BY TAL GALTON
My love of nature is what drew me to Western North Carolina 20 years ago, but my relationship with our local outdoors has evolved considerably since then: The initial crush I had on these mountains has blossomed into a complex understanding and an abiding love.
Most modern humans focus their vision on other people and the trappings of a human-built environment — the buildings, the vehicles, the signs, the ubiquitous screens we stare at. As a culture, we suffer from plant blindness, largely ignoring the green organisms all around us that spend their days quietly gathering sunlight. For too many people, the world outside their door lies shrouded behind a green veil.
I’ve spent my adult life correcting my own plant vision, gradually lifting that veil. When I first walked through these woods two decades earlier — as I did every day — I saw only a green curtain of foliage. Sure, I knew the rhododendron, and I quickly learned to distinguish them from mountain laurel. But beyond that, it was just a jumble of green. Today I can recognize dozens of species of trees and shrubs, and hundreds of types of herbaceous plants. Even walking in the city or driving down the highway, I enjoy noticing each species of tree that lines the sidewalks and roads.
Step by step
For many, noticing and learning flowers is a first step in overcoming plant blindness.
My own process of unveiling began with the wildflowers that pop up each spring. It’s an amazing time of year, when the monochrome brown of a rich cove forest floor flushes into a riot of green. As you begin to see individual plants, you learn their preferences and habits, just as you would when getting to know another person. You notice how saxifrage and stonecrop thrive on rocky stream banks, while bellwort and larkspur prefer higher ground and deeper soils. You observe the fleeting blooms of bloodroot and the lingering spears of showy orchis.
We tend to think of plants as inanimate, but in reality they’re as animate as we are. The diminutive spring ephemerals employ powerful hydraulic forces to push through thick leaf litter in their urgent quest for sunlight. Plants’ vital processes are invisible to us but are as constant as our own; we simply can’t relate to the pace of their lives. Their mobility is rarely observed by the naked eye in real time, yet it’s their breath that underwrites the Earth’s entire biosphere.
Even trees, the plant kingdom’s charismatic megaflora, are easily overlooked. Trees are remarkable for their sheer size and longevity, but their impact on ecosystems as drivers of weather and climate, and as infrastructure for myriad other organisms, is critically undervalued. Once you’re able to see plants, you’ll notice 20-30 different species of trees during a short stroll through almost any Blue Ridge forest.
Flowers tend to catch the human eye more than most plant-related phenomena — perhaps because, to our primate ancestors, they represented future food. Or maybe it’s due to their association with reproductive matters (and our own obsession with such).
Joining the forest community
Why battle plant blindness? Firstly, because if we don’t see them, we won’t know when they become threatened, and we won’t care when they disappear. During the last century, our Appalachian forests experienced the extinction of a keystone species, the American chestnut.
We are currently living through the extirpation of two important, common species of native conifers. The Eastern hemlock ranges all the way up into Canada, where as yet it remains beyond the reach of the deadly woolly adelgid. We also have the endemic Carolina hemlock, whose longer needles bristle out from each twig like a brush. Because it lives only in the Southern Appalachians, the Carolina hemlock is at risk of complete extinction due to the adelgid threat.
Many people don’t even realize these are two separate species. As you expand your ability to see plants, however, you’ll learn to notice such subtle differences.
Forest bathing is having a moment just now. Unquestionably, spending time immersed in nature is an important part of any mental health practice. But I believe it’s most effective when paired with a lifelong endeavor to learn as much of the forest as you can.
Opening your eyes to plants enriches your life in numerous ways. When people ask me how they can learn the native flora, I advise them to walk the same forest paths each day, year after year. As you get to know the plants along the path, they cease being anonymous strangers you pass on the street and become friendly neighbors, colleagues or even close companions.
When you lift the green veil, walking through the woods becomes a profoundly rewarding experience. There’s the big red maple with the lung lichen on it; there’s the ginseng family that continues to evade poachers despite being right on the trail; and here is the bank where the trout lilies will pop up, as they do each spring. You may still have a long way to go, but you’re slowly becoming a member of the forest community.
Joy and wonder
One of the best parts of learning to see is that you’re never fully unblind. Every single year, I notice plants that are new to me. Two years ago, right in my own backyard, I saw (and smelled!) my first sweet pinesap, tiny and camouflaged in the duff. Now that I know its secretive patterns, I visit it and find new ones each year.
Here in WNC we are particularly blessed. There is so much diversity, so much that’s hidden from our view, so much more to discover and to learn, that the joy and wonder never cease. Once you open your eyes to plants, there is no going back, and no end to the new life forms that will capture your attention.
After trees and herbaceous plants, there are mosses and ferns; then, fungi and lichens. Once your eyes (and ears) become attuned to the marvels of the forest, there will be an endless stream of birdsong and insects to learn in addition to kingdom Plantae.
Every spring, when the blue cohosh and rattlesnake ferns push up out of the ground, and the buckeyes split their buds, I’m reminded of the heady feeling of beginning to lift my own green veil. To paraphrase the early 20th-century writer Eden Phillpotts, “The world is full of magic things patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
Burnsville resident Tal Galton is a naturalist who is passionate about helping people overcome plant blindness. He runs Snakeroot Ecotours in Yancey County.