A Coastal Master Naturalist member, Bill Reehl, recently submitted a story for us!
While hiking the Whitewater Falls trail above Lake Jocassee, I noticed several plants that I was not familiar with. Traversing a sloping trail, I walked through a dense thicket of narrow trunked trees 8’-12’ tall with reddish brown bark and bay-like glabrous leaves. I realized after some research that this was a Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) grove. Growing up in western PA, I was familiar with mountain laurel, but there it grows in more of a shrub form with low growing dense branches and these trees had very few branches in the first six feet above ground. I’d like to go back in the spring to see this grove in bloom. According to the NPS, in the southern Appalachians, laurel thickets are referred to as “laurel hells” because it’s nearly impossible to pass through one, and without a trail this one would have been difficult. It occurs east of the Mississippi in Oak-Health forests.
Kalmia latifolia is notable for its unusual method of dispensing its pollen. As the flower grows, the filaments of its stamens are bent and brought into tension. When an insect lands on the flower, the tension is released, catapulting the pollen forcefully onto the insect. Leaves, pollen and honey made from the nectar is extremely toxic to humans and other mammals if ingested in quantity. The Cherokee, however, use the plant as an analgesic, placing an infusion of leaves on scratches made over location of the pain. They also rub the bristly edges of ten to twelve leaves over the skin for rheumatism, crush the leaves to rub brier scratches, use an infusion as a wash “to get rid of pests”, use a compound as a liniment, rub leaf ooze into the scratched skin of ball players to prevent cramps, and use a leaf salve for healing.
Down in the Whitewater River valley the forest floor was much lusher, and I noticed a dense ground cover with scale-like leaves similar to a cedar. Diphasiastrum digitatum is a low growing perennial vascular plant known as Southern Groundcedar, but the common name is fan clubmoss. Spores develop in spike-like or cone-like structures called strobili, usually 2 to 4 strobili (rarely more) clustered at the tip of a long stalk (peduncle), which had not developed in the plants I observed. Clubmosses or Lycophytes evolved about 410 million years ago as one of the earliest groups of vascular plants. Spores and teas from plant leaves have been used medicinally since ancient times by American Indian cultures. Spores are also highly flammable due to the high content of oil that it contains. They have been used culturally for ceremonial purposes when medicine men tossed the spores into a fire for a flash of light. They also were used in flash photography, in stage productions, in fireworks and in chemistry labs. Worldwide, there are 10 to 15 genera and 350 to 400 species of clubmosses.
At the end of the trail we were rewarded with a view of Lower Whitewater Falls, one of many waterfalls in the area.
“Native Trees of the Southeast”, Kirkman, Brown, Leopold, Timber Press 2007
“Clubmosses: An Ancient and Interesting Group of Fern Allies”, Prince William Wildflower Society