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The Ninth Paper Birch November 11, 2012

Posted by Jenny in nature, plants, poetry, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: , , , ,

Carl Linnaeus in traditional garb of Lapland, holding twinflower

Along the Smokies’ bristly red-spruce crest,

teams of botanists sought

Linnaea borealis, last collected 1892

by Mr. Albert Ruth,

amateur from Knoxville.

It’s otherwise unknown in Tennessee.

Common name: twinflower.

Its stems divide,

providing perfect matching sets

of tubular pale-pink blossoms,

paired like miniature hands,

or maybe tiny motel bedside lamps,

the ones you click left right, on off.

Sole member of its genus.

Forms twinkling flowered carpets,

grows furry, curving stems.

Carl Linnaeus found it growing happily

in Lapland.

He named the plant for himself.

Circumpolar in her range, Linnaea prefers

subarctic forests, lands of braided rivers,

frost rings, patterned ground.

She thrives on talus slopes

where summer ice exhales cold vapor under boulders.

In a 19th-century hand with loops and curlicues,

Mr. Ruth had scribbled his notation:

“Sevier County, mountain woods.”

Vague location!

I see him whistling cheerily as he wrote.

He mis-ID’d the plant. Moved.

Took his specimens to Texas. Died.

Circumstance kept turning.

UT’s herbarium burned down.

Knoxville botanists begged donations.

Ruth’s daughter in Fort Worth

kindly shipped them his collection.

Sorting through, a boggled expert spotted Linnaea

languishing mislabelled.

Borealis! Plant of the north! Somewhere in Sevier!

She had to live high up, she had to breathe

the same cool air as spruce and birch.

That meant the highest, roughest edges of Sevier,

the county’s toughest outer crust.

Curious minds deduced that Ruth

meandered up the path through Dry Sluice Gap

and maybe wandered out past sharp-edged blackrock crags.

Or into stark north-facing gullies

hiding oddball micro-climates,

chutes scoured out by downpours, landslides—

piling up big logjams at the bottom.

Squads of botanists searched. Twice.

Failed to find her.

Found a grove of paper birch, eight trees

consorting in a gully.

Likely southernmost in North America,

living at their limit.

Surely silver in the light, with copper trim,

glimmering in their own small glade.

Facing north.

Meanwhile our botanists wallowed

in the Smokies’ trove of species,

rare and homely (Rugel’s ragwort);

common, lovely (Turk’s cap lily).

I think I know where Linnaea might be.

You’d climb a staircase of cascades

and reach a swerving Anakeesta chute,

a secret hallway of the valley.

You’d angle to one side

and scramble through dense swaths

of knee-deep pale-green moss.

You’d pass a paper birch, the ninth,

its roots clenched onto rock,

the slope precarious.

The mists are closing in.

You hear the sound of Linnaea singing.

– Jenny Bennett



1. Steve Schwartzman - November 11, 2012

I see from the USDA distribution map that this boreal species doesn’t make it as far south as Texas, where I am. From what you say, Tennessee has joined my state in not being home to this wildflower, but we can both imagine it.

Jenny - November 11, 2012

You are only asking about Linnaea–in an earlier response I spoke about paper birch. Sorry about that. As far as Linnaea is concerned, it’s still an open question! There could be isolated pockets up near the state line with North Carolina, similar to the areas with paper birch.

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