Poke Salad, a Mountain Tradition

Poke Salad, a Mountain Tradition

By Steve Roark

A family tradition my mom kept was to seek out young poke sprouts in the spring and make poke salad, a king of cooked green.  Back before grocery store chains and refrigeration, country folk came out of winter craving a fresh green to eat, and poke was one of the newly sprouted plants that were sought out, along with “creesies” or spring crest. The lack of fresh green vegetables during the winter months sometimes caused a vitamin deficiency, and poke fit the bill as a spring pick me up due to its very high vitamin A and C content.

Poke, also called pokeweed or pokeberry, is considered a weed that comes up in waste places that are not regularly mown. It is a perennial plant growing up to eight feet tall, and has fairly large, spear shaped leaves with smooth edges. The stem is a purplish red color near the base and is hollow. The outer branches are green with a reddish tinge.  There are clusters of white flowers in the spring that later produce bunches of dark purple berries in the fall.    poke.jpg

Poke is a plant of contradiction, being listed as both edible and poisonous.  The older stems, the roots, and the berries are considered toxic and should not be consumed.  The very young and tender new shoots are considered the only part of the plant that is edible.  These should be less than 8 inches long and have no red color on the stem.  They normally have young immature leaves with them.  To prepare them they are boiled for 30 minutes in two changes of water. My mom liked to flavor boiled poke by frying it in bacon grease and serving as a side vegetable.

Poke is noted as having medicinal qualities as well. The high vitamin content of the cooked greens was used to treat scurvy, and the berries and roots were used as a poultice to treat sores, rheumatism, and bruises. The berries are very popular with songbirds, fox, and opossum.  They are especially relished by mourning dove, which have been known to become intoxicated by eating fermented berries.

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Planting by Moon Signs

Planting by Moon Signsastronomy 2 (1).jpg

By: Steve Roark

In an earlier article I discussed the use of astrological signs to know when to plant garden and farm crops and have kin that still hold to them. Another method is using moon signs, or more properly moon phases to tell not only when to plant but also when it’s a good time to kill unwanted vegetation. In researching the subject, I have found no scientific backing for using the Zodiac or body signs, but planting by the moon may have something to it.  The moon exerts strong influences on the earth, such as light, gravitational pull, and magnetism.  The ocean tides demonstrate the moon’s undeniable power.

According to some scientists the light and gravitational pull of the moon affects the soil and plant life in ways that support planting during certain times.  During the first quarter phase (new moon to half moon), the moon’s gravitational influence is more downward, which tends to stimulate root growth.  This is a good time to plant above ground plants.

During the second quarter phase (half-moon to full moon) the moon’s gravitational influence is more upward, and this tends to slow root growth.  Moonlight is also increasing to its brightest, which stimulates leaf growth. This appears to be a good time to plant above ground vegetables, especially those with a lot of leaves.

During the third quarter phase (full moon back to half-moon) moonlight is decreasing and leaf growth tends to slow down.  The moon’s gravitational pull is shifting towards the ground, which means the earth’s gravity can pull harder and stimulate root growth.  This is a good time to plant root crops and set out transplants.

During the fourth quarter (half-moon to new moon) the gravitational pull of the moon shifts back upward, and root growth slows down.  The amount of moonlight decreases to its lowest and leaf growth also slows down.  This is not a time to plant but a time to kill unwanted vegetation.

Many scientists will contend that planting by the moon is nonsense, but these beliefs have been around a long time:  “… Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years.” Genesis 1:14.


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Speaking Mountain

Speaking Mountain

By Steve Roark

If you read my stuff much, you know that I am unabashedly proud to be mountain bred. I love our southern Appalachians mountains. The terrain, the climate, the plants and animals, the culture and history, all blend together to form a unique place to live.  Part of that uniqueness is our dialect, referred to as Appalachian English, Southern Mountain English, or (my favorite) Mountain Speech.  Old words and how we pronounce them, old phrases and sayings handed down from our parents and grandparents are different from anyplace else.  It’s not southern, though we share some things.  It’s not mid-western, and it dang sure not northern.  It’s mountain, brought in by second generation American settlers from Scotland, Ireland, England, and even German during 18th century settlement.  It is said to possess remnants of 16th century “Elizabethan English”, along with some 18th century “Colonial English”. And while surrounding regions changed over time, the isolation of the mountains allowed mountain people to retain a lot of the old dialect and words, making Mountain Speech one of the oldest varieties of English in the country.

What prompted this article, and occasional future articles, is a book I ran across called Dictionary of Smokey Mountain English, by Michael Montgomery and Joseph Hall. It was a 10-year project that focused on collecting mountain language of mostly the Smoky Mountain area, but their research did include east Tennessee and Kentucky, and southwest Virginia.   It’s a UT publication that’s out of print but can be accessed through local regional libraries. I’m in the process of going through the 6000 words and expressions included in the book to see how many I have heard used by my or my wife’s family. I thought I would share some those with you and if you’re local I bet you will find many of them familiar.  To you non-locals, consider this an great education opportunity. I’m going through the book alphabetically, so here goes:


Addle: to daze; “He fell down and looks addled”

Afeared: concerned about; “He’s powerful afeared of snakes”.

Age on: becoming old; “He’s startin’ to get some age on ‘him.”

Aim to: to intend, plan on: “I aim to eat me some supper.”

Ain’t: am not, still widely used; “He ain’t telling the truth.”

Airish: cool weather, breezy; It’s feeling airish today.”

All-fired: excited or upset about; “She got all-fired up at the meetin.”

All a twitter: excited; “Settle down, you’re all a twitter.”

Allow: to think or supposed; “I allow this barn is over 40 feet long.”

All to pieces: high anxiety; “He heard the news and went all to pieces.”

And all or an’ all: Everything else; “We picked up groceries and all”.

And such: similar things; ‘For supper we had dumplings and such.”

Any ways: at any rate; “There ain’t much money left anyways.”

Arsh: white or “Irish” potato; “We only grow arsh taders.”

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When is Spring?

When is Spring?       

By Steve Roark

In our area Spring seems to be a crap shoot with all the cold snaps in between warm ups. And when I looked into it, I found that there is more than one opinion of when Spring begins, and so here is a rundown of the possibilities.

For centuries folks have hung their hat on astronomical Spring, which this year occurs on March 20, called the Vernal Equinox. These Latin words mean “equal night”. The sun has steadily been creeping higher in the southern sky since December (due to the Earth’s tilt), causing our hours of daylight to get a little longer each day until day and night are equal in length, and that’s the equinox and the beginning of spring. The sun will continue to move higher in the sky and lengthening the daylight until June 21, the summer solstice and the longest day of the year. From there it starts dropping lower and reversing the trend. Because it’s based on a very large and precise cosmic clock, the Vernal Equinox is considered to be the official beginning of Spring.

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Meteorologists have a different opinion, contending that spring should be based on average annual temperature changes each month, and put the first day of spring down as March 1.  They like the length of the seasons to be nice and neat on the calendar, with each season being 3 months long: spring is March-May, summer is June-August, fall is September-November, winter is December-February, each more or less 91 days long.  With the astronomical seasons, spring and summer are 93 days long each, autumn is 90 days, and winter is 89 days, so there is some seasonal unevenness here, making the warm seasons 7.5 days longer than the colder fall and winter seasons. This should please all you warm weather people.

One more means of determining when spring occurs is based on biological indicators, when plants and animals do stuff on a regular basis. This is the world of phenology, the study of how plant and animal life respond to seasonal changes during the year.  Here spring is based on when certain flowers bloom, tree species leaf out, birds begin their breeding rituals, and even the smell of soil when the micro-beasties living there wake up and go to work decaying organic matter. Spring has no fixed date, it’s when you see it in nature.  This is nothing new. Our ancestors based planting crops on nature observations, such as planting corn when white oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear.  Many ecologists divide the year into 6 seasons, prevernal (early spring), vernal (spring), estival (moister early summer), serotinal (dryer late summer) autumnal (fall) and hibernal (winter).

Truth be told I use some of all three methods when I think of Spring, feeling the warmer, longer days and enjoy the flowers begin their parade of blooms. It’s the promise of the return of life to forests and fields, so get out and enjoy it!

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Overlooked Pollinators

Overlooked Pollinators

By Steve Roark

You’ve all heard that much of our food requires pollination, and honey bees are the well-known heroes, making sure we all get to eat.  And so they are, but there are other unsung pollinating heroes that are overlooked, and one of them is our native Orchard Mason Bee (Osmia Ligaria).

The Orchard Mason Bee is the undisputed champion at pollinating some of our most desired fruit trees: apples, pears, cherries, plums, and peaches.  They are better pollinators that honey bees because they visit more flowers, up to 1600 per day.   Another plus is that the mason has more body hair that pollen sticks to, which ups the likelihood of it falling off onto a receptive flower when the bee is grocery shopping for pollen and nectar.

You’ve likely seen an orchard mason bee but probably mistook it for a large fly.  They are 2/3 the size of a honey bee and have a metallic blue/black color.  There are major differences between orchard and honey bees.  The mason bee works alone, not forming the complex social hive of the honey bee.  Each female makes her own nest and lays her own eggs, but they are gregarious and like to build nests close to each other. They are not aggressive in the least and won’t gang up to defend their nests. They are capable of a mild sting that I’m told is not very painful. Orchard Mason Bee photo.jpg

The mason bee’s signature characteristic is their nest building method.  They make nests in holes in wood or the hollow stems of weeds and such.  They do not bore holes, and so must seek them out.  They use mud in the nest building process, hence the name mason.  The ideal nest site is a hole around 5/16 inches in diameter and maybe 4-6 inches deep.  The female will enter the hole and build a chamber in the bottom out of mud, fill it with pollen and nectar, then lay a single egg on it.  She then seals that chamber with mud and builds another in front of it.  This process continues until she reaches the outside of the hole, which is then sealed with a thicker mud wall.  She works hard at this from March until June, when she dies probably of exhaustion.  The eggs hatch in a few days and the larvae live on the food stored in their chamber until early summer.  Each larva then spins a cocoon and goes into the pupal stage of their development.  In the fall the pupae have fully developed into adult bees, but still have to wait until spring when flower blooms are available.  So they enter a state called diapause, a sort of suspended animation where they sleep through the winter.  In the spring they chew their way out of their chamber, mate, feed on flowers, and start the nest building process over again.

Orchard mason bees are so beneficial that it’s worth helping them out by providing nesting holes, which are not that easy to find in nature.  You can take 6×6 or 4×4 inch blocks of scrap lumber (untreated) and bore a series of holes 5/16 inches in diameter and spaced ¾ inches apart.  Don’t bore all the way through the lumber.  Hang the nest boxes on the east or south side of a building so it receives direct sunlight in early spring.  Make the boxes as plain or ornate as you wish.  I glue 2×6 pieces of scrap lumber together to make my blocks, so you can really be done on the cheap.  There are plenty of web sites on line that show you how to build nest boxes. My thanks to Joe McNew for help with this article.



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Hickory History

Hickory History

By Steve Roark

Native Americans and European pioneers were a tough bunch to be able to eke out a living in the American wilderness.  Nothing symbolizes that toughness more than hickory, a common tree of great strength and versatility.   It goes back a long way as a revered and useful plant.

Native Americans used hickory wood to make bows that were strong and flexible.  They also used the nuts as an important food source, which they stored in great quantities for winter use.  They made an oily liquid (used for cooking) from the nuts that the Algonquin Indians called “pawcohiccora”, roughly translated as “hickory milk”.  This is likely how hickory got its name, and there are references from the 1600′Hickory, shagbark bark 3.jpgs that refer to a tree called pohickory, later shortened to just hickory.

The pioneers learned of the usefulness of hickory and expanded on it until it was a part of their everyday life.  They also harvested and ate the nuts, along with black walnuts and chestnuts.  They would have social events called “nut cracks”, which were sort of like quilting bees where neighbors would get together and crack out nuts while visiting and having pleasant conversation.   The wood of hickory is pound for pound stronger and less brittle than steel and was used almost exclusively for tools and equipment requiring toughness, such as ax and hammer handles.  It was prized for making wagon parts, particularly the wheel hub, which had to endure not only a lot of stress, but friction heat as well.  Every covered wagon that passed through our area heading west had hickory wheels and other components.   Barrel hoops were formerly made from hickory, as was chair parts, rifle ramrods, and cabin door hinges.  It was sought out for firewood because for its high heat content for keeping those drafty cabins warm. And the green wood smoke of hickory was preferred for curing hams.  Chair bottoms were woven from hickory inner bark, where a yellow dye could also be extracted.

The toughness of hickory is reflected historically by Andrew Jackson, a Tennessee backwoodsman turned president that had the political nickname “Old Hickory”.  He earned the name from his military service during the War of 1812, where he scoffed the entitlements of his rank as General and ate, drank, and slept on the ground as his men did, sharing in all of their hardships and earning both respect and admiration.

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Winter Birds Commonly Seen at Feeders

Winter Birds Commonly Seen at Feeders

By Steve Roark

A favorite winter pastime of mine is to maintain a bird feeding station, observing the visitors, keeping a list of birds that show up each season. I know a lot of folks do the same, so I thought I would share a partial list of the most common birds that drop by my yard and tell a little about identify them.

I should first point out that who comes to the feeders depends to some degree on what food sources you put out.  Our preference is black oil sunflower seed, a high calorie food that attracts a variety of bird species but not starlings or grackles.  We also have a thistle feeder to attract goldfinch, and suet cakes to attract woodpeckers. So here is my list.

Tufted Titmouse: a small high energy bird with a gray back, white belly, and a touch of red below the wings. The pointy crest feathers on their head is an easy marker to look for. They won’t eat at the feeder but will grab a sunflower, fly to a branch and then peck it open.

Chickadee: the one at my feeder is the Carolina Chickadee, but there is a larger, similar one called Black Capped. These are small birds with a light gray back, dull white belly, and a distinct black head down to the eye, with a white face and black chin. They go for the black oil seed as well as thistle.

 Red Bellied Woodpecker: A large handsome bird with a zebra striped back and a red patch along the top of its head and back of the neck.  Woodpeckers are fun birds to watch with their ability to climb around on the bark of trees with their specialized claws, and wear out suet cakes and black oil sunflower seed. They can be noisy at times, especially as they are spooked off the feeder.


Downy Woodpecker: Another bark climber that has similar coloration to other woodpeckers, with a black back with streaks of white dashes, and a white belly.  The head is also black and white, and the males also have a red spot on the back of their heads. They are the smallest of the woodpeckers we have locally, around the size of a sparrow.


White Breasted Nuthatch: This is my favorite bird to watch.  It’s another bark crawler and has other characteristics that remind me of the woodpecker family, but not so. The Nuthatch is quite the acrobat, being able to walk around on a vertical tree trunk upside down.  It’s a smallish bird with a blue-gray back, white belly and face, and a black cap and neck nape. They go for suet and black oil seed.

 Blue Jay: Most folks know this one easily, with its blue and white body and pointy-head crest.  They are the bully of the crowd, having their way at the feeder, and can be loud and noisy at times. Jays will often stuff seeds in their craw and then hide them somewhere for future use. They do this with acorns as well.

 Cardinal: Another well-known bird that shows up on Christmas card snow scenes for with its bright red color. The male has the vivid red, while the female is a more subdued brownish red. The short beak, black face, and crested cap make this one and easy I.D.

 Goldfinch: This small bird has an olive-green body in the winter with black wings, but as spring approaches the male shifts to a bright yellow color with a black cap. They really go for thistle seed.

There are several other birds that regularly come to my feeders, including several sparrow species, mourning dove, purple finch, and dark-eyed junco. I get occasional visits from the eastern towhee, brown thrasher, and red bellied woodpecker.  Bird watching is a great thing to share with kids, and my grandkids  picked up on identifying them surprisingly fast. They are smart little boogers.


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