‘Abominable Mysteries’ at Yahoo Falls

[imgbelt img=Silene320.jpg] 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.

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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.

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.

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.

give-up their sense of smell before they’d give-up their cell.

[imgcontainer left] [img:Silene320.jpg] [source]Allen Bush

Silene rotundifolia blooming near Yahoo Falls, 
McCreary County, Kentucky, November 2011

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.

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