Galackin’ in Western North Carolina

We could smell them before we saw them.  A pungent, skunky odor engulfed us as we neared the top of the ridge.  “Must be galax,” my brother Daniel remarked.  Sure enough, as we ambled around a bend in the trail, we found a virtual carpet of galax, the low-growing evergreen perennial that turns a purplish bronze in the winter.  It was clear why some people refer to it by its other common name, skunkweed.  At one time, mountain people called it “colt’s foot” due to its round shape, but hardly anyone calls it that anymore.  Ever since an extensive trade developed for its fleshy leaves in the 1890s, people call it galax, the Latin name of its genus.

 

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Indeed, the galax market is one of the oldest markets for wild Appalachian plants.  Throughout the twentieth century, the plant provided many a mountain family with cash to make it through the winter, and the trade continues strong today.  One study by N.C. State horticulturists Jeanine Davis and Jackie Greenfield found that some 2 billion galax leaves were collected from western North Carolina in 2001, generating between $10 and $26 million.  An estimated 3,000 people, mostly Latinos, pull galax leaves every year in the state.  One galax buyer believes that an experienced puller can harvest 7,500 leaves per day, which would earn them as much as $150.[1]  Overharvesting is a perennial concern.

A couple weekends ago, Daniel and I, along with a few other family and friends, ventured into the Linville Wilderness Area for our annual Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday backpacking trip.  We saw patches of galax—most of them small—almost everywhere we looked.  This, of course, is not unusual.  Anyone who has hiked through the forests of southern Appalachia has certainly encountered them.  They are nearly ubiquitous in the southern highlands, and they grow nowhere else.  But these little plants held special meaning for me, for it was here—in perhaps these very same plant communities—that the galax trade began some 130 years ago.

 

In 1889, a 17-year-old Harlan P. Kelsey arrived in the southern shadow of Grandfather Mountain with his father, a horticulturist and city planner named Samuel T. Kelsey.  Just a few years earlier, the elder Kelsey had come east from Kansas to design and build the town of Highlands in Macon County, and now he was focusing his attention on constructing a new town.  Along with other members of the Linville Improvement Company (which included Hugh MacRae, the Wilmington businessman and visionary entrepreneur who would later own Grandfather Mountain and become famous for his farm colonies), Samuel Kelsey envisioned the new town of Linville as a health resort, where people from across the country could come and enjoy the cool, crisp air, abundant fish and wildlife, and the gorgeous scenery.  The new town also bore the imprint of Kelsey’s greatest passion: horticulture.

Working with his father, young Harlan helped construct Highlands Nursery, a branch of the nursery he started ten years earlier in Highlands, and he immediately set to work making it one of the most well-known in the American southeast.  His goal was to make money, but, as his biographer Loren Wood asserts, he was also driven by a conviction that people should landscape with native American plants rather than the foreign exotics that were becoming increasingly common.  Kelsey hoped that it would be “only a matter of time when American plants will be used and appreciated in America as they should be.  We want every private pleasure ground in which our wild blooms once grew, to become familiar with their lovely presence again.”[2]  Finding the mountain climate conducive to the growth of a wide variety of “hardy American plants,” he imported stock from his nursery in Highlands, but in the interest of finding new marketable species, he spent countless hours roaming the mountain forests around Linville.  When he found an attractive species, he transported it to his nursery and cultivated it, or at least attempted.  Among the plants he marketed from his nursery were Catawba rhododendron, mountain laurel, Gray’s Lily, rose trillium, Carolina Hemlock, and Pinkshell Azalea.  In the 1890s, he also began selling a rare little plant called Shortia galacifolia that had recently been rediscovered in the mountains to great fanfare in the botany community.  He gave it a common name, Oconee Bells, to which it is still referred.[3]

 

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Harlan P. Kelsey, 1947, at Grandfather Mountain. Credit: Hugh Morton Photograph Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.

It is unclear exactly when or how Harlan Kelsey began marketing galax.  At least two different sources suggest the year 1892 as the starting point.[4]  He may have started selling the plant to the Biltmore Estate, the gigantic summer residence of George Vanderbilt then under construction near Asheville.  The fact that Kelsey did sell many other trees and shrubs to Frederick Law Olmstead, the famous landscape architect in charge of developing the grounds of Biltmore, suggests it is a possibility.  Whatever the avenue, Kesley reasoned that the plant’s round, fleshy leaves that maintained their color for weeks after they were first harvested would prove attractive to urban florists, so he began including the plant in his catalogues that he distributed throughout the northeastern U.S.

Demand for the southern mountain plant grew in the 1890s until it had become something of a fad among the northern urban elite.  Northern consumers were specifically enamored by the bronze-purplish color that the leaves turned in the winter, and they began using the plant in Christmas decorations.  “Galax leaves, with their lovely shades of red and bronze, have largely taken the place of ivy leaves,” one magazine asserted in 1914.  “As Christmas decoration they stand pre-eminent.”[5]  Botanists now know that the color is the result of anthocyanin pigments that protect the leaves from overexposure to light while the forests are leafless.  This trait made it highly desirable.  Other Carolina entrepreneurs jumped into the business, and by the turn of the century, train carloads of galax leaves were being extracted from across northwestern North Carolina and hauled north every winter.  “This new industry is growing to large proportions,” the Greensboro Patriot reported in 1901.[6]

Importantly for local people, Kesley and other merchants found that cultivating galax on a commercial scale was impossible, so they resolved to purchasing leaves from locals, who gathered them wild from the forests around Linville, perhaps the same forests I trod last weekend.  They generally paid 25 cents per thousand leaves.   A good puller could reportedly make from $1.25 to $1.75 per day.  As in the case of ginseng digging, “galackers” often constructed shelters from logs, caves, and rocky ledges and stayed in an area of the forest for days until they plucked all the galax in the area.  This trade, one observer wrote in 1905, “has afforded many poor women and children an opportunity for earning their bread.  And that too at a season of the year when there is no farm work to do.”[7]  The Watauga Democrat painted a more romantic picture of the galackers:

             At the proper season the mountains are made almost vocal with the happy voices of men,                   women, and children all intent on seeing how many thousand they can gather per day.                         Away off in the fastnesses of the eternal hills they hie, and return laden with the beautiful                   product of the forest…It makes strong limbs, bright eyes and rosy cheeks, and they enjoy it as             much as do the hop gatherers of New York, or those who make a frolic of grape gathering in               sunny France.[8]

Not everyone believed the work was rosy, however.  The existence of this group of galackers in the forests of northwestern North Carolina attracted the attention of many a do-gooder mountain missionary around the turn of the twentieth century.  While he acknowledged that it provided women and children with money, Presbyterian missionary Edgar Tufts was very concerned that they “are exposed in pulling the leaves to all sorts of weather,” leading to sickness and, in some cases, death.  The children were also kept out of school to pull leaves, which caused them to “grow up in ignorance and the homes left in filth and disorder.”  Finally, according to Tufts, dependence on galax gathering caused “the spendthrift habit [to be] abnormally developed,” as they traded the leaves for goods at the stores and, thus, had no opportunity to save money.[9]  Similarly, another Presbyterian missionary named Edward Guerrant encountered galax gatherers in the mountains of northwestern North Carolina during his tour of the southern highlands in the winter of 1901. “It is a hard way to make a living,” he wrote.”[10]  Guerrant would base the title of his influential 1910 book, The Galax Gatherers: the Gospel Among the Highlanders, on this encounter with the galackers.[11]  Both Guerrant and Tufts used the image of the galax gatherers to generate public support for their missionary endeavors.  Hoping to rescue mountain women from such drudgery, Tufts established a school for women that would later become Lees-MacRae College.

And this is how the dark green, fleshy, shiny leaves with rusty purplish red accents that grew on the hillsides of Linville Gorge came to be a symbol of Appalachia, a botanical representation of mountain-ness.  Astute consumers knew where galax came from.  Their mountain-ness was part of the charm.  In 1902, Blowing Rock author Mary Nelson Carter published a book about life in the mountains of galax country entitled North Carolina Sketches: Phases of Life Where the Galax Grows, a title that reflected and reinforced the growing association of galax with northwestern North Carolina.  In the epigraph, Carter writes:

 

          Where galax grows,

          A magic spell

         Spreads like a net

         O’er hill and dell

 


[1] Jeanine Davis and Jackie Greenfield, Collection to Commerce: Western North Carolina Non-Timber Forest Products and Their Markets: 2003 Report, N.C. State University, Department of Horticultural Science, Raleigh, NC, 36-42.

[2] Ibid, 83.

[3] Loren M. Wood, Beautiful Land of the Sky: John Muir’s Forgotten Eastern Counterpart, Harlan P. Kelsey Pioneering Our Native Plants and Eastern National Parks (Bloomington: iUniverse, 2013).

[4] Edgar Tufts, “The Galax Industry,” Christian Observer, 27 December 1905.

[5] “Christmas Greens and Flowers and Where They Grow,” Coleman’s Rural World, 3 December 1914.

[6] “Money in Galax Leaves,” The Greensboro Patriot, 3 April 1901.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “The Galax Industry,” Watauga Democrat, 12 January 1911.

[9] Edgar Tufts, “The Galax Industry,” Christian Observer, 27 December 1905. .

[10] Edward O. Guerrant, “The Galax Gatherers,” Christian Observer, 8 October 1902.

[11] Edward O. Guerrant, The Galax Gatherers: The Gospel among the Highlanders, 1st ed, Appalachian Echoes (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005).

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