Monday, January 11, 2010

Dendromania at Pilot Mountain

One Sunday morning, a number of years ago when my husband and I were still new to North Carolina and dedicated to seeing its plethora of natural wonders one-by-one, we ventured forth to see the widely esteemed Pilot Mountain, located about 25 miles northwest of Winston-Salem. Our mission was to see for ourselves this place of legend about which stories abound: Was it an extinct volcano? Or Mount Ararat, where Noah and his arc landed? Would we find evidence of Saura Indians or the fearless Daniel Boone 2,400 feet above sea-level?

If nothing else, my husband and I were hoping to walk around the Big Pinnacle, admiring its hard, thick layers of quartzite stone that resisted millennia of erosion while watching over eastern North America as glaciers advanced and retreated, as continents collided and separated. Perhaps we would even catch a glimpse of a common raven, an intelligent, sooty bird known to nest on the Big Pinnacle, or catch sight of a pileated woodpecker and its big, red crest gliding among the chestnut oaks and table mountain pines.

With hopes high, Mark and I pulled into the parking lot and were about to embark on an eye-opening hike down the well-worn Jomeokee Trail. Instead, we barely made it past the edge of the parking lot. Now, there is something I should tell you about me and my husband: we are both prone to recurrent bouts of “dendromania,” an obsession with tree identification that often results in trailside spats about scientific names and bud scales. This illness is considerably more severe than the common “dendrophilia,” symptoms of which include frequent commentary about the beauty of dried American beech leaves trembling in the winter wind and occasional illegal leaf collection.

At Pilot Mountain, this fine Sunday morning, our “dendromania” attack was prompted by a small tree with toothed, bristle-tipped leaves ranging from about three to five inches long. The underside of the leaf was velvety white, the top of the leaf was a rather plain medium green. What was this tree? My heart thumped in my chest. Could it be…perhaps… maybe… a small American chestnut not yet blighted by that invasive fungus? No, no, no, my husband said shaking his head at the sad, deluded child before him (i.e., me), these leaves are too small. Darn, he was right. American chestnut leaves are usually longer than six inches. It was much more likely a chinkapin oak, my husband opined, with the strange elongated leaves common amongst young trees standing in the sun. No way, I practically shouted, drawing uncomfortable stares from a small family making their way to the main attraction, chinkapin oaks don’t have bristle-tips!

We ran around the parking lot, and up Jomeokee Trail a ways, going from tree to tree, examining each leaf. After a while, uncertain and nearly stumped, we almost gave up. We were visiting at a bad time of year, we rationalized, with no flowers, no fruits. No one could identify this, I said contemptuously. And then it struck me. I looked at Mark and he had the wide-eyed look of someone that had been struck as well. Chinkapin, we whispered reverently. It fit: the fuzzy undersides and short length of the leaf, even the woolly twigs and bantam buds.

We had identified our tree. The Allegheny chinkapin (Castanea pumila) is a diminutive tree, or sometimes clumpy shrub, well known for it small, sweet dark brown nuts favored by deer, chipmunks, squirrels and wild turkeys. And although some individuals are affected by the blight that nearly wiped out its congener, the American chestnut, this species is largely resistant to the fungus. We were ecstatic, exhausted.

We hiked around the Big Pinnacle, just to catch our breath. If ravens soared overhead, we missed them. If a piece of Daniel Boone’s buckskin or a Sauran artifact laid in a rocky crevice, we missed that too. We didn’t see Noah’s footprints or give proper veneration to the ancient quartzite mountain, but we did enjoy an extraordinary view of our new home state, and most importantly, together we had valiantly fought through another episode of “dendromania.”

Halls, L. K. 1977. Southern fruit producing wood plants used by wildlife. United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service General Technical Report SO-16, New Orleans.

Little, E. L. 1980. National Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Payne, J. A., G. P. Johnson, and G. Miller. 1993. Chinkapin: potential new crop for the south, p. 500-505 In J. Janick and J. E. Simon (eds.), New Crops, Wiley: New York.

Petrides, G. A. 1988. A Field Guide to Eastern Trees. Houghton-Mifflin, New York.

Radford, A. E., H. E. Ahles and C. R. Bell. 1983. Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

Stewart, K. G., and Roberson, M. 2007. Exploring the Geology of the Carolinas. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

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