The beginning of flowers, misty-eyed lumberjacks, and poet Joyce Kilmer

(In which Molly treats history as a fuzzy set and capriciously favors legend and awe over “well, we don’t know that for sure.”)

great smoky mountains joyce kilmer national forest

The Great Smoky Mountains

There is a legend afoot that describes lumberjacks in the late 1800s working their way across the state of North Carolina.  Climbing high up into the tallest mountains in the long Appalachian chain, they felled trees where clouds bump into hillsides, where silvery mist is so common a cloak that the whole region is known as the Great Smoky Mountains.

The timbering of the east coast likely began about 20 minutes after the members of the Virginia Company climbed off the Susan Constant and the Godspeed onto the shores of what is now Jamestown, Virginia.  They were probably cold and almost certainly damp, so they’d have cut down some dead snag (which would have been far drier than anything on the floor of a Chesapeake shore’s forest) and burned it.

After that, live trees for housing and eventually more trees for a stockade around the houses. (The stockade fence was not to keep Native Americans out but to keep English folks in- apparently defection rates for Virginia Company settlers leaving to live with the Native Americans instead were fairly high.)

Timbering continued as the European infestation continued over the next several hundred years.  Trees were cleared for housing, fencing, tools, and firewood.  Trees were cleared to make room to grow food crops and to grow tobacco.  After the railroads were built, large swaths of forest were felled to make railroad ties.

The legend says that as our particular lumberjacks moved west in North Carolina, they could see behind them the path of devastation they’d wrought- vast tracts reduced to stubble.  Eventually, nearing the Tennessee border, they stumbled into a grove of old growth tulip poplars, also known as yellow poplars or tulip trees, or Liriodendron tulipifera to the truly nerdy.

liriodendron tulipifera legend tulip poplarA quick scientific aside: tulip poplars do not like to have lower branches.  They find them tiresome and inefficient.  Most tulip poplars out there will have branches on the upper third of the trunk, but a clear sailing trunk up until those branches start.  An old tulip poplar will easily clear 100 feet tall, so it may not have its first branches for a good 70 feet.

So here are these men, this burly crew of lumberjacks whom I like to picture wearing large checked flannels and sporting more than a few beards, entering a piece of forest so deep into the mountains that even now it’s a good few hours from the nearest highway.

Here, the oldest trees are 15-20 feet in circumference (5 feet in diameter), and the majority have trunks that soar 75 feet before the canopy begins.  The light is dappled, the shade dense enough to thwart a thick undergrowth from getting a good foothold.  It’s  the kind of place that could have inspired the cathedrals of medieval Europe.

The legend is that the lumberjacks put their axes down, some weeping with the majesty of the place, and said “no.” No, they wouldn’t cut this woodland down.

There are more mundane stories involving area dams that may or may not have been sound, but this is the sort of forest that can uphold a legend, that can inspire all of us to say “no.  No, we’re not going to wreck this.”

In the 1930s, this old growth tulip poplar forest was named for poet Joyce Kilmer of “I think I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree” fame.  Kilmer had died in World War I, but his poem outlived him, and now this forest filled with trees older than our nation is outliving his fame as a poet.

Works for me.  Tulip poplars have outlived a lot.  Members of the magnoliacea (mag-no-lee-ay-cee-ay) family,  those hyper-primitive looking blossoms may well be the modern form of the earliest flowers on the planet.   Tulip trees are apparently older than tulips.

Here’s how Colin Tudge, author of my favorite book on trees (The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter), explains it: flowering and non-flowering trees are too similar and too complex to have evolved separately, so flowers must have appeared first on trees.  Later, they’d have “decided” this flowering thing was so great that who needed all that bark and wood and what not, so they ditched that and became other ancient flowers, like water lilies and such.

Here’s how you decide if it’s a tulip poplar or not:

Tulip poplar bark identificationThe trunks of younger poplars will be almost cartoonishly straight, plus there’ll be white edges to the bark facets.


Older trees will develop very intense bark and loose those white edges.


yellow poplar leaf identificationThe leaves look a little like a maple leaf, but simpler.


ultraviolet flower colors tulip poplar


The flowers are the colors that would attract insects who see the ultraviolet spectrum.  (I keep meaning to get a picture of these things under black light.)


seed pod tulip poplar ancient flowerThat cone in the center of the flower is actually a passel of seeds pressed together.  These are commonly found on the forest floor and played with (pried apart) by children.


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Read further:

Explore the floating gardens of Mexico,  the sunken forest in Paris, or the organic farms I’ve been visiting.


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2 responses to “The beginning of flowers, misty-eyed lumberjacks, and poet Joyce Kilmer

  1. but what part of the cone is the seeds

    • Hi Mike,

      Sorry for the delay in responding. In the picture, you can see the cone breaking apart. Each smaller piece there is called a samara (suh-mare-uh). These are the same as the little “helicopters” that come off maple trees each spring. The seed is a fat spot embedded in the samara, in this case in the tip of it. Think of the samara itself as the wings that help the seed distribute further away. If you live near elm or hackberry trees, these also have samaras, but theirs are round with the seed in the middle, like a fried egg.


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