As indicated in recent Back Then columns, I've been of late walking some of the old trails along creeks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that were as recently as the early 1940s populated to a considerable extent. Occasionally, I'll detect an old home site by a chimney left standing. Flattened areas above creeks or old roadbeds are also likely spots for a dwelling or outbuilding of some sort.
Some of the best indicators are certain plants not native to the region that were propagated by the earliest settlers and their descendents. There are three plants that are a dead giveaway in spring. Vinca major (large-leaved) and Vinca minor (small-leaved), also called periwinkle, were planted in yards, on banks, and in cemeteries as a groundcover.
Forsythia — still called "yaller-bells" by some old-time mountain women — has prospered without human care along creek banks or other damp areas. Different species and varieties have interbred to such an extent through the years that it's virtually impossible, for me at least, to tell one from the other. This, however, doesn't bother me in the least as I can thoroughly enjoy stands of forsythia without knowing the exact species or subspecies.
Mountain folks were — and still are — inordinately fond of daffodils. Not only were they planted in gardens and around home sites, borders of them were sometimes planted along steams or woodland edges. Don't you agree with me that nothing is prettier in early spring than a stand of daffodils waving in a gentle breeze?
A daffodil is, of course, also called narcissus, jonquil, or buttercup. As with forsythia, distinguishing the species and subspecies is tricky. It seems that every plant book has a different "formula" for determining which is which. To my way of thinking, all of them can be correctly called daffodils. Those with dark, rounded leaves I designate as jonquils. Those with flattened leaves I think of as narcissi (the plural of narcissus). But if it's a great big butter-yellow daffodil with flattened leaves, I also think of that as a buttercup. If these categories don't suit you, feel free to devise your own.
The genus Narcissus — to which all of the above belong — is a member of the Amaryllis family. The word narcissus is derived from the Greek word "narke," meaning numbness or stupor. Some attribute the naming of the flower to its narcotic fragrance while others debate that it is associated with the poisonous nature of the leave's bulbs, a defense against grazing animals and underground rodents.
Those of you with children, grandchildren, or herbage-devouring pets need to be reminded of just how potent these poisons can be. According to the volume Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America (Timber Press, 1991) by Nancy J. Turner and Adam F. Szczawinski, "The entire plant, particularly the bulbs, contain toxic alkaloids ... and a glycoside. These cause dizziness, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes diarrhea. Trembling, convulsions, and death may occur if large quantities are consumed, but usually recovery occurs within a few hours."
Whenever I encounter a stand of daffodils in full bloom above a pool of water in some remote watershed, I'm reminded of Narcissus. In classical mythology he was the lad so enamored with himself that he stared at his reflection in a pool of water for so long that he forgot to eat or drink and passed away of sheer weakness. When the nymphs came to remove his body to the funeral pyre, they found no corpse. In its stead was a single narcissus in full bloom.
Most Narcissus species are natives of southern France, Spain, northern Africa and the surrounding Mediterranean areas. But various species of Narcissus have been cultivated for hundreds, even thousands, of years, so that they reached the northern European mainland and the British Isles early on. The Scotch-Irish and other nationalities that peopled the southern mountains brought these lovely flowers with them as reminders of their homelands and their relatives left so far behind. Along with periwinkle, forsythia, and numerous other plants, daffodils now serve as mute reminders of home sites occupied not so long ago.
Editor's note: This column first appeared in a February 2004 edition of The Smoky Mountain News.