This story on spreading avens is an excerpt from A Road Running Southward: Following John Muir’s Journey through an Endangered Land.
It’s a wonder anything survives the ice, snow, and winds that pummel this ridge, let alone the delicate-seeming yellow flowers known as spreading avens.
The lovely, long-stemmed perennials are exceedingly rare, officially listed as endangered, and found only in the intemperate highlands of North Carolina and Tennessee. They sprout from shallow acidic soils underlying craggy rock faces and grassy heath balds, at times blasted with full sun, but mostly shrouded in mist. The avens are survivors, ice-age throwbacks that refuse to die.
Geum radiatum, the plant’s Latin name, is only known to exist in 14 places, including hard-to-find alpine redoubts reached via deer trail or brambly bushwhacking.
And that is where I find Chris Ulrey, the world’s preeminent spreading avens expert. Ulrey, a plant ecologist with the National Park Service, doesn’t focus solely on this particular flower, also known as Appalachian avens and cliff avens. Yet I know of no other G. radiatum aficionado who, over two weeks of each of the last 20 summers, has scoured the highest peaks of the Blue Ridge monitoring the elusive flowers.
He has also written a series of authoritative reports on the plant’s status, all of which underscore that avens are heading toward extinction due to climate change. Avens, after all, move higher and higher up the mountains in search of cooler climes. What happens when there’s nowhere left to go?
I’d come to this mountaintop—the name of which Ulrey requests I not mention so rare-plant hunters and rock climbers don’t come destroy the remaining avens—to find out.
When I arrive, Ulrey is busy, dangling from a 100-foot rope attached to a vertiginous cliff, rappelling between clumps of avens. At least, one of his colleagues tells me he is. I can’t actually see him because he is shrouded in thick fog on the other side of a 50-foot ravine that promises, with one slippery misstep, a most painful death. Occasionally, I can hear him chirp out stats on the latest avens colony—length, width, number of rosettes—either marveling at their hardiness or lamenting their fragility. The colleague duly takes notes and quickly compares them to the flower’s status the previous year. A full scientific accounting will come later. Today is all about the search, and the scenery.
“This is awesome,” he yells skyward, as a break in the fog allows for a glimpse of the beatific botanist, head thrown back, arms outstretched, beseeching the heavens.
Most Southerners, if they think about climate change at all, think about the weather. They know about record-breaking temperatures and increasingly nasty storms. They’ll mention droughts or rising seas. They may even connect wildfires and flooding to a warming world. Yet there’s a widespread perception that climate change is mainly a coastal phenomenon. Among Americans who live within 25 miles of a coast, 70 percent say the changing climate affects their local community, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center survey. Of those who live more than 300 miles from the coast, only 57 percent do.
Perhaps the findings aren’t that surprising. After all, if you witness ever-higher tides and more frequent coastal floods, you’re more likely to believe that something strange is going on. The changes are more subtle, and longer range, across the mountains. But those same climatic forces—higher temperatures, more (and less) precipitation, extreme weather—that hammer the lowlands bedevil every region and ecosystem in the world.
And make no mistake, a warming world portends drastic and irreparable harm to the southern Appalachians, which John Muir labeled “the most beautiful deciduous forest I ever saw.”
Muir never made it to this corner of North Carolina; he crossed the Old North State’s southwestern corner instead. The same hills and vales that so entranced Muir during his post-Civil War trek kept a grip on his imagination for the rest of his life. It would take three decades, but Muir eventually returned to the verdant, botanically rich forests of the South. By then he was the nation’s most famous naturalist, his name synonymous with mountains, glaciers, Yosemite, Alaska, and the Sierra Club.
In an 1898 letter to Charles Sprague Sargent, a Harvard University professor and the nation’s top tree expert at the time, Muir wrote: “I don’t want to die without once more saluting the grand, godly, round-headed trees of the east side of America that I first learned to love and beneath which I used to weep for joy when nobody knew me.”
That fall, Muir joined Sargent and William Canby, a banker and well-regarded amateur botanist, on a month-long tour of the southern Appalachians. They visited Roan Mountain, the 5-mile-long massif of alpine grasslands that explode in a riot of red, pink, and white rhododendrons each spring.
Muir, under the weather from days of heavy travel, reposed at the Cloudland Hotel, which straddled the North Carolina-Tennessee line and afforded magnificent views. “All the landscapes in every direction are made up of mountains, a billowing sea of them without bounds as far as one can look,” he wrote to wife Louie, “and every mountain hill & ridge & hollow is densely forested with so many kinds of trees their mere names would fill this sheet.”
While Muir made no mention of the spreading avens, other botanical luminaries did. André Michaux, the famed French botanist, visited Roan in the late 18th century and shipped specimens back to Paris. Asa Gray, the ensuing century’s botanist extraordinaire, found avens atop Roan “in the greatest profusion.”
Ulrey returns every July to study Roan’s avens. Compared to The Unnamed Mountain, Roan Mountain is a walk in the park. Motorists can practically drive to the top of the 6,300-foot mountain.
Its accessibility, though, makes it an imperfect barometer of the plant’s health. Hikers who leave the Appalachian Trail and other routes trample or pick the flowers. Rock climbers, acid rain, second homes, and ski resorts harm avens elsewhere.
But this mountain, perhaps more than any other remote mountaintop, offers a truer— and scarier—barometer of the changing climate’s impact on avens and mountain ecology.
“It’s pristine; nobody comes out here. There are no recreational impacts,” Ulrey says. “It’s one of the largest populations. We haven’t recorded many deaths. But we rarely see any young plants, which is a concern. If it wasn’t a long-lived plant, it definitely would’ve gone extinct long ago.”
Avens, most likely, were more abundant at the end of the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago. As the glaciers retreated and the South warmed, the plants were trapped, unable to migrate farther north. So they crept up the mountains in search of cooler, wetter locales. They settled in their alpine homes above 4,500 feet surrounded by spruces and firs and, in the case of The Unnamed Mountain, red oaks. They thrive in humid places with annual temperatures averaging 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Rain and snow amounts may top 100 inches a year. Most avens face north or northwest, avoiding direct sunlight. Fog is a constant companion. They grow in very shallow soil, less than an inch deep.
Avens made the endangered species list in 1990. A Fish and Wildlife Service “recovery plan” three years later tallied 11 distinct populations; five others had already been extirpated. Eight of the remaining 11 had undergone moderate or significant damage during the previous decade.
Ulrey has a pretty good idea why. In a 2016 paper published in the journal Biological Conservation, he wrote that the “climate in the southern Appalachians is projected to rapidly change over the coming few decades [and] is likely to be particularly threatening to rare plants because of their narrow distributions, small population sizes, and specific habitat requirements.”
He’s blunter as we talk on top of this mountain.
“At the pace we’re going,” he says, “they will not be able to adapt and move—they’ll just blink out.”
Southerners are weather experts. They know that an already hot region is getting hotter with nastier storms. 2019 was the hottest year on record here, and 2017 and 2016 weren’t far behind.
People say, “Oh, it’s the South. It’s supposed to be hot in the summer.” True, but what’s different—and freaky—is how hot the nights are becoming. A century ago, the Southeast experienced seven nights a year where the temperature stayed above 75 degrees. Now, the temps remain above 75 an average of 15 nights per year. Some areas can expect an additional 100 very warm nights by the end of the century, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment. In all, the temperature in the Southeast is expected to rise an average of 4 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.
The consequences will be deadly. Already, the Southeast is the most dangerous region for farmers, foresters, hunters, fishers, construction workers, and garbagemen, accounting for nearly 70 percent of all heat-related deaths nationwide. By 2090, the intense heat could cost the region forty-seven billion dollars in lost productivity. Not surprisingly, the poor will suffer most. An alarming 2017 study in the journal Science details the economic inequality of climate impacts. It modeled 21st-century weather patterns in every U.S. county and how rising temperatures and sea levels, and other climatic impacts, will hurt the working class. Harvests will decline. Jobs will disappear. Energy costs will soar. Wildfires will destroy homes and businesses. Heat waves will turbocharge cardiac and pulmonary diseases.
The heat surge won’t be restricted to the Deep South. This century’s first decade, for example, was North Carolina’s warmest ever. The relatively cool southern Appalachians won’t be exempt, either. Far western North Carolina can expect 20 or more additional “very hot” days per year by 2060, according to the state’s 2020 climate report.
Conversely, the region could see as many as 50 additional nights a year when the temperature fails to drop below 32 degrees. And it may never again drop below zero in the winter.
“The cool temperatures to which these forests have adapted may no longer exist in the southern Appalachians, putting the viability of the high-elevation ecosystems at risk,” the report states.
Plant hardiness zones, devised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a guide for farmers and gardeners, are creeping north. The moderate zone currently found in western North Carolina, for example, will migrate to West Virginia by 2040. You’ll easily be able to grow a Georgia peach in the Smokies.
The warming world means robins migrate sooner. Black bears hibernate less. And eastern brook trout, the piscatory equivalent of spreading avens, swim farther upstream in search of cooler water. Their protective canopy of majestic hemlocks—“the redwoods of the East”—succumbs to a particularly pernicious aphid-like bug imported from Japan. Nearly half of the trout’s historic habitat in the cool Appalachian mountains has disappeared. In fact, the entire forest is succumbing to climate change. And folks well downstream will suffer.
In the parking lot of Elk Knob State Park, outside Boone, Ulrey recites the safety protocols by memory. It’s a cool and rainy July morning, but the alpine forests of the southern Appalachians aren’t known for seasonal conformity.
A biology professor from nearby Appalachian State University, a state biologist, and a couple of avens-loving volunteers, including a rock-climbing high school sophomore, have joined him.
We climb into two pickups and head north to The Unnamed Mountain. We turn off the state highway onto a dirt road, past a handful of abandoned homes, trailers, and salvaged cars and trucks, until two locked farm gates block our way. Chris unlocks the gate on the right and we jounce upward through tall grasses, purple-flowering raspberries, and black-eyed Susans that brush the truck like a car wash.
Ulrey grew up in Weaverville, outside Asheville, where his parents ran a nursery and landscaping business. The “artificialness” of the nursery fueled his desire for the real thing. After a stint in the Army, Chris went up the road to Mars Hill College (now University) where he met a girl (his future wife) whose father taught botany. He did his graduate and PhD work in botany at North Carolina State University. “I always loved the mountains and wanted to specialize in the southern Appalachians,” he says.
He’s been the botanist for the Blue Ridge Parkway—the nearly 500-mile ribbon of protected mountains and valleys that connects the Smokies to the Shenandoah—since 1999. “I call myself a plant ecologist,” says Chris, now a lanky 53-year-old with a white beard and tortoiseshell glasses. “I want to know what makes a plant tick.”
The rutted road ends, so we continue on foot. Under red oaks, yellow birch, and tulip poplars. Through thickets of rhododendron, hawthorn, and flame azalea. Around coneflowers, galax, and Turk’s cap lilies. When we can, we follow the narrow trails carved by deer and bears and marked occasionally by scat. We hike below the ridgeline in a northeasterly direction. It rains off and on, and fog inhibits views beyond 50 yards.
“The plants here are different than those farther south. They’re very large, and they flower more than in other places,” he explains. “I’m interested to see if they respond differently here.”
The amphibolites, a series of 5,000-foot peaks untouched by glaciers, run along the Appalachian spine across the northwest corner of North Carolina. Pockets of calcium-rich soil poke through the metamorphic rock and nourish rare and disjunct species, including trailing wolfsbane, purple-fringed orchids, and spreading avens. Of the 14 avens locations that Chris monitors, 10 are located on protected state or federal land. The amphibolites offer their best chance at survival.
After lunch, Ulrey and two climbers gear up and head to the cliff. Chris has partitioned the cliff into thirds; each climber is responsible for the avens within their transect. Individual plant sites were marked and numbered with blue aluminum tags a decade ago.
Ulrey descends to his first clump of flowers. He yells out the number on the tag to Sharon Bischoff, the state park biologist next to me, who records the information on a spreadsheet. He measures the length and width of the plant, as well as the number of flowers. He tallies the number of rosettes. Bischoff compares this year’s recording to last year’s and guides Ulrey to the next clump.
“This is extreme botany,” says Matt Estep, the Appalachian State professor and a plant geneticist who specializes in the rare and relict plants of the Blue Ridge. “There’s just so few of the plants left. But this is one of the best sites for ’em. So it’s special.”
Ulrey continues downward, repeating in almost monotone fashion the demographics of each marked avens, and evincing little outward alarm over the avens’ condition. Earlier, he told me that deaths on this mountain are less than 10 percent year to year, and that these avens may be decades old. But climate change is a nefarious beast. The plants themselves may not be succumbing to warmer temperatures just yet; that doesn’t mean they’re not getting battered.
“One of my theories is that these mountains used to stay cold all winter and the avens were encased in ice,” he said. “Now they’re subjected to multiple freeze-thaw cycles when water gets into the rocks, freezes, and expands, causing cracks to get bigger. Eventually, the rock splits and falls apart—and the avens fall off, too.”
He reaches the bottom of the cliff. On cue, the fog dissipates, the clouds part and the valley below heaves into view. The tiny red-roofed barns, emerald-green pastures, and Christmas tree farms paint a strikingly beautiful picture, a Grandma Moses tableau from a mile in the sky. The ridge-valley pattern extends a hundred miles northward into Virginia. A red-tailed hawk rides the currents above. And, right below, on the cliff face now bathed in sunlight, dozens of long-stemmed, bright yellow spreading avens bob in the breeze.
“Nothing seems dramatically different than last year,” Uley says. “We’re looking for long-term trends. We’ll see declines first at the lowest-elevation populations. The decline could be slow and gradual or rapid. Right now we are only seeing very small changes, usually due to stochastic events, such as rock fall or ice damage.”
Change, though, is coming. Under the currently reckless pace of carbon dioxide emissions, Chris predicts, more than 80 percent of the avens’ habitat could disappear by 2080. “Radical” loss of their unique ecological homes will occur by 2050, regardless of emission levels. The avens, in essence, have reached their apogee. There’s nowhere else for them to go.
“I feel like this is an indicator of the whole ecosystem we live in,” he says. “If we ignore this, then what’s next? In ecology, everything is connected. The more things we take out of the web of life, the more likelihood that the whole thing collapses.”
A Road Running Southward: Following John Muir’s Journey through an Endangered Land, copyright © 2022 Dan Chapman. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C. www.islandpress.org
Dan Chapman is a longtime writer, reporter, and lover of the outdoors. He grew up in Washington, D.C. and Tokyo, the son of a newspaperman and an English teacher. He worked for Congressional Quarterly, The Winston-Salem Journal, The Charlotte Observer, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He currently writes about conservation in the South for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He lives in Decatur, Georgia with his wife Bita and their two boys, Samad and Naveed.