Summer Botanical Hiking at Occoneechee Mountain

by Mark Miles

I’ve been quiet on my blog for the past four months. You may have realized this, or it may have escaped your attention. In either case, there is good reason. Since February, I’ve been dealing with a case of severe and prolonged polyneuropathy, which is the presumable symptom of latent multiple sclerosis. As a result, I’ve been far more fatigued and depleted than usual and have had to reduce my activity on this blog in order to focus on regaining my health.

In the interim, I’ve still been hiking and exploring trails in the area. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that one of my favorite trails is at Occoneechee Mountain in Hillsborough, North Carolina, where there’s an abundance of botanical life that continues to surprise me. On a recent hike, over the last weekend of August, I was able to take photos of some of the best botanical specimens in addition to my usual trail photography, which I will share in this post along with an identification and brief description of each botanical specimen.

I arrived at the Occoneechee Mountain parking lot in the late afternoon on Sunday, August 26th. The weather was absolutely perfect, hovering in the low seventies with minimal humidity and almost no cloud cover. It was so nice, it was hard to believe it was still summer. The sunlight was golden, bathing everything in a shade of welcoming radiance and promising many photographic opportunities. There were only a few vehicles in the parking lot—which meant I didn’t have to wrestle anyone for a spot—so I promptly parked and embarked on the Mountain Loop Trail.

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After hiking the first few hills, I came to a red oak that had a noticeable coating of shelf fungus on the north side. The fungus turned out to be mossy maze polypore (Cerrena unicolor), and the wood of the oak underneath the fungus was brittle and decomposing, indicating that the tree was in poor health and probably wouldn’t live much longer. I stopped and took a look at the fungus, noticing the delineation of colors, which alternated between white and green in clearly identifiable bands. A fungus with this alternation of color is called zonate, and this distinction can be helpful in identifying many species, as it did in this case.

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Upon passing the first of many rock formations on the Mountain Loop Trail, I noticed a juvenile loblolly pine tree (Pinus taeda) on the side of the trail and stopped to take a look. There was a mature female pine cone on the underside of one of the branches. Since female pine cones—which are the hard, woody cones that most of us associate with pine trees—often take a year and a half or more to mature, it was clear to see that this loblolly pine, however juvenile, was not to be dissuaded from reproduction by youth.

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Hiking further down the trail, I came to one of the most photogenic locations at Occoneechee Mountain. At this point in the trail, there’s a fairly steep hill, at the crest of which is a clump of pine, maple, and oak trees, all of which overlap one another and filter the rays of the late afternoon sun. In late fall and midwinter, when the sun is closer to the southern horizon, the rays of sunlight overlap the trail almost exactly, creating a compelling photographic effect when properly timed. As you can see in this photo, however, it’s still a little early in the season.

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After descending the photogenic hill, I followed the Mountain Loop Trail on its course, veering sharply toward the east at the edge of the park. At this point, the trail enters the floodplain of the Eno River, which is still to the north of the trail. Before you see the river, however, you can feel it, as the temperature drops noticeably due to the proximity to water. Another indicator of proximity to water is the increasing prevalence of sycamore and beech trees, which are scattered along the banks of the river and the edges of the trail.

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Hiking along the banks of the Eno River, I came to another striking botanical specimen, a yellow wildflower with eight thin petals—each petal is actually a ray floret, an entire flower unto itself—waving in the wind at the top of a four-foot-tall plant. This thin-leaved sunflower (Helianthus decapetalus) is native to the region and predominates in woodland and riparian zones where birds, bees, and butterflies benefit from the added food source.

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Following the trail, I climbed a flight of stairs embedded in the side of a hill and came to this escarpment of rock. Along the edge of it, there are numerous maple and beech trees which have taken residence. The escarpment itself is part of an old abandoned rock quarry, which now provides one of the most distinctive sights in all of Occoneechee Mountain. Walking underneath it is something of an exercise in faith and hope, and it’s easy to see how precarious the lives of the adjoining trees must be as a result.

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As if in confirmation of that fact, I came to a fallen maple tree, bisecting the Mountain Loop Trail, before I reached the old quarry. There was apparently a fungal infection at the base of the maple’s trunk which eroded its structural integrity over time and left it prone to collapse. With the torrential thunderstorms and heavy winds we’ve had in North Carolina lately—which are becoming increasingly frequent as our planetary climate continues to unravel at the seams—the maple tree wasn’t able to withstand the stress and came crashing to the forest floor.

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After passing the fallen maple and the old quarry—where I wasn’t able to get decent photos due to the insufficiency of my phone and the sharply contrasting light—I diverged from the Mountain Loop Trail and joined the Brown Elfin Knob Trail. (There are some names you simply can’t make up.) Shortly after joining the new trail, I noticed a small white mushroom to my right and stopped to take a look. What I found was an ivory funnel mushroom (Cerrena dealbata), one of the more poisonous fungi at Occoneechee Mountain, which produces a nerve toxin that causes salivation, palpitations, and asphyxiation if ingested in sufficient quantities. Fortunately I wasn’t hungry.

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There wasn’t much of the trail left after this last botanical encounter, and I returned to the parking lot in short order. With the crisp air and fading light to guide me, it was easy to feel nostalgic. In light of my own health issues over the past four months, I was keenly aware that there will only be a finite number of times in my life when I will be able to see the beauty of late summer at Occoneechee Mountain. Like the fallen maple, my time will come to an end at some point, whether in the near future or many decades from now.

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In light of that, I have decided to open the door to possibility. From this point forward, I will be reducing my own input on my blog and making room for others, who share an interest in the preservation of nature and culture and who want to make a difference for the good of our planet. To that end, I will start accepting submissions of original stories addressing personal experiences of nature and culture in daily life. The submissions page (accessible at the top of the page or by clicking here) will be open to anyone and will be your best way to contact me in regards to submitting your own original story for publication on this blog. In the meantime make the most of the time you have left, for life is a gift, not a given.

References:

Cerrena Unicolor,” Wikipedia, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Clitocybe dealbata,” Wikipedia, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Fungi growing on trunk/branches,” University of Minnesota Extension, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Helianthus decapetalus,” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, accessed August 29th, 2018.

How to Identify Oak Leaves,” Wikihow, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Mushrooms & Fungi,” Northland Paradise, accessed 27th, 2018.

Pinus taeda,” Wikipedia, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Pippen, Jeffrey S., “North Carolina Wildflowers, Shrubs, and Trees,” Jeff’s Nature Home Page, accessed August 29th, 2018.

Ten-petal Sunflower,” Illinois Wildflowers, accessed August 29th, 2018.

What Tree Is That?: Tree Identification Field Guide,” Arbor Day, accessed August 27th, 2018.

17 thoughts on “Summer Botanical Hiking at Occoneechee Mountain

  1. maryannniemczura September 2, 2018 / 1:52 pm

    Good luck to you with your health. Hiking in nature is so satisfying. You now have new items for your memory bank and for your writing. Best of luck. Lovely photos.

  2. Sherry Felix September 2, 2018 / 4:21 pm

    My sympathies for your polyneuropathy. I have neuropathy and other symptoms from post Lyme. We soldier on.
    I like your idea for environmental submissions. I hope you get some. I am not a writer, but if I find time I will try to contribute.

  3. Jane Sturgeon September 3, 2018 / 1:25 pm

    Sending you healing energy, Mark. Your photographs are beautiful and I am glad you got to hike one of your favourite trails. Here’s wishing you many submissions for your blog. Hugs x

  4. artsofmay September 3, 2018 / 5:02 pm

    Hi Mark. This is a beautiful post. I’m sorry to hear about your health issues and hope you will have good help and be able to be in nature as much as possible. Best to you, Lily

  5. gabbartrip September 25, 2018 / 4:31 am

    Why am I stumbling onto your blog (properly) only now? Kudos to you and a lot of positive energy towards you! Keep hiking, keep writing.

  6. trekking cottage apartment September 25, 2018 / 5:42 pm

    Great blogg and thanks for the like.

  7. freshandprispy October 10, 2018 / 1:10 pm

    I’m jealous! I’ve always wanted to live near a forest, and reading your post just reinforced the feeling. I love the pictures with the sun shining through — especially the one with the maple and beech trees. So glorious. I live in a wonderful tropical area, but unfortunately I’m hundreds of miles from a forest. 😦 Great post, though! Very refreshing.

  8. Fred October 11, 2018 / 6:30 pm

    I love the old grave marker!

  9. sewsew2015 October 11, 2018 / 9:49 pm

    Loved the photos and detail of your blog post.I have only visited coastal north and South Carolina – have made a mental note to venture inland next visit!

  10. stevescountry October 17, 2018 / 12:08 am

    Great post! I love hiking though I am unable to do any now due to my health, hope things improve for you. Thanks for liking my post ‘Fall Hiking, Heading Back’.

  11. Tandi Tales October 20, 2018 / 3:49 am

    Awesome, awesome write-up. I’m just beginning to learn my plant families and I can only hope to reach your level of knowledge. You remind me of the hiker who discovered the Wollemia nobilis in a remote canyon in Australia. If not for his botanical knowledge, that prehistoric pine tree might have become extinct and never been discovered. Keep it up and I hope you find YOUR Wollemi Pine one day.

  12. tamsing October 31, 2018 / 6:32 am

    Really sorry to hear of your health issues and sending strength. Love this post with its balance of detailed botanical info, joy of the outdoors and reminder of caring for the beauty around and in us.

  13. Patricia Gibbons November 17, 2018 / 4:42 pm

    What a lovely blog – great photos. Nature is a wonderful place of wholeness and gives us a great sense of being part of this wonderful world. Wishing you grace and health 🙂

  14. Ka November 18, 2018 / 8:16 am

    Hope you get many more chances to walk these tracks, there is so much beauty out there. I also have a neurological condition so empathise. Thank you for sharing it.

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