Growing Our Own

Western North Carolina natives are growing wild

Growing  Our Own

Western North Carolina natives are growing wild

Western North Carolina wildflowers can be bright bits of color peeking out from under a woodland shrub: They are yellow lady's-slippers. Or a glorious June profusion of purple on a mountain hillside: That would be Catawba rhododendron.

Or the native plants can be the hold-your-nose-and-swallow springtime phenomenon that sets strong men gagging at firefighters' fundraisers: Those would be ramps.

They're all part of North Carolinians' distinctive wild heritage, says Joe-Ann McCoy, head of the Bent Creek Institute Germplasm Repository, a collection of plant reproductive material at the N.C. Arboretum in Asheville.

The glaciers of the last several Ice Ages spared North Carolina, and as a result, the area's huge variety of plants survived when much of the plant life disappeared elsewhere on the continent, she says. As far as plant diversity is concerned, "This is a very, very special place."

Descendants of those hardy Ice Age survivors are facing their own threats these days, as 21st century development replaces forestland and cash-strapped residents try to counter a shaky economy by harvesting wild plants themselves. But as the problems mount, official agency attempts to protect and perpetuate the plants are being joined by determined grassroots efforts, some by members of mountain-area electric cooperatives.

Growing our own

"These plants are beautiful," says Blue Ridge EMC member Jacky Brown, who with her friend and fellow Blue Ridge member, Dianne Upson, inspected black cohosh at a Boone native-plant sale. Brown grows native plants in her garden, she says, because she feels it's important "to do what you can to continue it."

Displaying their wares at the plant sale, sponsored by Daniel Boone Native Gardens, were Blue Ridge EMC members Jon and Kim Moretz of Pond Mountain Farm and Forge in Creston. Getting into propagating and selling native plants was strictly a business decision 10 years ago for Jon Moretz and his father, the late Jim Moretz, who'd moved to Creston from a Watauga County farm.

"Tobacco went out. There's no money in cattle," they concluded.

So they settled on growing native plants to sell to the landscaping and home gardening market, despite the fact that the blossoms are often what one nursery owner calls "small and insignificant, not showy-showy." Some, like the lady's-slippers in the orchid family, also have a symbiotic relationship with a fungus in the soil. Jon Moretz solves the "alien soil" problem by collecting seeds in the wild, then growing the plants on his own forestland to mimic their woodland home. Though conservation wasn't his motivation, it makes him feel good to know he's perpetuating his native heritage.

"I saw our old home farm," he said. "And basically, we destroyed it. You can't plow the same field and plant the same crop (cabbages and tobacco) over 75 years. Wildflowers was a crop we thought we could make a profit on without doing that."

Harvesting natives: Be careful

For generations, many mountain residents have been wildcrafters or harvesters, going into the forests to dig native plants like ginseng for their medicinal properties or picking the glossy leaves of galax for the floral trade. There's nothing wrong with that, says U.S. Forest Service botanist Gary Kauffman, who monitors Pisgah and Nantahala forests, if it's done so that the plants' continued existence is ensured.

"Sustainable harvest" is his byword: reseeding, leaving the small plants while taking the big ones, and taking pressure off the wild population with domestic cultivation. It's a theme trumpeted by the 70-member Smoky Mountain Native Plants Association, formed a dozen years ago by area farmers threatened with loss of tobacco income. With the help of North Carolina State University, they've learned how to propagate and grow the natives. They've also learned sustainable wild-harvest techniques, especially for ramps, which they make into ramp meal, ramp flakes and ramp seasonings for the commercial market.

Now, the medicinally-popular goldsenseal, which they grow, has been removed from the state's list of endangered, threatened and "special concern" plants, says association spokesperson Beverly Whitehead of Graham County. Also, she says, "Our ramps are coming back in the wild."

A new crop

Native plants as an economic aid to farmers also led to the founding of Branch Out in the 1990s in the Mitchell/Avery/Yancey county area. Using methane from a defunct landfill, nonprofit Branch Out, part of Energy Xchange, now sells some $20,000 worth of three-year old rhododendron and dog hobble a year. Greenhouse coordinator Susie Bennett says customers range from home gardeners and nurseries to "a lot of Christmas tree growers who are trying to subsidize their crop during the time of year when Christmas trees aren't selling."

A Branch Out spinoff, a micropropagation lab, is currently growing future business people along with plants at Mayland College in Spruce Pine. Lab director Rita McKinney, a member of French Broad EMC, says that the lab uses its cloned plants "to teach young people how to go home, set up their labs and go in business for themselves."

There have been no comprehensive studies recently on how plants are faring in the wild. Forest Service botanist Gary Kauffman gets informal reports on high-dollar crops ginseng and galax. He has the impression that ginseng plots are numerous but small. As for galax, he says, "The only thing that's saving that plant is . . .it can produce a lot of leaves very fast."

The current "green revolution," with its emphasis on conserving the Earth's resources, may be helping the cause of domestically cultivated plants, says Jon Moretz. He used to take plants to sell at the Ashe County Farmers Market and hear: "That's a weed. Who wants a weed?"

Now he hears, "This is gorgeous."

Hannah Miller is a Carolina Country contributing writer who lives in Charlotte.

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