It's hunting season. Two Kentucky plantsmen head unarmed into the territory of putty root and pink muhly, finding the highest waterfall in the state and othr wonders.
I had no idea what was in store last spring, when Paul Cappiello began talking about an autumn day-trip to Eastern Kentucky. Paul is the Executive Director of Yew Dell Gardens in Crestwood, Kentucky. The premise – or the excuse for a fun walk in the woods – seemed simple enough: try to find cold-hardy native stands of the pink muhly grass, Muhlenbergia capillaris. They were there, somewhere in the Cumberland Mountains We knew that. Julian Campbell had said so. And Julian knows where just about every native plant is, in every nook and cranny across the state. He had found pink muhly seedlings in Rowan County earlier in the year.
Pink muhly is a popular ornamental grass across temperate North America but isn’t always reliably winter hardy in colder areas. It’s suspected that most of the commercially available seed originally came from deep southern USA origins. These pink muhly plants are treated as annuals in areas that dip below 0 F (-18 C). A cold-hardier perennial selection would be a welcome addition for gardeners.
I still thought we were going to Rowan County a week before Thanksgiving when we left Louisville early in the morning. Later, as I was edging over in the left lane, about to head east on I-64 toward Morehead, Kentucky and Rowan County, Paul told me abruptly to head south down I-75. “Not toward Morehead?” I asked anxiously. “South toward Corbin,” he waved frantically. Once I’d veered across four lanes of traffic, I asked Paul, “What’s near Corbin?” As a teacher would for a slow learner, he answered patiently, “Cumberland Falls. “
The directions became clearer. We’d be on the lookout for an electric transmission line near Cumberland Falls in McCreary and Whitley Counties. There among the clearing we’d hit pay dirt. Or so it seemed. How many transmission lines could there be in the rural mountains?
I was still trying to shake the sleep from my eyes after we got off the interstate south of Corbin. I started to pay attention when we passed Tidal Wave Road, and my eyes were peeled by Dog Slaughter Road. Soon, there were dozens of tall grasses standing at attention – like silver wands—along the woodland’s edge. The plump seed heads must be Andropogon glomeratus! This was like fishing for crappie and striking a bluegill. It wasn’t pink muhly grass but so what. At least, we had a fish on the line.
Andropgon glomeratus, the bushy bluestem, grows from California along the southern tier of the United States and up the east coast, predominantly near warmer coastal areas. There are a few outlier populations farther inland. Jelitto Perennial Seeds has grown the grass species from an origin in the Sandhills of North Carolina that has not proved cold hardy. But neither has the loblolly pine that grows in the same vicinity. (Mike Hayman is, however, growing a few of these, Pinus taeda, at Whitehall, only a few miles from my Louisville home. A few of these long needle pines have looked magnificent the last few years, but I’m holding my breath. We’ll have another cold winter again when temperatures dip to – 10 F (-23 C) or colder and, then, all bets are off.)
Finding the Andropogon glomeratus in a colder location in the Cumberland Mountains might extend the hardiness range for gardeners. Seeds were ripe.
I emailed news of my small catch the next day to Georg Uebelhart, my Jelitto Perennial Seeds colleague at the home office in Schwarmstedt, Germany. He knew right away that I was off the mark – not for the first time, either. Georg knows his stuff. He replied, “I doubt that this is Andropogon glomeratus at first glance of the photos. It looks to me more like Saccharum alopecuroidum formerly Erianthus or a related species.” He said that he would grow it out for trial and put some in the seed bank. But, in a few words, it seemed clear: this was no big deal. He reminded me that on a previous outing together in April 2008, we had seen the dried foliage and plumage on a lone bushy bluestem, standing in the middle of a field in east Tennessee. I thought there was the barest resemblance, but Uebelhart could see the difference.
Paul and I drove a few miles farther, deeper into the Daniel Boone National Forest, to Cumberland Falls. There was a beautiful rainbow in the mist above the falls. On a clear night, during a full moon, Cumberland Falls even has a rare moon glow. Once we’d snapped a few photos (Cumberland Falls really is beautiful) we walked a narrow path along the river’s edge below the falls. Sandstone cliffs rose to our right. Galax, rhododendrons and sourwoods were good company.
Paul and I were in a zone—two plant hounds baying in the woods. I don’t think others fear these trails; most just have other vacant distractions. Many Americans know the name Kim Kardashian, the star of television reality. Few would know – or care – that the ancient big leaf magnolia grows in the Cumberland Mountains. And not many would suspect the Magnoliaceae family lays claim to some of earth’s first flowering plants. Magnolias used to be considered among the oldest, but molecular systematics has pushed them aside in favor of Amborella trichopoda (Amborellaceae family), found on New Caledonia in the Pacific.
An evolutionary trail of hundreds of millions of years took us from mosses, liverworts, and hornworts to ferns, conifers – and miracle of miracles – to flowering plants. Charles Darwin was left scratching is head over the “abominable mystery” —the origin of flowering plants like magnolias that “…erupted out of nowhere 130 million years ago.” Kim Kardashian erupted out of Paris Hilton’s world over five years ago. (I’ve done my homework.) There are more mysteries.
Are Cappiello and I freaks, hotwired to find plants and nature constantly fascinating? Would others be even slightly intrigued if I told them they could see acres of the big leaf magnolia in McCreary County? Few would find the fallen, dried-up parchment-like leaves on hundreds of big leaf magnolias as interesting as we do. Would they perk-up if I told them the backs of the big leaves are the color of a faded tin roof? Would they be curious at all if I told them the pristine white blooms in late May are the size of giant platters? Long checkout lines at the grocery store during the gray months ahead hold the dismal promise that I can skim a few tabloids to catch-up on Kim Kardashian.
Paul had mentioned previously that he and Rick Lewandowski, from Delaware’s Mt. Cuba Center, had roamed nearby woodland hillsides around Yahoo Falls near Whitley City. They found ripe seed of the mountain camellia, Stewartia ovata. They had good directions from Charles Tubesing of the Holden Arboretum who had been here years before with Bob McNiel from the University of Kentucky. Georgia plantsman Jack Johnson and Ethan Guthrie from the Atlanta Botanic Garden had gotten wind of this place, too; so had Todd Rounsaville from the University of Kentucky Arboretum.
The windy gravel road in the Big South Fork National Recreation Area took us along woodland hillsides dotted with the tell-tales leaves of the big leaf magnolia. Paul said there were specimens in the woods of Magnolia tripetala and Magnolia acuminata, too. So too were Rhododendron maximum, Clethra acuminata, Viburnum acerifolium along with assorted buckeyes, patches of wintergreen and scattered evergreen box huckleberries. We reached a parking lot above Yahoo Falls and walked down a path past clumps of little brown jugs and club mosses.
It was the first time I’d seed the pleated blue-green foliage on Aplectrum hyemale, a terrestrial orchid, commonly called putty root. The corms have been ground, traditionally, to make a sticky substance used to mend clay pots. The leaves will disappear before next spring when the spur-less blooms open. We passed dozens of foamflowers and wondered why neither one of us could grow them in our own gardens. It always surprises me to see the resurrection fern, Pleopeltis polypodioides var. michauxiana, growing on mossy rocks. The small fronds shrivel-up in dry spells and unfurl again when rains return.
Eventually we reach towering rock ledges at the bottom. There are coral bells, Heuchera villosa, growing in the dry shade along with maidenhair fern—the staple of moist woodlands. These ferns must be divining moisture from somewhere since it seems so unlikely to see these two plants paired together in this dry overhang.
Yahoo Falls is not the centerpiece of state tourism like the larger Cumberland Falls. It’s in a deep ravine that’s not easily accessible. You’ve got to park it and walk it—a challenge for the idle. And there is no access for technological gizmos,either, so that could exclude 53% of youth 16 – 22 years of age who’d give-up their sense of smell before they’d give-up their cell.
Pity those who may never see Yahoo Falls, the tallest waterfall (113’/ 34.5 meters) in Kentucky. If they’d taken a mid-November walk with us they could have seen the scarlet blossoms of the rambling Silene rotundifolia. What are they doing in flower now? In fact, most are long gone and the seeds have been picked nearly clean by some critter that must have been attracted to the sticky seedpods. We linger reverently over the last few blooms.
I’m still wondering where the pink muhly grass might be. They are not going to be in this shady hollow. As we were leaving, I reminded Paul that we ought to look again for the power line. (There are many power lines.) We drive back toward Cumberland Falls, find a clear-cut and park the car across the road. There is nothing telltale along the clearing. We walk to the edge of a slope. We see nothing.
As we are heading back, a hunter dressed in camouflage gear walks out of the woods. (How could I hope to spot pink muhly grass when I can’t see a guy who’s been staring at us for the last ten minutes from one hundred feet away, with an orange vest as bright as a solar flare.) He’s pleasant enough but is curious what we were up to; he’d seen us park the car. I said we were looking for pink muhly grass. Somehow, that doesn’t seem so peculiar to him. He casually acknowledges, “Ok,” with a shrug that signals that he doesn’t have a clue what I’m talking about. He confesses he hasn’t seen a deer all day, either.
It’s getting colder and the sun is going down. We’re out of time and luck. None of us will go home tonight with a trophy catch.
Allen Bush, director of Special Projects for Jelitto Perennial Seeds, in August received the Award of Merit from the Perennial Plant Association, its highest honor. Allen lives in Louisville.