Backyard Daily: American beech

My favorite class to teach at the NC Botanical Garden is Dendrology: Trees of NC. It is known as one of the hardest class in the Native Plant Studies Certificate Program, yet I never have trouble filling the elective class, and I’ve never had a student fail.

I teach the course the same way I learned dendrology at NC State. Each week Richard Braham took us out in the woods and taught us 12-15 new species of trees. We were responsible for the scientific name, common name, family name, and the answer to a random natural history question. Dr. Braham quizzed us on 10 trees each week. Spelling had to be perfect, and quizzes were cumulative—any tree we’d seen thus far was fair game.

I love teaching dendro because I remember how hard it was, and I like finding ways to make the trees easier to learn. My mini-course is 4 classes, so I only cover about 50 trees. But it’s still hard to remember them all. The growing sense of accomplishment that accompanies each student’s mastery is incredibly rewarding to witness.

My students know that I have some favorite trees. American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is one of them. I love the smooth, gray bark, the singular bright green of new leaves, and the quiet winter woods where they stand out with their tan leaves. In the North Carolina Piedmont, I look for beeches on north-facing bluffs, which stay cooler and moister in the hot summers. In the mountains, Elk Knob (Hike #26 in our book) has forests that are 100% beech.

In the fall and winter, beech is easily recognized by the dry, tan leaves that remain on its branches. I noticed that they disappear somewhat suddenly in spring, displaced by the new green leaves shooting out of the long buds. I decided to take a daily photograph to document the leafing-out of one of my favorite trees and help me observe the coming of spring.

This sequence was taken between April 9th and May 1st, 2014, in Raleigh, NC.


April 9, 2014


April 13, 2014


April 18, 2014


April 21, 2014

Now things really get exciting. Daily photos from April 23-29th.


April 23, 2014


April 24, 2014


April 25, 2014


April 26, 2014


April 27, 2014


April 28, 2014


April 29, 2014

May 1, 2014

May 1, 2014

Eight leaves packed into each one of those small buds. It’s amazing what you can see when you look!


Running wild: A Linville Gorge adventure

About a month ago, my friends Joanna and Ken joined me on a day trip to Linville Gorge. I had taken the day off, but was there because of my forest ecologist’s insatiable curiosity about the outcome of the Table Rock fire. I had also promised NC State a blog post about the November fire. So technically, I was doing research.

I had to see what the mountain looked like after this. Photo

I had to see what the mountain looked like after this! Photo by Mark Steven Houser.


[I have the best job in the world!]






Joanna and Ken are both running buddies, and we packed and dressed for running. I didn’t promise much running, because this was Linville Gorge. But we were ready either way.

Linville Gorge is a wild place. It covers nearly 12,000 acres, with sides so steep that loggers couldn’t reach the timber. It remains one of the very last tracts of old-growth forests in the East. In my book, I talk about the human need for wilderness, a place that demands our respect and recognition that we are but a tiny part of a bigger world.

Therefore, in addition to my usual hydration pack and assorted snacks (new favorite: wasabi soy almonds! Salt + a wallop!), I also packed a small first aid kit, a topo map, and a compass. As a federal wilderness, Linville Gorge has no signs or trail blazes. Cell service is non-existent. You better know the trails or know how to read a map, or better yet, both. I knew some of the trails and knew the route I wanted to take—we’d just have to see if we could connect them together.

Map that shows our route: Table Rock, Little Table Rock, Spence Ridge to the Linville River, back to the road, up to MST, back to Table Rock Picnic Area. Notes: 1) About 8 miles, 2) Bridge on map was washed out, 3) Yes, many topo lines.

Map that shows our route: Table Rock, Little Table Rock, Spence Ridge to the Linville River, back to the road, up to MST, back to Table Rock Picnic Area. Notes: 1) About 8 miles, 2) Bridge (the only one across) was washed out, 3) Yes, many topo lines.

First, we hiked to the Table Rock summit, easily the most popular trail in the Gorge. I wasn’t surprised that the fire damage was patchy, but it was even spottier than I expected. Here and there we could see swaths where the fire burned hot, but there were large patches of completely intact forest and many places where the shrubs had burned but the trees had escaped unscathed.


I love edges. Photo by @jpomilio.

It was Monday, so we had the summit to ourselves. I ran along the broad ridgeline, looking for the federally endangered mountain golden heather (I didn’t find any). The summit was unburned and the views up the Gorge were spectacular.

Far below us, we could see the glint of sunlight on water, the formidable Linville River, which created the vast gorge. That’s where we were going. It’s nearly a 2000 ft. descent from the summit to the river, not counting all the ups and downs in between.

You can just see the Linville River from the Table Rock summit.

You can just see the Linville River from the Table Rock summit.

Sure hope we find the next trail, because I don't want to come back this way!

Sure hope this is Little Table Rock Trail, because I don’t want to have to come back this way!

We descended past the junction for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, then I stopped at another small trail that turned north. “This should be the Little Table Rock Trail,” I said, hoping it was.

We descended steeply, falling down the side of the mountain. The trail was rated “very primitive” and “most difficult” and the footpath faded in places. This area was burned more thoroughly than the trail up to Table Rock. Most of the rhododendrons and azaleas were blackened, though green shoots were already sprouting at their bases. I found big patches of Indian cucumber root, dug one up, and fed it to my friends for the full wilderness experience.

Ken and Joanna agreed that, while tasty, it would be hard to survive on Indian cucumber root.

Joanna is watching to see if Ken is going to go into convulsions from eating Indian cucumber root. They agreed it was pretty tasty, but you’d have to eat a lot to survive. Fortunately, we packed lunch.

With the fire, there were more downed trees than usual, obscuring the trail in places. We emerged at large, flat camping area, which had a network of smaller trails leading away plus one main trail. I pulled out the topo map as we ate lunch, and figured we must have reached the intersection of Little Table Rock and Spence Ridge Trails. I decided the main trail heading to the right must be the upper part of Spence Ridge that led to the road, so we needed to find the continuation of Spence Ridge that led to the river.

If you look at Joanna’s Garmin track, our path looked a bit like a spider—going out on something that looked promising, then back to the campsite as we realized it wasn’t. Sometimes the path was distinct, only to end at a cliff or an impenetrable thicket. After an hour, we decided to take the main trail out to the road and drop our plans to go to the river. I was disappointed but out of ideas. Not five minutes after we turned right, we reached the obvious intersection with Spence Ridge (unmarked, of course). Huzzah! We turned left and ran the moderate slope down to the Linville River.

The river was quiet, but the enormous tumbled boulders and sizable bridge that had vanished hinted that this serene waterway can turn into a raging torrent with a single afternoon thunderstorm. We stretched out on the rocks, took off our shoes and soaked our feet in the cool river.


Don’t let the tranquility fool you–the Linville River is both a wild and scenic river. The only bridge that spans the river was washed out.

It was well after noon, so we reluctantly laced up and began the hike out. We ran when the grades weren’t too steep. When we reached the road, we turned right and ran about a mile before jumping on the (marked!) white-blazed Mountains-to-Sea Trail to head back to Table Rock. I wasn’t entirely sure how far it was, so I was relieved to see the sign that said we were just two miles from the car.


The only reasonable part of the MST that we hiked that day.

O.M.G. Steep! That speck up ahead is Ken.

O.M.G. Steep! That orange speck is Ken.

Our initial climb through open forest abruptly became slick, rooty, and incredibly steep. Joanna disappeared ahead while Ken and I slogged upslope, pausing at intervals to catch our breaths. At one point, we passed an old logging deck campsite, which was the first place I ever camped in my life, in college, many years ago. If the trail we took from there to Table Rock—now the MST—is the one we used to haze newbies, by hiking close to midnight without headlamps, it’s a miracle I survived to return.

We finally re-joined the Table Rock Trail and took the more established trail back to the car, arriving around 4:00 pm. We walked around the picnic area where the fire started, then hit the bumpy dirt road down the mountain.

Great friends and end to a wonderful day!

Great friends and end to a wonderful day!

I love wilderness and the bare essentials it leaves you with, but technology has its advantages—we were able to locate the Olde Hickory Taproom, for burgers and beers before heading east. Ken even ordered the Table Rock Pale Ale, while Joanna and I opted for the Daniel Boone IPA (yum!).

At one point during the day, Ken asked if there was anything like Linville Gorge. I thought for a minute, then shook my head. No. Not on the East Coast. I have many favorite wild places in the southern Appalachians, but none are like Linville Gorge. Somehow we’d climbed one of the highest peaks and descended to the river and yet, only scratched the surface of this wild and beautiful place.

Field trip: Wandering in Coeur d’Alene

Work took me west for a forestry research meeting, and I was excited to see a new landscape. I was happy to discover a greenway trail along the lake, the North Idaho Discovery Trail, but still wanted to check into the possibility of nearby dirt. I found and messaged the Trail Maniacs, and received an immediate recommendation for Tubbs Hill, a small peninsula with trails that was adjacent to my hotel.

???????????????????????????????I am not a fancy hotel kind of person, but even I had to admit that my room on the 15th floor with a balcony and fireplace was super-sweet. And I could see Tubbs Hill right out the huge picture window! I took a trail map from the concierge and waited for an opportunity. I ended up doing two short runs there at the end of two different days, a perfect way to decompress after moderating two solid days of forestry research talks.

Larch, my new favorite western conifer!

Larch, my new favorite western conifer!

Tubbs Hill has a 2 mile trail that goes around the periphery, as well as a few secondary trails. I was stunned to see 20+ species of wildflowers, most of which I’d never seen, but were familiar due to their Eastern kin. While I was there and on the forestry field tour, I learned several new species of conifers that grow in mixed stands in the area known as the “Inland Empire.”

Coeur d'Alene collage

Gorgeous wildflowers on Tubbs Hill that seemed like old friends. The only flower that was completely unfamiliar was the chocolate lily on the top left.

The trail, while short, has lots of wonderful diversity—rocky sections along the lake, cool, shady sections through tall conifers, open sunny areas with wildflowers. Although the map showed only 2 main trails, there is actually a whole network of trails that criss-crosses over the steep, rocky hill.

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Exploring a small peninsular park like Tubbs Hill was fun, because you can take whatever trail comes across your path and get a bit lost, without getting REALLY lost. And if you’ve been on a tight agenda for a few days, a little wandering is exactly what you need.


Wandering is good for me.



The Never-Ending Reindeer Run (#NERR) Postscript: Red Mill Rd. to Penny’s Bend

Readers might recall that Joanna and I ran 50 miles last December in our self-supported quest to complete the Falls Lake section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. We ran 3.5 miles on Friday, 32.1 miles on Saturday, and 14.4 miles on Sunday to finish 50 miles. Saturday’s weather was awful, and looking back, I can’t believe we finished that run with Jon in the dark after hours of pouring rain.


This was the December route. See the red part, to the left of FINISH? That was the start of this run.

We had taken our time and felt pretty good. But we were worn out by Sunday afternoon. I was exhausted. Even so, all day Monday, I waited for my phone to ring. It didn’t. Joanna said she was going to relax by taking in a double feature, and that’s exactly what she did. And I was secretly relieved, but I also felt a tiny bit of a letdown.

Why? Because, you see, the Falls Lake section of the MST is actually 60 miles. We had run a long way, and we had run exactly what we planned, but we had not run the whole section. With different races on our calendars, discussion of “unfinished business” lingered the rest of winter and through the spring.

Mother's Day MST RunAfter some back-and-forth calendar checking, we eventually settled on Mother’s Day as the day to run the last ~10-mile stretch of the MST, from Red Mill Rd. to Penny’s Bend. That prevented most of our friends from joining, but it worked for us and for our friend Suzette, and we found ourselves at the usual Starbucks early before caravanning to Durham to run a shuttle.

It was supposed to be hot, so we decided to wear our 2013 MST Challenge shirts. Matching is funny, especially if you know either of us.

Ready to go at Red Mill Rd.

Ready to go at Red Mill Rd.

This section starts along Ellerbe Creek and was quite pretty. We saw some nice wildflowers and a lot of poison ivy. By mid-summer, this section of trail will be seriously overgrown with poison ivy. We all scrubbed as soon as we got home and didn’t get any.

There are quite a few open powerline easements along this stretch, and the character of Falls Lake is much different when we could see it, with shallow water and lazy coves. As we re-entered the woods along the lake, we startled a large, heavy bird with a broad brown tail that had been on the ground—all evidence pointed to it being a wild turkey.

In another easement, Joanna stopped short. “Snake.” Suzette and I peered around her shoulder. It was a black rat snake that was pretending to be a rattlesnake, vibrating its tail in the leaves to try to fool us into thinking it was a poisonous rattlesnake. We watched it for a few minutes, then it turned around 180 degrees and slunk off into the bushes, as if to say “I was planning to go this way anyway…I don’t want any trouble.”

NERR collage

Other discoveries included Atamasco lilies, a huge crayfish chimney, a trailside campsite, and finally coming out on Snow Hill Road to cross the Eno River at Penny’s Bend. Penny’s Bend hikers asked us if we’d seen the snake on the trail, and we explained that we’d hiked the MST, pointing over our shoulders to show them where we’d come out. This section is new and relatively unknown, so hopefully hikers will discover it soon.

Penny's Bend

Penny’s Bend, the end of the Falls Lake section.

We celebrated with lunch at Chow—burgers and beer, as per tradition—for completing all 60 miles of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, from Falls Lake Dam to Penny’s Bend. But I hear the next section is progressing rapidly, and that soon we’ll be able to run from Penny’s Bend to Eno River State Park. Another adventure in the making—stay tuned!

60 miles. BOOYAH!

60 miles. BOOYAH!

Blue Ridge Marathon Race Report (marathon #6): Embrace the hills

“Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.” -David McCullough, Jr.

My journey to Roanoke started last summer, over a burger and pint with some Peeps, including my friends Amy and Matt. Matt was wearing a shirt that said “You run hills. I run mountains.” I knew that they went to Roanoke every year to run the half marathon. Matt said he was going to tackle the marathon in 2014, to celebrate his 40th birthday.

My friend Matt is a rational guy, and the course looked beautiful. When the race advertised free race entries for “official bloggers,” I sent in an entry and promptly forgot about it. So I was completely surprised to learn that I had been chosen. I looked up the other bloggers, who either were real bloggers or people who had won the race previously. I re-read my entry and was dismayed by how lame it was. Maybe I was chosen for “color.” Anyway, I was both baffled and honored to be chosen.

Races are more fun when you can coerce your friends into going. Soon a small cadre of Peeps had signed up, but I was still without a roommate. Every time I posted something about the race, my friend Lorraine would comment or “like” it. Three weeks before the race, I sent her a note to see if she wanted to go. Another new Peep, Juliet, took my friend Jean’s race bib, and the three of us set off for Roanoke together. I’d only spent a small amount of time with either of them, so I was both nervous and excited for the weekend.

My fun travel companions for the weekend, Juliet and Lorraine.

My fun travel companions for the weekend, Juliet and Lorraine!

Lorraine is super-duper-speedy, and Juliet is an ultra-runner who had just run the Umstead 50, so I figured I could learn a thing or two from these stellar athletes. We talked non-stop about the mountains, training, the mountains, food, and the mountains. How tough would these mountains be?

Joined Matt and Amy and their boys, and Doug and Sheree, for a fun Peeps dinner. I had a great veggie pasta and embarrassed myself when I told the boys that the desserts on the dessert tray were made of plastic. Amy picked up a cannoli to prove it, only to find out that it was real. OOPS! We grabbed stuff for breakfast at a grocery store and headed back to the hotel, joking about the Mill Mountain Star taunting us wayyyy up there.

Morning came early with a 5:15 am wake-up call. The race didn’t start until 7:35 so I was a little clueless about why we were up so early. But, I tried to take notes they ate breakfast, foam rolled, stretched, etc. while I drank too much coffee and surfed the web.


Peep crew pre-race! Lorraine, Juliet, Matt, Ann, me, and Doug. Rock and roll, Peeps!

We headed downstairs, met up with the rest of the Peeps, and headed for the start. We wished Lorraine well and Matt, Doug, Ann and I headed to a spot mid-corral for the start. Ann and I took in the views as we headed out of town and immediately up the first mountain. We alternated walking and running, because it was already steep and I knew I’d need to manage my energy. Truthfully I was worried about my preparation, since I’d only done one 18-mi run and it was two weeks ago, when I should have been tapering. How long does the “base training” of a 40 mi ultramarathon last? Since Uwharrie was February 1st, I had a sinking feeling that the answer was “not that long.”



Mile 2.5!

After 2.5 miles the half marathon course split off, so we posed for a photo, then I watched Ann turn and head up Mill Mountain to the star. I would be there much later, after the first ascent up Roanoke Mountain.

The course leveled out before climbing again, so I picked up the pace a little. Around mile 6 I saw Matt ahead of me and promised myself that I could take a walk break as soon as I caught up with Matt. That proved easier said than done since Matt was making good time. It seemed like ages before I finally caught up with him. We ran together for a bit and split up just below the summit of Roanoke Mountain, accompanied by the plaintive wail of bagpipes. Awesome!

I wasn’t worried about the steep climbs, because I knew that I’d be walking them, especially any that were a 10% grade or more. But I was concerned about the equally steep downhill stretches, given past problems with my IT band. Even so, my legs cheered as we crested the summit of Roanoke Mountain and we headed downhill. I tried to run conservatively and not trash my quads. I did that by keeping my speed in check and taking very short steps with a high turnover—picture a hamster in a wheel.

The course descended for at least a mile or two before reaching the saddle and heading up Mill Mountain. The climb was relentless, but I was thoroughly enjoying the views as well as the wildflowers that lined the road. Toward the top we started seeing signs for Moomosas, and sure enough, there were a couple of women serving them up alongside a cow statue. Unfortunately I couldn’t partake, but I waved as I went by.

The descent back into Roanoke was a couple of miles, but quite runnable. I enjoyed the break as the course descended, and even clocked an 8:17 split on my way down. I had expected the views from the top to be worth all the climbing, but was thrilled to discover that the whole course was incredibly beautiful. After running back into Roanoke, we ran on a greenway along the Roanoke River. I crossed over a bridge to see Amy cheering, while Ben and Will gave me a blast on their vuvuzelas.

The flat stretch ended, and we began climbing the last mountain, through a beautiful neighborhood called Peakwood. Many families were out on their lawns with signs and high-fives, cheering us on. The number of marathoners—about 700—was perfect to me; there were always people around, but there was plenty of space between runners. We had another long, beautiful descent into town and my hip started talking, though I worked hard to run tall and keep my stride short, rather than sinking into my hips as I tired.


Airplane arms in the downhill finish!

Back in town, the course became rolling. The hills suddenly seemed like a lot of effort and I was glad to have fewer than 5 miles to go. Turning the very last corner, it was a fast descent to the finish. This time I stretched my legs and ran hard, finishing in 4:32. Amy, Ann, Jeff, and Ann’s family were there and it felt great hear my name!

Lorraine takes 2nd OA and first female. BOOYAH!

Lorraine takes 2nd OA and first female. BOOYAH!

I grabbed water and a slice of pizza and learned that Lorraine had placed 1st for women and second overall female, setting a new course record of 3:13! Our Peep half marathoners all had a good but challenging runs. I walked up the street to hang out with Amy and watch Matt finish, then grabbed a quick shower before meeting Lorraine and Juliet at the awards ceremony so Lorraine collect her loot. So awesome! We then stretched our legs by wandering fun the open air market for awhile before loading up and heading out. I LOVED Roanoke and hope to spend more time there on my next visit.

I’m afraid of many things. But I am not afraid of running mountains. Was it hard? Sure was—it was by far the hardest course I’ve run. It made Umstead’s Turkey Creek look like gently rolling, bucolic countryside. But by taking my time and enjoying the views, the race was achievable. Would I go back? Absolutely!

Here’s what I think: Sign up for a race because you want to do it. Marathons are hard. And life can have its ups and downs. Don’t miss out on the views because you think that you can only handle the flats.

What Not to Do Before 26.2

A running buddy of mine loves to remind me of something another friend once said. “That was not one of your brighter moves, Steph, and let’s face it, you’ve done some stupid things.” It’s true, I know. Running with Scissors was not an idle choice.

So when I volunteered to help on a prescribed burn at Penny’s Bend Nature Preserve two days before the Blue Ridge Marathon, I did hesitate for a second. Nowhere in the running literature does it say “Two days before your race, strap 5 gallons of water on your back, grab a fire rake and a drip torch, and spend the day setting the woods on fire.”


Mike lighting off the first burn unit.


Although prescribed burning is not the same as fighting wildfires, there is a lot of prep work involved. Here’s some of our equipment.

The NC Botanical Garden is using fire at Penny's Bend Nature Preserve to manage a more open forest.

The NC Botanical Garden is using fire at Penny’s Bend Nature Preserve to restore the more open forest that they think was here historically.

Yeah, BUT. I only get the chance to help with fires once or twice a year, and I was not about to miss out. And, for anyone who has visions of extreme smoke-jumpers, this was not that. Prescribed burning takes a lot of meticulous planning and safety training for the burn boss, but it’s really child’s play for a bunch of volunteers who were pyros as kids. Fortunately someone took the water backpack from me (it’s only ~25 lbs full, but sloshes around awkwardly and the straps are too wide for my shoulders), and I spent most of my time on drip torch duty, lighting fires one small unit at a time, which is my favorite job. It was a beautiful day, and we burned one unit at a time, mostly as planned. My shoulders are a little sore and I probably need to spend today re-hydrating.

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Yes, setting fires is really fun!

Lighting fires is fun!


Seeking beauty in familiar places

“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” -Georgia O’Keefe


I doubt my friends would list “observant” as one of my top 5 personality traits. For example, I don’t know anyone’s car unless it has something distinctive or I’ve known them awhile. On a recent run, someone asked if we’d already run through the third tunnel on the House Creek Greenway. Beside her, I thought to myself, “there are three?”

On the other hand, I can see things that others miss. When I was little, I could spot navigational aids, birds, seashells, and constellations. My older son can similarly find sharks’ teeth and arrowheads. But what brings me joy is being able to see beauty in everyday places, which may be why I love running the same trails over and over.

My last long run before the Blue Ridge Marathon was late afternoon on Easter Sunday. I parked at Ebenezer Church Rd by the bridge and ran up North Turkey Creek to hop on the Sycamore loop. Third weekend in April is peak wildflower season, so I held my camera in one hand and my water bottle in the other. [It's risky--I like my camera a lot, I'd hate to smash it, and I'm a little klutzy. But as I tell Andrew, there's little point in having a camera if you're afraid to take it anywhere. The scratches on the lens are unfortunate, but part of the price of admission.]

I saw things that afternoon that I’ve never noticed at Umstead–where I run nearly every week. My favorite was a grove of pawpaw between the two bridges next to Ebenezer Church Rd. Slow down when you run by next time and see if you can spot their delicate burgundy blooms dangling over the creek. They’ll only be there another week or two.

Have you noticed these before?

Have you noticed these before? The flowers are only an inch or so across.



Look closer…petals and sepals are in multiples of three.

Closer still...

Closer still…enough to see the fuzziness of the sepals and stems.


And O’Keefe-esque…close enough to see the heart and the essence of the flower.

There are whole websites devoted to spectacular trail scenery (Google “trail porn” – I kid you not) and I too long to visit beautiful new places to run and explore. But there is also something to be said for seeing your favorite places in new ways, and how they change over the seasons. That kind of intimacy takes time, as O’Keefe says…but it is a gift that we all can give ourselves.

Take a run or hike on your favorite trail this weekend to know it better–its rocks, flowers, and trees, and what makes it special. Watch how spring is unfolding there. You’re sure to see something you haven’t noticed before. Below are just a few things I saw on my 7 mile Easter Sunday run.


Buckeye flowers, which you can see all through the understory along Turkey Creek.


My love affair with American beech continues.


North Carolina’s own Easter lily, Atamasco lily.


Have you seen this slope above Sycamore Creek lately? It’s covered in bluets.


Christmas fern–I love the geometry of the unfurling fiddleheads.


Spring beauty tucked into a tree hollow.


Giant chickweed, which has five split petals, not 10. Look closely!


Foamflower along Sycamore Creek.


Bluets, or Quaker ladies, all over Umstead right now.


Spring beauty all along Sycamore Creek. These beauties stay closed on cool mornings.

Closer still...

This is still my favorite…this week.