Getting Scratched By Sawbriers

Sawbriers in Appalachia

Have you ever gotten tangled up in a sawbrier? I have and let me tell you it hurts like the dickens.

I know there are scientific names like Brown Sawbriar or Woodland Sawbriar, but to me there are basically two kinds of briers: berry briers which are definitely worth fighting the serrated teeth for the sweetness they produce and sawbriers which as far as I can tell serve no purpose other than inflicting pain.

Sawbriers seem to grow over night by the feet. Sometimes they grow up up up till they can no longer support their weight of height and fall over.

Sawbriers are sneaky too.

I swear I can weed my garden one day and the next I'll be walking through admiring my work when I'm grabbed by the sharp teeth of a two foot high sawbrier  and left wondering how in the world I missed seeing it the day before.

Most everybody has heard the story of Brer Rabbit. My family was also familiar with another story related to the aggravation of briers. We were taught the fault of sawbriers lay with Adam and Eve and should serve as an important reminder not to stray from the narrow way.

Maybe I've got too much time on my hands, but lately I've been thinking about sawbriers and how they could be used to symbolize the hardscrabble life that my Appalachian ancestors lived.

Just when the fields are ripe and full with summer's harvest making you think you're living in the land of milk and honey you can walk through the bounty and be scratched by a stubborn sawbrier as a reminder trouble may be waiting just around the corner.

The same reasoning could apply to our lives today and to the lives of folks all over the world. Appalachia does not hold the reins of heartache and sorrow alone.

Those same Appalachian ancestors who endured the sawbriers of life also knew how to pull them up or at least put them on a shelf at the back of their mind and enjoy life. Sitting a spell on the front porch to watch the evening fall; hearing a fiddle tune; or simply holding a grandbaby on your lap are all good things for taking those ornery sawbriers off your mind at the end of a long hard day. 

Earlier this summer as we were weeding Pap's garden one of the girls said she couldn't pull up a sawbrier cause it hurt too bad. I showed her how if you reach all the way down to the bottom of the brier right where it goes into the ground you can sometimes grab a hold right there and pull without getting stuck.

The dogged determination to enjoy life to the fullest is one of the traits that's seldom listed under the typical mumbo jumbo credited to native Appalachians, but I assure you it abounds from one end of Appalachia to the other. Pap taught us from an early age to step on the sawbriers you couldn't pull up and to look for the sunshine up above.


This post was originally published here on the Blind Pig and The Acorn in August of 2010

p.s. The Pressley Girls will be playing Saturday September 30, 2017 @ 11:00 a.m. and at 1:00 p.m. at the Tractor Parade/Ag Day celebration - Hayesville NC and on Sunday October 8, 2017 @ 2:00 p.m. JCCFS Fall Festival - Brasstown NC. 

Subscribe for free to Blind Pig & The Acorn by Email

Appalachia Through My Eyes - Yellow Jewelweed

My life in Appalachia - Yellow Jewelweed

The orange colored jewelweed grows all over my mountain holler, but I've never seen the yellow variety until this past weekend. Let me tell you it is beautiful! Especially when its growing right beside a patch of the orange as it is at my friend's house. 

I was pleased as punch when my very young tour guide showed me how to pop the small seed pods by gently touching them. I love it when I see kids who know the same little tricks I took joy in as a child.  

You can go here to read about the orange jewelweed that grows at my house. 


p.s. The Pressley Girls will be performing Friday September 22, 2017 @ 7:00 p.m. at the Historic Courthouse in Blairsville, GA. 

Appalachia Through My Eyes - A series of photographs from my life in Southern Appalachia.

Subscribe for free to Blind Pig And The Acorn by Email

Adam's Needle

Adams Needle

Miss Cindy's blooming Adam's needle

Adam's needle noun A yucca plant (Yucca filamentosa or Yucca smalliana). Cf bear grass
1940 Caton Wildflowers of Smokies 65. 1964 Stupka Trees Shrubs Vines 32 During some years Adam's needle begins to bloom at the end of May. [from the sharp points on the yucca plant]

Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English


I thought I remembered Don Casada telling me the yucca plant could often be found around old homeplaces. I sent him an email and asked if my memory was correct and he sent me the following information.

"Yes, yucca is often found at old home places and at cemeteries. I know there's yucca at the Hannah cemetery over in Little Cataloochee, and it seems like there might be some at the Little Cataloochee Church cemetery as well. I've heard that the leaves were used for hanging hams to cure. That's certainly believable - the stuff is really tough and fibrous. There is some in the Bryson City Cemetery, and a grass trimmer won't cut it - the stuff just sort of shreds. The stuff pops up in unexpected places, and once it has a foothold, it is hard to get rid of.

I've found it growing at quite a few home sites, usually accompanied by other plants like boxwoods, iris, japonica (flowering quince), yellowbells, mock orange, daylilies, daffodils, etc. There is one place where I found a few scattered plants that was well away from a home. You may remember that there was no yucca at the Casada home on Juneywhank Branch; the non-native plants there are mock orange, japonica and day lilies (Daddy called them cow lilies). But probably a quarter of a mile or more away, in a holler off to the NE of the home and well away from where there were any buildings, there are a few isolated plants. The leaves on them seem sparser and maybe a little smaller than on others I've found. It sort of makes me wonder if they might be native. The USDA map below indicates they are native to NC, but if they're native to the mountains, they're sure not common (except at home sites), at least in my woods-wandering experience."


Granny never had any Adam's needle growing around our house. She said they were too sharp and she was afraid someone might get cut on them. Miss Cindy's house has them growing in several areas and her house was built in 1937 so that goes along with the old homeplace connection. I wonder if the common name Adam's needle was used not only because of the sharpness, but also because of the thread like fibers that are on the sides of the sword like leaves. 


p.s. The Pressley Girls will be performing Saturday September 9, 2017 @ 11:45 a.m. at the Cherokee Indian Festival in Marble, NC and on Friday September 22, 2017 @ 7:00 p.m. at the Historic Courthouse in Blairsville

The Kudzu Man


The Kudzu Man

The Kudzu Man is dead asleep,
But soon he'll stir, and move his feet.
His skin will turn to green from brown,
As his fingers reach along the ground,
Down the hill and around the pond,
Under the fence and over the barn.

He shakes his head to see how he's paid,
Squirted with poison, cut with blades.
What kind of crime could make them so vexed?
He just loves sunshine and seeing what's next. 

written by Mike Norris


I hope you enjoyed Mike's great rhyme about kudzu as much as I did! When I think of kudzu my mind immediately goes to the Nantahala Gorge. The green vine drapes the trees along the roadside making it look like it's guarded by green giants.

Between here and the folk school there's a patch of kudzu growing in the towering trees. I've often wondered if it will ever reach Wilson Holler.

Mike also sent me a great link to an article in the Smithsonian Magazine. According to it kudzu isn't nearly as aggressive as what we've been led to believe, but I still don't think I want any of the stuff around my house. 

If you'd like to read more of Mike's Appalachian Rhymes check out his book Mommy Goose Rhymes from the Mountains. You can purchase it from The University Press of Kentucky


Subscribe to Blind Pig And The Acorn by Email


Poison Oak

Remedies for poison oak
This time of the year folks are worrying about bug bites and the dreaded case of poison oak or poison ivy. I know they're different plants, but we always called the itchy stuff poison oak no matter which plant it came from. I was a lucky kid, I never had poison oak, but that wasn't the case for others in my family.

Granny is highly allergic to the stuff. Honest to goodness certain times of the year she can walk through the yard and catch it from the wind blowing. When she was pregnant with me she had a horrible case of poison oak. Pap always said that's why I didn't seem to be effected by the plant. He thought I built up an immunity to it when Granny was carrying me. Paul and Steve didn't get that same immunity.

One of the worst cases Paul ever had was during the middle of the winter. It was in the late 70's during one of the coldest winters on record for our area. We still had gravity water and it stayed frozen more than thawed during that bitter cold spell. Pap built fires along the length of black pipe that wasn't buried to thaw it. Paul and I loved for the water to freeze because we played in the fires and explored the woods. 

While playing in the fire we inadvertently burned poison oak and in just a day or so Paul was eat up with the raised itchy patches. Paul's case was severe. Pap took him to a local pediatrician who proceeded to explain to Pap that the boy could not have poison oak as it was the dead of winter. After the doc left the room her nurse told Pap "She's crazy as a loon that's poison oak if I've ever seen it!" A trip to a different doctor got Paul a much needed shot and medication for his aliment.

Steve's job requires him to be in weedy brushy areas and he has become an expert at heading off his outbreaks of poison oak as soon as he notices one, but he's had to have shots on more than one occasion.

A few summers ago my streak of never having poison oak came to a screeching halt.  I was helping a lady friend work in her flowers and apparently in the process of pulling armfuls of weeds I pulled up poison oak. At first I didn't really know what I had. I showed my arms to Pap and he said it sure looked like poison oak, but since I'd never had it he wasn't sure. 

To say I was in misery is an understatement. After a few days of the mess Steve came to check on me. He took one look and said "Yep that's poison oak." For over a week I tried every home remedy you've ever heard of-from oatmeal to peroxide-nothing helped. Finally on a Saturday afternoon I gave up the fight and paid a visit to a local urgent care center. The doctor who saw me said "You waited about a week too long to come." He gave me 2 shots and sent me back by the hospital emergency room for a couple of pain killers. I have faint scars on the insides of each arm to remind me I don't ever want to have that vile affliction again.

A few home remedies I've heard about:

  • Fingernail polish-Granny swears by this one. At the first sign of a bump or patch cover it with fingernail polish-supposedly the polish seals the place off from air and helps it dry up.
  • Clorox to kill the poison.
  • Spread cooked oatmeal on the patches to relieve the pain/itching and to dry the areas up.
  • Mix baking soda with water and put on patches.
  • Use vinegar to stop the itching.
  • Use buttermilk to relieve the itch.
  • Rub patches with peroxide or alcohol to kill the poison and dry up the areas-this remedy hurts so bad but feels so good at the same time!
  • Several remedies suggest taking a bath in salt, soda, or oatmeal water-while others warn of never taking a bath.

Jewelweed for posion oak 

Jewelweed growing in a ditch at the bottom of my driveway

One of my favorite books on folk medicine-Folk Medicine In Southern Appalachia by Anthony Cavender has this to say about remedies for poison oak/ivy:

"...poultices of cooked or crushed leaves of peach tree, jewelweed, ragweed, red oak, willow, or nightshade; juice of a green tomato or milkweed; and topical solutions of red oak or willow bark. Frequently reported non-botanical remedies include buttermilk, soda paste, Epsom salt solution, cow's cream (sometimes mixed with gunpowder), a biscuit soaked in sweet milk, calamine lotion, salt water solution, and bleach. According to some reports it was believed that one could develop an immunity to poison ivy by eating some of it's leaves. This dangerous and potentially fatal folk belief still circulates today." 

I've read several positive accounts about jewelweed's use as a poison oak remedy. Generally the plants grow in shady damps places and can reach two to three feet tall. The juice of the plant is a natural cortisone and is also supposed to be an excellent remedy for bee stings and bug bites.

Granny said the first time she ever remembered having poison oak she had it on her face. Her mother, Gazzie, took her to town to see the pharmacist. He sold Gazzie some calamine lotion for Granny's face. She said she'd never forget they smeared it all over her till she looked like a ghost. While they were in town Gazzie took Granny over to see her aunt. Granny said the elderly lady was scared by the child with the ghostly skin. 

This summer Granny has had another bout of poison oak. She polished it up and then taped it up...only when she took off the tape she took part of her hide too. A shot from the doctor and some topical cream finally cleared up her poison oak and I'm keeping my fingers crossed no one else gets it this summer or ever for that matter!


p.s. The Pressley Girls will be playing TODAY Friday July 7 @ 5:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m. at the Art Walk in Murphy NC and on Sunday July 9 @ 1:00 p.m. at the Festival on the Square in Hayesville NC.

Subscribe for free to Blind Pig And The Acorn by Email

The Rosebud Orchid in my Backyard - WOW!

Rosebud Orchid in Brasstown NC

This year I have made a conscious effort to try and be in the woods more. I wish that meant I had been on long hikes to the top of the mountain and beyond, but mostly what I've managed to do is take one of the trails that lead off behind the chicken coop and go a few hundred yards into the woods or up towards the ridge. 

On one of my short trips I noticed a strange looking plant that I had never seen before. It was thin and tapered. I could tell it's length was about to burst open with leaves and hopefully a bloom. 

A few weeks later I suddenly remembered the plant and ran out to see if it had indeed opened up into a flower-it had!

The bloom was so pretty and I didn't think I had ever seen one like it. I racked my brain thinking maybe it was something I had once planted in the yard that had somehow migrated to the woods, but decided I would certainly have remembered having a flower that pretty in my collection.

Rosebud Orchid in Western NC Cherokee County

I got Chatter to post a picture to a plant group that she's a member of and someone quickly identified the plant as a Rosebud Orchid.

The book Native Orchids of the Southern Appalachian Mountains has this to say about the flower:

"The smaller rosebud orchid blooms in early June in the southern part of the mountains but can be fresh in northern West Virginia as late as the first part of July. Restricted to the southeastern United States, smaller rosebud orchid is very sparse throughout the southern Appalachians. It occurs at a few sites in eastern Kentucky as well as some scattered locations on the Cumberland Plateau and in the eastern mountains of Tennessee. It is infrequent in the North Carolina and Virginia mountains. And there are only two recorded sites for smaller rosebud orchid in the area of West Virginia covered by this book, one in Barbour County and one dating from 1968 in McDowell County."

After reading that I knew I had never seen the flower before. Have you?


Subscribe for free to Blind Pig & The Acorn by Email

Tipper's Fairy Tale - The Second Part

The emporer tree

I'm finally ready to share rest of my fairy tale with you. If you missed the first post about my own secret fairy tale-click here to read it first and then hit the back button to continue reading here.

The Princess Tree

My fairy tale has grown even larger since I first told you about it and now casts a large shadow over my kitchen window. Ten feet of growth in one summer is amazing and spooky all at the same time. Jack's beanstalk immediately comes to mind, but this fairy tale comes from a far and distant land: China.

Paulownia tomentosa is the scientific name of the species with the more common names being Princess Tree or Empress Tree. Even though the tree is not native to any portion of North America, it can be found from Canada to Florida and way out west in Washington and California too.

Once the tree matures it has purple drooping blooms which are then replaced by large seed capsules that are noticeable from a far distance.

Before the tree matures it has amazing green leaves that can grow to be as large as three feet wide. After maturity the leaves are smaller and more uniform in nature. The tree can reach heights of between 65 and 125 feet-hence the reason it can't stay hugged up to my kitchen window.

Unfortunately Paulownia tomentosa is invasive in some areas and interferes with the native vegetation. If you've ever ridden through the Nantahala Gorge you can see the trees seem to thrive a little to well in that environment.

Paulownia tomentosa the princess tree in appalachia

Just down the road from my house, where Pap lived when he was a boy, there is a lone Princess Tree standing tall in the pasture. There have been a few others here and there around our holler, but I'm not aware of any that have reached maturity.

There used to be one that grew to be about 20 feet tall near my uncle's house-right on the side of the road so you noticed it as you came or went. I paid special attention to the tree when cold weather arrived in the fall of the year. After the first heavy frost every leaf on the entire tree would fall off. The leaves would just be laying around the bottom of the trunk like giant curled pieces of paper.

Pap's Uncle Blaine brought the tree in the photo above out here with him back in the day.

Blaine Elmer Wilson 1911 1959

Blaine Wilson 1911-1959

What I mean when I say out here is that he brought it from the Asheville area to Brasstown. Our family has made their own sort of migration between Brasstown and the Asheville/Canton area over the years. One generation will decide to go back to one place or the other and another will decide to stay where they are at, but it's always seemed like Pap's family was connected to both areas. 

Blaine lived from 1911 till 1959 so I never knew him, but Pap had fond memories of Blaine. Pap said he loved to fish and hunt and was even President of a Wildlife Association at one time. Blaine found the fishing especially nice out this way.

Pap said Blaine brought what he thought were Catawba trees to plant around the old home place. Catawba trees are well liked by fishermen because they attract what is commonly known as a catawba worms. Actually they're caterpillars, but either way fish seem to like them.

Blaine thought if the trees grew he'd have instant fish bait when he came out to visit and fish. He unknowingly had Princesses Trees and the only one that survived to maturity is the one in the pasture.

Empress Tree

After my fairy tale started growing under my kitchen window I started asking questions about the tree and Pap told me the story of Blaine and his hopes of ready fish bait. I never thought of asking around to see if any of my family had a photo of Blaine until Pap told me the story. Sure enough someone had a picture and they were kind enough to send it to me. I couldn't wait to see Blaine's face-you know to see if he looked like any of us.

In a very serendipitous manner I was sent the picture of Blaine holding the fish, even though the person who sent it had no clue why I wanted a photo of Blaine or anything about Pap's story of Blaine and the fish bait trees. 

So why do I think the Princess Tree growing under my kitchen window is a fairy tale? Because in the 17 years we've lived in this house not one Princess Tree has come to grow around our place. The tree is magical because it grew over 10 feet in one summer and has 3 foot wide leaves.

Mostly I think it's a fairy tale because my Great Uncle Blaine, a man I never knew, brought the parent of my Princess Tree to my mountain holler all those years ago. It's like Blaine settled down by the house to wait and then when I was ready he knocked on the kitchen window and told me to come find out who he was.

My fairy tale came full circle once I was sent the photo of Blaine holding a fish and now I'm sure Uncle Blaine won't mind a bit when I let The Deer Hunter cut the tree down. 


It's been 5 years since I first shared my fairy tale with you and in that time not one Princess Tree has decided to take up residence around my house. 


p.s. The Pressley Girls will be playing Saturday June 10, 2017 @ 8:00 p.m. at Vogel State Park - Blairsville GA.

Subscribe for free to Blind Pig And The Acorn by Email

Tipper's Fairy Tale

Fairy tale

I've been keeping a secret from you this summer. There's a fairy tale taking place just outside my kitchen window. A real live fairy tale.

It was early May when I first noticed its unfurling green leaves hugging up to my house like it needed to share its warmth. I knew it was there, and I swear it knew I knew it was there. Every time I'd walk up the hill to the kitchen door I could see it out of the corner of my eye watching and waiting to see what I would do.

One day The Deer Hunter said "You know you're going to have to do something about that don't you?" A few days later, Granny said "I walked up to your house to see if you had any ripe tomatoes while you were out of town. You know you can't let that thing stay under your kitchen window don't you?"

I told them "I know, I know, I'm going to take care of it." But deep down inside I knew I wasn't going to do no such thing.

The Deer Hunter and Granny soon forgot my promise to fix the little problem and I was left to watch, wonder, and be only slightly spooked every time I washed the dishes. I would stand on my tippy-toes when no one was in the kitchen and look down at its beauty. I'd think of the stories Pap told me about his Uncle Blaine that I've never even seen a picture of and I'd remember my own magical story that happened every year on the first hard frost of fall. I wished that I could leave my new fairy tale like pal where it was and see what other magic it would bring me, but in the back of my mind I knew I would have to dispose of it before summer was over.

Early Saturday morning as I stumbled bleary eyed to the coffee pot my brain tried to tell me something was different. As I stood by the sink stirring cream in my coffee, I noticed a shadow falling over my hand.

I no longer need to stand on my toes to see it, the fairy tale is looking in the window at me now.


Come back in a few days and I'll tell you the rest of the fairy tale.


p.s. The Pressley Girls will be playing Saturday June 10, 2017 @ 8:00 p.m. at Vogel State Park - Blarisville GA.

Subscribe for free to Blind Pig And The Acorn by Email

Mountain Ivy = Mountain Laurel = Rhododendron

Mountain ivy in western north carolina

ivy noun
(also ivy bush, ivy tree) The mountain laurel tree (Kalmia latifolia). Same as calico bush, mountain ivy.
1883 Zeigler and Grosscup Heart of Alleghanies 196 The arborescent kalmia and rhododendron, which grow along almost every mountain stream, have a practical use. The ivy and laurel, as they are locally called attain, in some of the fertile coves, a diameter of three inches, and the roots are even larger. 1928 Galyon Plant Naturalist 7 Mountain laurel, known to the mountaineer as "ivy," reaches its maximum development in the Smokies. It is not unusual to find arborescent laurels one foot or more in diameter and many feet high. 1982 Stupka Wildflowers 80 Usually the attractive pink or white-saucered flowers are so abundant that the mountain laurel in full bloom is one of our most spectacular plants. It flowers in May and June, the later blossoms ordinarily occurring on plants growing in the higher altitudes. "Ivy" and "calico-bush" are among its other names. 1997-2001 Montgomery Coll. ivy bush (Cardwell); ivy tree (Brown).

laurel noun Cf rhododendron. 
A variant form larel.
1939 Hall Notebook 13:1 White Oak NC larel (Fay Leatherwood)
B (also laurel bush) The mountain term for evergreen rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum and Rhododendron catawbiense), which grows profusely at elevations below 5,000 feet and covers extensive tracts in thicket. Also used in compounds (as flat laurel, laurel bed, laurel patch, laurel slick, laurel thicket, mountain laurel) and in place names.
1890 Carpenter Thunderhead Peak 142-43 There for the first time we saw the tangle of rhododendron which is called "laurel," and forms a dense thicket along all the mountain streams. 1937 Hall Coll. Cosby Creek TN We have white laurels and red laurels here in the mountains. (James Benson) 1939 Hall Coll. Deep Creek NC They fought right down to the foot of the ridge into the flat laurel and commenced barkin'. I though [the bear] was treed. (Mark Cathey) 1974 Underwood Madison County 9 Roderick Shelton and his descendants peopled the area now known as Shelton Laurel. 

~Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English

Ivy blooms in the mountains

I have one more quote for you.

Dykeman The Tall Woman Pg 304 I've always thought the ivy was about the prettiest thing growing here, the way it clings to the mountains, the way it comes in the cutover places and covers up the scars with blooms in spring. 

As I look at the ridge above our house I so agree - the Ivy is about the prettiest thing growing here.


p.s. The Pressley Girls will be playing Saturday May 20, 2017 @ 2:00 p.m  at the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center - Robbinsville NC and Sunday May 21, 2017 @ 11:00 a.m. at Mount Moriah Baptist Church - Murphy NC. Their summer is schedule is filling up-to see a complete list of performance dates go here

Subscribe for free to Blind Pig & The Acorn by Email

The Mountain Ivy is Blooming

Mountain ivy

Over the past week, the Ivy around my house has started to bloom. If Ivy makes you think of the green vine that often overtakes everything in it's path then you may be wondering why in the world I think mine is blooming. 

I'm talking about the bush like tree you see in the photo above.  All my life I've heard it called Ivy. Sometimes Mountain Ivy but mostly just Ivy. The correct name for it is Mountain Laurel.

Mountain laurel in appalachia

But this is what we call Mountain Laurel or in most cases just Laurel. Can you see the difference from the first photo? Notice the leaves are longer, thinner, and a brighter green. The blooms are different too. The real name for this one is Rhododendron.

 To make things even more confusing Ivy and Laurel often grown side by side. 

Blooming Ivy Bush or Blooming Ivy Tree


In places Ivy and Mountain Laurel grow so dense and thick that they are called "hells". I've read accounts which claim the first men who surveyed the lines between NC and TN encountered Ivy and Laurel Hells so thick that they placed boards on top of them and walked across instead of attempting to go through them. Sounds like a tall tale, but who knows maybe it's true.

Mountain Laurel and Mountain Ivy

Tipper - Just after we moved into the house Pap built
One of the best play houses I had as a kid was right in the middle of a giant old Laurel that had Ivy growing around it's edges. The Ivy and Laurel were already there just waiting for Pap to build a house and for a little skinny girl to take over their branches and dark leafy floors.

Blind Pig reader, Bob Dalsemer, once shared a quote about Ivy from renowned ballad collector Cecil Sharp with me:

"... it is quite in accordance with the habit of the mountaineer to call things by their wrong names, e.g. Laurel for Rhododendron; Ivy for Laurel; Vine for Ivy; Biscuit for Scone, etc." 

For me-Mountain Laurels will always be Ivy and Rhododendrons will always be Laurels even if the names aren't right.

Drop back by in a few days and I'll share the dialect documentation from the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English about Ivy and Laurel.


Subscribe for free to Blind Pig & The Acorn by Email