Saving The Wild South: Yadkin River Goldenrod and Heller’s Blazing Star

Happy tenth anniversary to University Press Week! This year’s Association of University Presses annual celebration, running from November 8-12, “welcomes all to ‘Keep UP’ with a decade of excellence and innovation.” 

For UP Week’s annual blog tour, today’s specific theme, Innovate/Collaborate, today’s bloggers describe an innovation or a collaboration in the last decade that they are particularly proud of or that will provide a model for future endeavors. 
We encourage you to visit these fellow UP press blogs today to read all about it: Duke University PressTemple University PressUniversity of North GeorgiaUniversity of Cicinnati PressSyracuse University PressTexas Tech University PressUniversity of Notre Dame PressOregon State University PressLeuven University PressPrinceton University PressAthabasca University PressClemson University PressBucknell University PressUniversity of Toronto Press

The following is an excerpt from Georgann Eubanks’ Saving The Wild South: The Fight for Native Plants on the Brink of Extinction. The American South is famous for its astonishingly rich biodiversity. In this book, Georgann Eubanks takes a wondrous trek from Alabama to North Carolina to search out native plants that are endangered and wavering on the edge of erasure. Even as she reveals the intricate beauty and biology of the South’s plant life, she also shows how local development and global climate change are threatening many species, some of which have been graduated to the federal list of endangered species.

Eubanks’ Saving The Wild South was recently recommended by author Margaret Renkl by way of Reckon South’s weekly interview series.

Eubanks is also teaching a class with Donna Campbell at North Carolina’s Writers’ Network Fall 2021 Conference. Click here to learn more about the conference!

We begin the journey by following in the footsteps of two college students in their early twenties who forged a lifetime friendship while plant hunting in the wilds of the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1891. To examine their fieldwork in North Carolina before the turn of the twentieth century is to understand something about how botany has been practiced over the past two centuries. Among the plants that John Kunkel Small and Amos Arthur Heller found while hiking that long-ago summer was a never-before-seen goldenrod that was soon to be all but forgotten in botanical literature. When the goldenrod was rediscovered a century later, it was immediately named to the list of federally endangered species in the United States. The other showy bloomer, which Arthur Heller named for himself, is now confined to only eight locations on rocky summits in northwestern North Carolina. It was listed as threatened in 1987 and remains of special concern to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

How strenuous it must have been for those first botanists who came to study the varied landscape of what is now the southeastern United States. As late as the end of the nineteenth century, the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina were remote, though some tourism was underway. The fabled vistas at the village of Blowing Rock had drawn enough visitors to justify the construction of the Green Park Inn—declared at its opening, in 1891, to be “the most luxurious hotel in the high country,” with billiards, bowling, and a large ballroom. Guests could also access a telegraph service and post office to communicate with the folks back home. Each elegant room featured indoor plumbing, and visitors were encouraged to enjoy the healthful waters from a mountain spring at the headwaters of the Yadkin River. Though the headwaters back then were protected under a wood-hewn springhouse with dipping privileges for all townspeople and guests, today the Green Park Inn, still in operation, has directed the spring through an underground culvert pipe. If you know to look, you can still see the chilly water flowing beneath a grate in the hotel’s massive asphalt parking lot.

From the many vistas that open up on the southeastern slope along US Highway 321 as it winds down from the peak at Blowing Rock, there’s an unobscured view of sunrise if you arrive early enough, and on a clear night, the sky shimmers with a bright canopy of stars in the velvet dark. Lights from farmsteads nowadays twinkle through Happy Valley far below. Many a traveler has meditated on the undulating blue ridges of the Yadkin Valley that reach southward for miles: “a whole vast sea of mountains,” as the young botanist John Kunkel Small described it in the summer of 1891.

Small, a native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was an avid plant collector working toward a bachelor’s degree from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He and his classmate Arthur Heller, also a Pennsylvania native, had come south by train to the town of Salisbury in the Piedmont after classes ended for the school year. They then hired a horse-drawn hack to take them from Salisbury to Lenoir in the Blue Ridge foothills, where a wagon service would carry them through Happy Valley and up the ridge to Blowing Rock.

Small and Heller, young Victorian-era men from modest backgrounds, were ambitious and single-minded. Clearly, they felt their own sap rising as they prepared to identify and collect specimens of wild plants known and unknown in these parts. Dressed in the formal clothing of the era, the two would travel that summer for weeks—mostly on foot, sometimes by horseback or buggy, and once on a small-gauge train—to explore the high country. They scaled the summit and grassy balds of Roan Mountain at the Tennessee border. They hiked to and from Grandfather and Table Rock Mountains in North Carolina—destinations I have come to love deeply over thirty years of my own explorations along the Blue Ridge Parkway and the trails that fan out from it.

The great Ice Age glaciers that covered North America stopped just short of this region, accounting for its exceptional biodiversity. Small’s entertaining and sometimes tongue-in-cheek memoir of the 1891 expedition with Heller was published in the prestigious Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club of New York less than a year after their adventures. There Small elaborates on the hardships of plant hunting in the steep and sometimes impenetrable thickets of rhododendron and mountain laurel of the Blue Ridge. “It cannot be recorded here how many times we lost the way, how the horse gave out and walking had to be resorted to, the accident that happened to the rations, and other mishaps,” he wrote.

Georgann Eubanks is a writer and Emmy-winning documentarian. Her most recent book is The Month of Their Ripening: North Carolina Heritage Foods through the Year