Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on August 20, 1972 · Page 89
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Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 89

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, August 20, 1972
Page 89
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Turkeybeard and Bear grass I was driving along U.S. Rt. 33 down the east slopes of Shenandoah Mountain into the headwaters of Dry River, Rockingham County, Va., June 11,1931, when I espied in a dry field a stand of the curious plant known as turkeybeard (Xerophyllum asphodeloides). "Xerophyllum" means dry leaf" and "asphodeloides" means resembling asphodel" This is a member of the lily family and the tiny white flowers, resembling miniature lilies, are arranged into a close cluster fancied to resemble a turkeybeard and suggesting the common name. Three By Earl L. Core feet tall or more, the plants have at the base a dense cluster of long filiform leaves, resembling grass leaves, and are quite striking in appearance. But what particularly directed them to my attention was the fact that they are typically plants of the pine barrens of the New Jersey coastal plain, reappearing after a wide gap in open mountain woods of the Appalachians. This is not the only plant species with such remarkable range. There are a whole series of others, quite at home in the sterile sandy soil of the coastal plain, where they have few competitors and where pine and oak trees often appear to be mature when scarcely waist high, and then showing up again in the dry soil of the Appalachian plateau. John W. Harshberger, in his book, "The Vegetation of the New Jersey Pine Barrens", relates the story of the European settlement of the New Jersey coastal region, where the soil was rich and productive along the larger streams, but thinner and unproductive in the region of the forest of pitch pine. Soon the name barrens was used by the early immigrants, and this name was coupled with pine, giving the well-known epithet of "pine barrens". There are numerous species of plants (and some animals) limited in their ranges to this inhospitable habitat, or nearly so, and hence said to be endemic, .that is, not occurring in any other plant province. But some of them are found again in similar, although apparently dis- ·imilar, habitats in the high Appalachians. The turkeybeard is one of these. Up until 1931, turkeybeard had never been found in West Virginia, although known from several Virginia counties, but finding it on the eastern slopes of Shenandoah Mountain led me to think it must grow on the western (West Virginia) slopes as well. The lofty ridge of Shenandoah Mountain has long posed a barrier to human transportation and communication and was an important factor in Pendleton County becoming a part of the new state when Virginia was divided during the Civil War. But it did not seem like the sort of barrier that would keep out a pretty wild flower. Nevertheless, over 30 years were to elapse before the plant was detected by the eye of a botanist in West Virginia. When it was found, in August, 1963, (then past the flowering season), it was just where I would have expected it-not far from U.S. Route 33. about a mile and a half from the Reddish Knob fire tower, but on the West Virginia side. The eagle eye that noted this unusual plant was that of the Rev. J. Lawrence Smith, the youthful pastor of the Methodist church at Upper Tract and a distinguished naturalist, with a deep concern for the future of West Virginia and its people and the hope that in promoting tourism we do not harm or destroy the natural treasures we are advertising for people to come and see. The frontspiece of his charming book, "The Potomac Naturalist", is a color photograph looking west into the headwaters of the historic Potomac River from Shenandoah Mountain near Reddish Knob and not far from the stand of turkevbeard. Nine more years went by before the next colony was discovered. Then, on June 10, 1972, I had a telephone call from Robert Johnson, superintendent of the Lost River State Park, in Hardy County. He had found an unusual plant near the park and couldn't wait to send me a specimen for identification but wanted to describe it over the phone. From his excellent description I felt it must be turkeybeard and told him so. The arrival a few days later of a fine flowering specimen (now growing in the University Arboretum) confirmed my advance judgment. The specimen, collected on the farm of Cletus Moyer on Crab Run southwest of Mathias, was indeed turkeybeard. North Mountain here separates Virginia and West Virginia, as Shenandoah Mountain does farther south; turkeybeard had now been found on both sides of both mountains. Halfway across the continent, in the high Rocky Mountains, tourists see the only ether species of Xerophyllum known in the world. This is called beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax), and is so conspicuous when it blooms that Ruth Ashton Nelson selected it as one of four color photographs for the cover of her lovely "Handbook of Rocky Mountain Plants". Like the eastern turkeybeard, this has small creamy white flowers that form a large dense conical raceme, appearing at a distance as a strikingly large flower on a tall slender stem. The flowering stalk is two or three feet tall and the plants grow in patches, enhancing the beauty of whole mountain slopes. At the base of the stalk is a tussock of long grass-like leaves that are tough and sharp-edged. Those who know turkeybeard in the pine barrens of New Jersey or in the mountains of West Virginia will have no difficulty in recognizing its western cousin--and vice versa. .Beargrass is found in the mountains of Montana and Wyoming, west to British Columbia and California, in open woods on mountain slopes and in alpine meadows on mountain summits. At lower levels it blooms in June and progressively continues blooming at higher elevations until September. In some seasons there art only a few blossoms and in other years, perhaps only every five years, almost every plant in a colony will flower. Beargrass flowers, flowering stalks and tender young seed pods are avidly eaten by small rodents and by game animals, es"- pecially elk. The leaves are evergreen, remaining through the winter, and the Rocky Mountain goat exhibits a strong preference for this food during the cold weather months. The tough grasslike leaves are, however, quite unpalatable to all other big game animals, as well as to livestock, and are seldom utilized by them, even as emergency food. The spruce mouse and other mice eat the entire base of the stem, thus killing the plant. Bears are said to eat the white succulent leaf bases in spring, which may suggest the common name. John J. Craighead, Frank C. Craighead Jr., and Ray J. Davis, in their "Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Wildflowers", mention that the leaves of beargrass are slick and when stepped on pull out from the base so suddenly that on steep slopes even an experienced woodsman may find his feet literally "yanked out from under him." Tenax means tough, tenacious, holding fast, and refers to the leaves, which were dried and bleached by Indians of the Northwest in making clothing and baskets. Another common name, used in some regions, is Indian basket-grass; still other common names are squaw grass, bearlily, and elkgrass. Travelers to Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Teton, and Glacier will see beargrass in abundance. It is regarded as the official flower of Glacier National Park and a color photograph is featured on the cover of the little book by Grant W. Sharpe sold there. "101 Wildflowers of Glacier National Park." What is the cause of the sort of discontinuity of range exhibited bv turkeybeard and beargrass? In part it must be associated with the broad and now appealing field of environmental relationships. V'i might explain it bv saying that a kind of plant (and animal", too) is able to grow only in the habitats that are favorable to it. But does a plant always grow in every habitat suitable to it? The answer, of course, is an emphatic no. Plants attain their ranges by migration. Some suitable habitats may not yet have been reached; possibly strenuous competition from other plants may keep them out of other suitable places. The range of a plant is attained by migration; the attainment of anything takes time. Somewhere in prehistoric times lies the explanation of how and where Xerophyllum originated and how it came to be where it is now. 20m CHARLESTON, W.VA. 'Sunday Gazette-Mqil

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