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May 2013

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A slice of heaven

Elk Knob

Last weekend the mountains were calling.  On Friday we headed west, through the Yadkin Valley, then over the Blue Ridge escarpment to Elk Knob State Park in Meat Camp, North Carolina. The park is about nine miles north of Boone and only three hours from Durham.

(For those of you who are wondering, Meat Camp got its name from Daniel Boone and other hunters of the day who would pack their animal kill there before taking it back to the lowlands.  It is not, contrary to what some might think, an Atkins-style weight loss camp.)

Elk Knob is North Carolina’s youngest state park, and owes its existence to the efforts of the Nature Conservatory and local landowners who kept it from being developed.  The 3000-plus acres include a 2-mile trail to the summit of Elk Knob, Watauga County’s second-highest peak.  The trail was completed in 2011.


The park is like nothing else I’ve ever seen in North Carolina, and I’m not being hyperbolic.  I was in awe the whole time I was there.  Once we reached about 5,000 feet, I started getting a little light-headed, as if I were  hiking the southern Rockies again.  Perhaps that might explain part of my euphoria.

Elk Knob is one of twelve mountains north of Boone known as the Amphibolite Mountains, composed of blackish-grey  metamorphic rock known as amphibolite.  We saw tons of it, as well as huge pieces of quartz.  For a while I couldn’t stop taking pictures of all the interesting rocks.

These rocks are rich in nutrients, and as  a result you find a lot of interesting plant life there, including endangered plants like Gray’s Lily.  As soon as we got out of the car, we saw Trilliums everywhere, some together in large clusters.  A kind stranger, probably as giddy as we were, told us that the White Trilliums become pink as they get older.  We saw plenty of both.

Shawnna loved the Purple Trillium,  also known as the Wake-Robin.


The amphibolite  also makes the soil more alkaline than usual (a lot of mountain soil is acidic.)  One consequence of this is that you don’t see any acidic-loving rhododendron at Elk Knob.  Rhododendrons  typically cover the western North Carolina landscape, but not here.  In its absence  there is an incredible variety of tree life.  A lot of the trees on the mountain were ones that you’d find in northern hardwood forests.  Take the buckeye, for example; Ohio usually comes to mind.  Or the yellow birch, which is the provincial tree of Quebec.

Closer to the top, the trees became more stubby and gnarled, hardened from years of  bitter winters and harsh winds.  As we ascended, we both became somewhat light-headed.  I guess we’ve lived in the lowlands too long.  Next time we’ll stop and have a picnic at the stone bench halfway up the mountain.


The summit was breathtakingly beautiful.  On the north side you could see as far as Pilot Mountain, near Winston-Salem.  On the south side you could see as far as Mount Mitchell.  And of course, you could see all the mountains in between.   It was a true Blue Ridge panorama.

I took a nice shot of Snake Mountain, Elk Knob’s neighbor and another member of the Amphibolite range.  It sits on the Tennessee border, near the community of Trade, Tennessee.  In the 1970s,  my mom taught at Trade Elementary School, which sat at the foot of Snake Mountain.  One of my earliest memories is taking a field trip to Snake Mountain with my mom’s class  as a three-year old.  I  rode in a little red wagon while the kids from my mom’s class took turns pulling me up the mountain.

Looking at the gap between the two mountains, I could make out the course of the Old Buffalo Trail, first used by migrating buffalo, then Native Americans, then the European settlers as they pushed westward.


We’ll be back to Elk Knob soon.




Urban archery season

I read yesterday that Durham’s City Council is considering a measure to legalize bow-and-arrow deer hunting inside city limits.

From The Durham News article:

An ad hoc committee on curbing the deer population in Durham city and county has advised the city to allow bow hunting during the state deer season.  It also recommends publicizing hunting regulations and
safety measures countywide,  and encouraging  hunters to donate deer meat to food pantries.

While I was reading this I couldn’t help thinking of what it would be like to walk down Main Street with a crossbow.  Could you imagine?  Archery has already made a big comeback due to the success of  the  Hunger Games Maybe Durham’s millennials, inspired by the movie and the ecological benefits of controlled hunting,  will start a local archery association.  Better yet, it could evolve into a citizen’s militia which would defend Durham from invasions. That worked for the Swiss against the French, I believe.  Time to listen to the William Tell Overture...

In all seriousness, though, I do like the idea of controlled hunting in Durham, and am intrigued by the added potential to feed our city’s poor.   The rampant rise of  North Carolina’s deer population over the last 20 years, a byproduct of suburbanization, has caused more tick-borne infections and car fatalities every year.   Not to mention the thousands of dollars of damage to yards and gardens every year.

Our state already sanctions an  “Urban Archery Season” that runs five weeks in the winter.  According the the article,  thirty-eight municipalities held Urban Archery Seasons 2013, but the  Durham  committee members working with the city council had  advised against Durham joining them right away.  (Chapel Hill, Pittsboro, and Wake Forrest already have already approved Urban Archery Season.)  Any municipalities interested in participating must submit a letter of intent to the state’s Wildlife Resources Commission by April 1 of each year, complete with a map defining the area where hunting is allowed.

I’m not sure what the concerns are about bow hunting.  I’ve been looking for stories on bow-and-arrow deaths in North Carolina, but wasn’t able to find any. On the other hand, there plenty of stories about the rise of deer-related car accidents.





Tie a sticky ribbon ’round the old oak tree

And they shall cover the face of the earth, that one cannot be able to see the  earth: and they shall eat the residue of that which is escaped, which remaineth unto you from the hail, and shall eat every tree which groweth for you out of the field.   (Exodus 10:5)

canker worm
As many of you  know, those little green cankerworms
invaded Cackalacky again this spring.
They’ve disappeared now that their larval stage is over,  but they  left a wake of destruction.   The leaves on our fruit trees and blueberry bushes look like Swiss cheese.  While not fatal for these plants, the damage certainly contributes to our under-performing fruit harvest.

Last month  they were everywhere, in places like  our front yard, chewing up the leaves on our enormous oak tree (apparently oak is their favorite.)   Often they would bungee jump off  the  tree, tied to a little silk thread, landing on my face, arms, or slithering down the back of my shirt.  Once Shawnna picked four  of them off me before bedtime.  Whenever I walked outside, I’d   hear a crackling noise, reminding me of the sound of sleet or frozen rain.  My neighbor told me that  the crackling sound was  the gentle falling of  worm excrement.  The horror!

It’s so bad down in Charlotte that the city actually  has a municipal program to control  73,000 acres of cankerworm infestations.  That’s about 40% of the city.

bandingTree banding seems to be the most effective way to deal with these worms.  The sticky bands prevent the moths  from crawling up the tree to lay their eggs, but they must be installed in November, because December is moth mating season.

You can use a strip of cotton or insulation and wrap it around the tree, at least three feet from the ground, placed below the lowest limb.  I’ve seen a lot of folks use staples to hold the strip in place.  (One website recommends positioning a band of roofing felt over the strip and then attaching it with s staple gun.)  Of course you don’t want to use staples on small trees, so try using something like electrical tape to hold the strip in place.

The next step is to coat the band with a sticky substance that prevents the moths  from inching up the tree, such as Tanglefoot glue.   The sticky band should be kept in place until the larvae disappear in April.

We’ll know better next time around!




Strawberry fields forever

 Yesterday Shawnna  harvested our first strawberries of the year.  She waited until I got back from my trip to do this.  I don’t think I would have had that kind of self control!


I got the plants last year from our neighbors Dan and Darcey, who had more strawberries than they knew what to do with.  They told us that the strawberries were in such abundance that they could smell them when they got out of their car.  The strawberries were so plentiful that some were rotting on the vine.  They warned me that the plants would spread rapidly and would need to be thinned out.  I told them we would love to have that problem!

Now our front yard is full of them, and there is the added bonus of not having to mow that part of the lawn.  Life is good!




Solomon’s Seal

I think it’s time for  a  new series called  Nostalgic Plants of Childhood,  starting with Solomon’s Seal.   As a youngster growing up in Boone, I’d always see this plant when I was hiking in the woods.  I loved its gently curving leaves and tiny clusters of white, tubular-shaped flowers.  Thinking it was a mountain plant, I was surprised and delighted when some shoots sprouted up in our Durham backyard a few years ago.  Since  then it’s returned every spring in all its beautiful glory.

true solomons seal

A relative of the lily, Solomon’s  seal is the name for almost 50 species in the genus Polygonatum.  The kind I’m referring to is commonly known as “True Solomon’s Seal” (Polygonatum biflorum) not to be confused with False Solomon’s Seal.

The young shoots are edible and taste like asparagus when boiled. Unfortunately, the rhizomes only seem to grow about an inch or two a year, which means at this point it’s not really practical for us to harvest it.  Too bad we don’t have it covering the backyard, like the huge patch we saw on Mt. Jefferson in Ashe County last summer.  I’m definitely going to let it keep growing. It seems that our woody, shaded backyard is an ideal environment for it.

Looking online, I was also surpised that there seems to be a whole cottage industry associated with this plant.  There is even a website, http://www.solomonsseal.net, that sells Solomon’s Seal for medicinal purposes.  For hundreds of years people have used the root to make herbal teas and liniments. The  alleged benefits of the root are numerous:

  • Heals bruises, wounds and rashes
  • Reduces inflammations in joints and tendons
  • Reduces blood pressure
  • Loosens mucous in lungs
  • Prevents premature ejaculation
  • Relieves  premenstrual syndrome
  • Hastens recovery from bone injuries

According to one source, the plant gets its name from King Solomon, who proclaimed that the plant was a gift from God.

It’s just a plant that is too beautiful for us to harvest.