A Day in the Woods

I confess I too seldom take time these days to recharge my batteries by getting away from home, away from the computer, away from various obligations and commitments and duties.

I realize the cost of that missing element when, like yesterday, I take a botanizing walk with guy-friends and remember how much fun that is–not to mention enriching.

One of us kept at least a partial list of things we identified and those we never quite figured out.

I am inordinately thrilled to have observed a lily I have never seen. Adding a newly-identified flowering plant to my life list is not a common occurrence. I will post images with or without an ID later on in the month when I have time to work on it based only on the few images I came back with.

We hiked down Rock Castle Creek trail, starting near the Cabins, and making maybe two miles, not quite reaching the creek. We did not make good time; covering the distance was the farthest thing from our minds.

Of special note and to be investigated: a disease (I understand it is bacterial) is laying waste to individual  Rhododendrons. Spotty in most places, the affected plants were not just spotted or wilted as they would be with “die-back” caused by a fungus (the Irish Potato Famine villain Phytophthora).

These were dead, every twig and branch, all the way to the main trunk. In some places, whole hillsides were covered with the tan skeletons of a former thicket of Rhododendron.

It gives one pause: to think, what if the southern mountains lost all the shade, soil stabilization on steep mountainsides, bird and amphibian habitat, and other unknown stable conditions that have been maintained for thousands of years by this one plant?

So if you’re traveling the Parkway in the next few weeks, pay attention. Seeing dead Rhodies along the way? Maybe by then, we’ll at least have more details about WHY.

NOTE: I learned in my little bit of research that Rhododendrons are also affected by Sudden Oak Death, and that that diseases is also caused by Phytophthora–the organism that got every last tomato in many Floyd County gardens last year.

IMAGE: View from Saddle Gap, looking down over the lower end of Rock Castle Gorge, toward the north-north-east.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. What a cloudscape you photographed! I am so sorry to hear about the Rhodies. I know how huge an impact their loss would create.

  2. Oh, some of them are doing it here, though I thought it was from bad pruning, which was odd as they are always pruned badly and this hasn’t occurred before. I would like to check, do you mean mountain laurel or rhododendron? I do not think that I have seen the later wild where I live, I believe that I did see both in the woods a few hours south of where I live now(where I grew up).

  3. Please do investigate more about the Rhododendrons – we’ve seen the same thing along stretches of the Dan River near Meadows of Dan – very disturbing to imagine it becoming widespread…