This year’s winter tree identification hike took place in the beautiful Montreat Wilderness. As our intrepid, aspiring dendrologists hiked near Montreat’s streams, cold conditions and overcast skies gave way to a wonderfully pleasant western North Carolina winter day. Our guests were treated to a variety of topics, including native plant communities, forest health issues, and the cultural history of Montreat.
Chris Coxen, SAHC’s Field Ecologist, discussed basic tips for winter tree identification success. Examine the form of the tree — is it straight or does it dramatically bend to seek out sunlight (like a sourwood tree)? What does the bark look like? Are the twigs coming off of the main branches alternate or opposite?
One of the most important steps someone can take when identifying anything in the field, flora or fauna, is to think about the forest community in which it is located. When you consider the elevation, aspect (north or south facing slope), proximity to a stream, or soil (thin and rocky or dense and rich?), you can narrow down the possible forest communities and create a smaller pool of potential plant or animal species.
The group hiked a 3.5-mile loop along the Sanctuary, Harry Bryan and Grey Beard trails, stopping at various points to talk about tree identification and the history of the area. We hiked near the old hydroelectric dam, reviewing times past when it provided electricity to the community in the 1920’s. SAHC was fortunate to also have Bill Sanderson, a local high school teacher and ranger of Montreat, join our hike. Bill gave the hikers a behind-the-scenes tour of the dam, old reservoirs used for drinking water and general history of the town of Montreat, which was created in 1967.
Toward the end of the hike the group gathered at a rock outcrop near a small stream where Chris Coxen and Bill Sanderson educated the hikers about the ongoing poaching of threatened species in the area, including galax and ginseng. Ginseng is a fleshy root often used in energy supplements and herbal medications. This plant only grows in the Appalachians and in the Himalayans. Ginseng is not as plentiful and harder to find in comparison to galax.
Galax is a small, high elevation, cool-weather plant with broad, waxy, heart-shaped leaves. It’s picked mainly for floral arrangements because the leaves hold their green color for up to several weeks after they’ve been picked. Galax poachers are hired to rummage through the woods of the Appalachian region, illegally packing duffle bags full of galax which can weigh as much as 100 pounds. Montreat has had a hard time curbing the poaching population that enters its woods. Once the galax has been picked it cannot be replanted. We hope that educating hikers about poaching problems for these unique plants will lead to better understanding and assistance in reporting illegal activity.
Overall, the 30 hikers on SAHC’s Winter Tree Identification hike not only learned how to identify the barren woody companions but also learned about the overall health of the forest and a community like Montreat that works hard to protect these features for present and future generations. Thanks to all who came out to join us!