dig up “Hydrastis canadensis,” you’ll find bright-yellow roots that are known to contain both hydrastine and berberine compounds.

One of the most important plants, both economically and medicinally speaking, is ginseng. I’ve written about this plant before as it was the topic of my doctoral dissertation. Like goldenseal, it too has been overharvested and was listed in 1975 on Appendix II of the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species. This means all trade and harvests of the plant are regulated via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A long-lived perennial herb, ginseng likes the deep forested canopy of mesophytic forests. You can find it in the company of spicebush, oaks, maples and tulip poplars. The plant resembles a buckeye leaf having five leaves on a stalk or prong and can live up to 50 years.

Native Americans have used this medicinal herb along with hundreds of other medicinal plants found in the Appalachian forests. In the mid-1750s, settlers and Indians traded ginseng and furs for food and other items. Most of these roots were shipped to Asian countries, especially China. Ginseng made up much of the informal economy in Southeastern Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, and North and South Carolina. From 1821-99 the average annual harvest of ginseng from America was about 381,000 pounds.

According to the “Doctrine of Signatures,” which is an important aspect of folk medicine from the Middle Ages, a plant will cure the body part it resembles. For example, hepatica is supposed to be good for liver ailments. I have a hepatica plant, and indeed, its leaves do resemble the lobes of a human liver. Ginseng roots, when mature, resemble a tiny, headless human body. Therefore, ginseng is a cure all, or adaptogen, for just about any medical condition. Ginseng has been studied extensively for medicinal properties, and there are countless peer-reviewed studies on its use by Asian countries.

While most of us will never use these plants as a cure, we can still enjoy them as well as protect them. Bring the wildflowers home to your yards by propagating these plants from ethically sourced bulbs and seeds. Gary Snyder, poet and environmental activist, said, “Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.”

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