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.

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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?


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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.

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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.

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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

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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.


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Robin's Plantain

Robin's Plantain growing in WNC

I discovered a wildflower I've never seen, or at least never noticed, in my backyard last week. At first glance I thought it was Fleabane, but a closer inspection showed the petals were a lovely lavender color instead of white.

Fleabane growing in western nc
I grabbed my Wildflowers & Plant Communities book and discovered I was right in the first place, the plant is a member of the fleabane family. I didn't realize fleabane can range from white to the pale lavender of the plant I found.

Robin's Plantain is one of the common names that belongs to the plant. All fleabane is said to ward off fleas but I've never tried using the plant for anything.

The lovely grouping of wildflowers sprung up at the edge of the backyard near Wilma, our beloved beagle's grave.

Wilma was the dog we had before Ruby Sue. She's been gone nearly 15 years now. She was a true beagle and lived to chase rabbits. One evening when no one was at home the coyotes waited on her while she ran her favorite rabbit trail out the ridge from the house. I took her to the vet but there was nothing he could do, she died before morning. 

Wilma would never eat if someone was watching her. You could lay a steak beside her and she'd just sit patiently until you left before she picked it up. After the coyotes got her we were all so upset and even Pap said he ought to lay in wait till they came back down that trail. 

Funny how a group of wildflowers can take you down a road of remembering. 


p.s. The Pressley Girls will be performing Sunday April 30, 2017 @ 11:00 a.m. Hayesville Church of the Nazarene - Hayesville NC

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The Maple Trees Are Wearing Their Spring Garments

Maple trees wear spring garments

Every spring of the year I look for the red blush of color that happens when the Maple trees trot our their pretty garments to welcome the reawakening of the world.

In my mind I think about the trees like this: Maples start the year with pretty garments of redish pink blooms and end their growing season with leaves deeper in scarlet color but no less beautiful than the spring garment they started out with.

There's a small set of woods in one of the pastures I pass on my last quarter of a mile home. The group of trees draws your eye because over the years cattle have kept their undersides all trimmed to the same height and the road curves just as you pass the fence that lines the area. Right in the middle of the small copse of trees is a towering Maple. Each year the blush of Maple leaves grabs my eye as I come from work reminding me that spring really is here.

Maples blooming in western nc

I took the photo above from my front porch. I added the circles to highlight the Maple garments I can see sprinkled throughout the woods on the ridge across from us. The large circle surrounds a towering Maple that grows right beside Pap's big garden. It's roots grow deep in the Stamey Branch gathering the moisture it needs to complete its circle of life as the seasons change in this Appalachian holler. 


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Do You Like Ramps?


ramp noun A wild leek (Allium tricoccum) having a pungent taste and smell. Considered a delicacy by some, it is celebrated each spring in the Ramp Festival held near Crosby TN. It is sometimes eaten for its tonic effect.

Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English


Ramps have a garlicy onion taste-only with a more intense flavor and smell. Generally they can be found at higher elevations on the north side of mountain ridges from South Carolina all the way to Canada.

In Appalachia, ramp hunting in the spring takes on a celebratory air. Crosby TN isn't the only place hosting annual Ramp Festivals. You can find them throughout the mountains. Murphy has hosted one for several years. 

In our immediate area there aren't many if any ramp patches because we live slightly below the elevation they are usually found. The patches in the higher areas are kept top secret by the people who know where they're at.

How to eat Ramps

When The Deer Hunter was young, Papaw Tony and him went camping every weekend during the spring to trout fish, ride horses, and dig ramps. I can't remember Granny and Pap ever eating ramps. I do recall people at school complaining about the smell of kids whose family partook of ramps in a large fashion.

The whole ramp is edible although folks typically use the lower stem and bulb. The growing season is short, but you can freeze them for later use.

I've read you can use ramps in any recipe that calls for onion or garlic, but the most common way to eat them in Appalachia is fried with potatoes. Folk also like to eat them raw or scrambled with eggs.

Be sure to drop back by next Monday for a story about eating ramps from Charles Fletcher. 


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The Bloodroot is Blooming

Bloodroot growing in western nc mountains

Bloodroot is a common spring wildflower found in the Southern Highlands of Appalachia. The flowers typically grow no higher than 6 to 7 inches high.

Wild bloodroot

The white bloom stands out against the starkness of early spring.

I fell in love with bloodroot shortly after The Deer Hunter and I were married. After all these years, I still have a hard time deciding if I like the blooms better or the green lobed leaves that grow bigger and bigger after the blooms are gone.

The wild plant progresses in an amazing way.

In the beginning you see little white heads poking their way through the ground. Seemingly overnight the flowers open wide with their cheery faces looking towards the heat of the sun with their leaves hugged up close to keep them warm from the cold spring wind.

Harbingers of spring in appalachia

The pretty blooms don't last long. One day they're there-the next it's like a small creature came along and picked each white petal off, leaving only the pointy stamen behind to show where the flower grew.

The lobed leaves grow larger and larger after the blooms fall away, but by mid summer there isn't a trace of Bloodroot left. The entire plant dies back to sleep till next year's spring awakens it again.

Bloodroot for dye and medicine

Bloodroot gets it's name from the red liquid found in it's roots and stems. In days gone by the plant was used in medicinal remedies. 

I look forward to the beauty of bloodroot every year. I marvel as it's petals fall off and it's leaves open wide in welcome of spring of the year.

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