Trillium Trivia By: Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

One of the most beautiful wildflowers to see in the Spring are trilliums, which are members of the Lily family. They are easy to find this time of year in rich, moist woods along rivers, streams, and in deep hollows. There are several species growing in our area, but all are easy to identify. The average trillium is 12 to 18 inches tall with a stout, erect stem.  At the top will be a whorl of 3 broad leaves with a single flower just above the leaves with 3 petals.  Most trilliums have flowers supported by a stem just above the leaves (botanists call this pedicellate). But sessile trillium, also known as toadshade, (Trillium sessile) has no flower stem and the 3 petals appear to come directly out of the leaves. The sessile trilliums I have found locally have yellow petals, but some are dark red. The leaves of sessile trilliums have whitish splotches.

Here is a description of some other local trilliums:  White trillium (Trillium grandifolia) has large white petals that gradually turn pinkish as they get older.  Red trillium (Trillium erectum) is also called wakerobin and has blood red flowers.   Probably the prettiest trillium in the forest is painted trillium (Trillium undulatum), which has white petals with a blaze of red in the center of the flower. They are smaller than other trilliums, and I’ve only found it in big mountain country.

Historically, trillium has served both as a food and as a medicinal.  The root is a bulb and has been used to treat convulsions, induce menstrual flow, induce vomiting, as an expectorant, and a uterine astringent (contracts the uterus).  Indians also cooked pieces of root with other food as an aphrodisiac.  The leaves of trillium have been used as a salad or cooked green if picked before they fully unfold. Most would prefer that trillium be left alone to provide a nice splash of color to a spring woodland walk.

Some other interesting trillium trivia includes their surprisingly longevity for a small herbaceous plant (25 years). Trillium seeds have an oily sack (an elaiosome in botany speak) attached to them that is protein rich and very attractive to ants, who carry the seed to their nest to consume it and then discard the seed, thus helping spread them around to other places.

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Hickory History By: Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

Hickory trees are so common in our area that most of our woodlands are classified as the “oak-hickory” forest type.  They provide humans and wildlife with important food and fiber.

There are several hickory species growing in our area, and the three most common ones are Shagbark, Mockernut, and Pignut.   All have compound (multi-blade) leaves that have 5 to 9 “leaflets”.  The leaves and nut husks have a strong odor.  The bark can be identified by its diamond shape pattern and hardness. The easiest hickory to identify in the woods is Shagbark, which has bark that hangs down in long shaggy plates that bend away from the trunk.  In earlier times the non-shaggy species were called “tight bark” hickories. They will grow almost anywhere, but are more often found on dry slopes and ridges.

The nut of a hickory is easy to identify, being a fairly large beige colored nut encased in a husk that splits into 4 sections.  They are an important winter food source for squirrel, turkey, and are occasionally used by deer.

The Shagbark hickory produces a large nut that it is often sought out for human consumption.  The nut has an interesting flavor, but I’ve always found it tough to crack without pulverizing the nutmeat.  A more popular nut produced by another member of the hickory family is the Pecan, which is native west and south of our area.

The wood of hickory is heavy, hard, and very strong.  It is used for tool handles and for making charcoal. In the past it was used to make wagon wheels, furniture, barrel hoops, and for Model T wheel spokes. Back in the day, the inner bark of hickory was peeled off in long strips and used to weave seats in chairs Wood smoke from green hickory wood gives grilled meat a nice flavor.  Probably the most common use for hickory in our area is for firewood.  A cord of seasoned hickory wood has about the same heat content as a ton of coal.

Symbolically, Hickory is denotes strength and patience. President Andrew Jackson was nicknamed “Old Hickory” for his toughness on the battlefield.  Hickories are slow growing and it may be decades before begin producing nuts.  And once you have them, patience is required when you try to coax a nutmeat out of a hard hickory shell.



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The Purpose of Beauty By Steve Roark TN Dept. of Agriculture, Forestry Division

When you think of beauty, I assume that like me you envision things like a colorful sunrise, waterfalls, snow draped trees, etc. But I’m sitting here having a tough time verbally defining it. It’s an odd thing really. It doesn’t produce any tangible product.  It can’t be bought or sold, and yet all humans value it and are drawn to natural beauty. Why?

The best answer I can think of is that we’re hard wired for it.  Perhaps the Creator had a couple of reasons in mind.   Humans are prone to worry and stress….a lot.  Viewing natural beauty can bring simple joy, wonder, and amazement, which is heathy for the mind and soul. It provides an opportunity to put concerns aside, even if it’s just a short pause to admire a rainbow or a deer crossing the road. There are lots of studies that verify the health effects of enjoying nature.

Perhaps another reason is that beauty points to something greater than ourselves, inviting us to direct our wonder to the creator of beauty himself.  There are several references of this in the Bible:  “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world (Psalm 19:1-4); “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:7-10).

So try to take time to enjoy the beauty of our area. It’s good for you.

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The Importance of Bumble Bees By: Steve Roark TN Dept. of Agriculture, Forestry Division

After a long bleak winter it is wonderful to see wildflowers in the spring, foretelling of warmer weather and the return of color to the forest.  The earliest wildflowers to bloom, such as Hepatica, Trout-lily, Bloodroot, Spring-beauty, Toothwort, Mayapple, and Trillium, are called “ephemerals”, meaning “lives for a day”.  They all bloom for a very short period of time and usually when it’s still cool weather.  Because they are strictly insect pollinated this could be a problem, since insect activity is minimal in the early spring.  Enter our hero: the Bumble Bee     


The Bumble Bee is a predominate insect that pollinates most early blooming flowers because they can tolerant cold weather.  They can begin foraging early on cold mornings, and keep at it well into the evening cool down.  Flying Bumble Bees generate body heat that is protected by a dense “fur” that insulates them.  In warmer weather Bumble Bees are more active early and late in the day, but tend to be inactive during the hot mid-day.

Some flowers are totally dependent on Bumble Bees for pollination because their nectar is stored so deeply inside the flower that only Bumble Bees, with their very long tongue, are attracted to them.  Red Clover, Jewelweed, Dutchman’s-breeches, and the Virginia cowslip are all structured to favor the large Bumble Bee.

Individual bees foraging for nectar tend to specialize on one certain flower even when a large variety of species are available.  One that feeds on Red Clover pretty well sticks with that flower most of its life.  Which flower the bee specializes in is determined during its first few foraging flights.  Bees do not instinctively know how to enter flowers, and like us learn by trial and error.  A novice bee may take 20 seconds to figure out how to get to the nectar, while an experienced bee can get it immediately.  Evidently young bees try several kinds of flowers and eventually favor one or two and work only those.

The next time you’re out enjoying the beauty of wildflowers, remember to also appreciate the faithful pollinators that make them possible.



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The Bradford Pear Blues By Steve Roark TN Dept. of Agriculture, Forestry Division

You have no doubt noticed all the white flowering trees that have been putting on a show the past couple of weeks, which I think have bloomed early this year because of the warm winter we’ve had.  They are Bradford pears, which are very popular landscape trees, noted for their beautiful flower blitz, symmetrical round crowns, and supposedly sterile and won’t produce messy fruit to clean up. “Supposedly” is such a negative word  and I hate  to use it, but driving down the road it’s easy to find  Bradford pear spreading beyond yards and can now be found in fencerows, along roadsides, and even into farm fields. They have in fact become invasive. So what the heck?  

Bradford pear is a cultivar of Callery pear, a native to China.  When a breeding program finally produced a tree with the above mentioned desirable qualities, the Bradford hybrid was grafted onto pear rootstock in vast numbers to supply the huge demand for the tree. So almost all Bradford pear nursery trees are clones and genetically identical (referred to as genotype), and were found to be self-incompatible, meaning they cannot fertilize themselves to produce viable seed.

But (another word I hate to use) life on our planet wants to make babies, and so nature found a way. Bradford pear limbs are weak due to a branch structure that produces narrow crotches. This allows limbs to shear off easily along the wood grain when heavy snow or wind events occur.  A solution was sought and cultivars were bred using an Asian pear (a different genotype) that produced a stronger limb structure.  So when this variety was planted into landscapes, it could cross pollinate with Bradford and both could produce heavy crops fruit  (small, speckled berry-like) that contained viable seeds. Another way cross pollination can occur is graft jumping.  As mentioned, Bradfords were produced by grafting cuttings onto seed-grown root stock of another pear variety.  It’s not uncommon for rootstock to sprout and grow branches that can produce flowers. When that happens the tree now has flowers from two different genotypes, and can thus cross-pollinate and produce fruit with seeds.

Birds come along and consume the fruit, then fly off and poop out the seeds, and so trees are now growing where they don’t belong. They are strong competitors with native plants and can become a nuisance.  They grow a massive root system that is hard to kill out.  They can produce thickets that are very hard to get rid of once established.  Some wild trees have genetically reverted back to ancient Chinese Callery pears that can have long sharp thorns that are nasty to mess with.  There are few insect or disease problems to keep the Bradford population in check.   There is some thought that the tree is allelopathic, meaning it can produce chemicals in the soil that prevent other plant seeds from germinating.   Bradford appears to be poised for world domination.

Wisdom dictates not using Bradford pear your landscape.  Alternative tree selections that produce early white flowers are serviceberry and wild plum.


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Trees and the Signs By: Steve Roark TN Dept. of Agriculture, Division of Forestry

Back before all the high tech equipment we use now to carry on our lives, people observed nature to help decide when to do certain tasks, such as planting tomatoes or splitting firewood.  They didn’t know it, but they were practicing the science of Phenology, the study of periodic biological phenomena. Trees were often used to time a lot of activities, and here is a small list from a large number of old sayings: astronomy-2-3-2-17

  • Plant your corn when the hickory buds are as big as a crow’s beak (1 inch long)
  • Plant corn when oak leaves are the size of a nickel.
  • Never plant corn until the apple trees bloom.
  • When elm leaves are big as a mouse’s ear, plant kidney beans
  • If the first snow sticks to the trees it will be a bountiful harvest.
  • Plant potatoes when the serviceberry blooms (locally called “sarvis”)
  • When forsythia blooms it’s time to prune roses and fertilize the lawn
  • Apple trees blooms in April means a plentiful crop, if in May a poor one
  • When peach and plum trees are in full bloom plant hardy crops
  • When the Catawba tree blooms, sow fall cabbage and broccoli seeds.
  • When maples are beginning to unfurl their leaves plant perennials
  • Plant corn when oak leaves are the size of a squirrels’ ear
  • When dogwoods  are in peak bloom, plant tomatoes, early corn, and peppers

Many farmers’ almanacs still use signs to predict weather and determine when to plant crops.  Moon phases and zodiac signs are both used, and many of these were used to time when to work with trees:

  • Early carpenters would not use wood that had been cut during a waxing moon (getting bigger), thinking the wood had more moisture and would warp and shrink
  • Timber cut when the moon is old (waning) doesn’t get worm-eaten, won’t warp, rot, or pop in the fire, and will season better than cut any other time.
  • The best time to graft trees is when the moon is in the sign of Cancer, the most fruitful, watery, feminine sign.
  • Prune trees during the dormant season during fruitful signs (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces) in a decreasing moon, usually fourth quarter.

An interesting book on the subject of signs and old prediction methods is Country Wisdom, by Jerry Johnson.



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Give Us This Day, Our Daily Tree By: Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

States across the U.S. celebrate Arbor Day at different times due to differing tree planting seasons. Tennessee celebrates Arbor Day on the first Friday in March (the 3rd), while Kentucky and Virginia celebrates theirs on the last Friday in April (28th).  It’s a time to commemorate how much trees add to our lives.  The list of times you use trees in some fashion each day is surprisingly long.  Here’s an example.

man is sitting resting under a large old oak tree

man is sitting resting under a large old oak tree


The alarm goes off, you get out of bed (wood), use the bathroom (toilet paper), get dressed (rayon clothing), and go to the kitchen for breakfast.  You have coffee (tree beans) or hot tea (tree leaves and twigs), or hot chocolate (tree beans), cereal (cardboard container) with a sliced banana (tree fruit), whole-wheat toast (wood cellulose fiber) and orange juice (tree fruit).  After breakfast you brush your teeth (cellulose binder and polish), put on your leather shoes (tree bark acid processing), leave your house (wood), and drive to work (rubber tree tires).  Traveling down the road you glance out the window at the mountains (tree covered, pretty) and startle a deer crossing the road (forest habitat).  At work you probably push paper (wood fiber) around some way or other, and to reduce stress chew gum (tree sap). If the stress leads to a headache you take an aspirin (willow bark).  During your morning break you have a coke (tree flavoring) and an almond joy (nuts and cocoa from trees).  You may eat lunch under a shade tree (natural cooling) on a bench (wood), or go to Hardees for a hamburger (paper wrap), fries (ditto), and a soft drink (paper cup).  Maybe to save a few calories you opt to drink water (filtered clean by a forested watershed).


When you get home maybe you play ball with the kids (ash baseball bat), or relax and read the paper (wood fiber), book, or magazine (ditto).  The night’s a little cool so you build a fire (wood fuel) in the fireplace.  If you’re lucky your wife bakes some spice cookies (tree flavors: vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg).  You wind up the day with a hot shower using soap and shampoo (tree scents that smell good), and before falling asleep you thank the good Lord for trees.


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