Galax, Virginia is named after the indigenous Galax urceolata and is known for hosting the annual Old Fiddler's Convention . It is situated in a valley between the New River and the Blue Ridge Parkway in South West Virginia. My mother's family is from this area and I'm emotionally linked to it.
The best thing would be to follow one of these musicians home. And get to hear music out on the porch, as darkness starts down by the river and fills the hollow. It could be the same as it was a century ago, the men joking after a Saturday's work, tuning a handmade fiddle or a banjo. "Hillbillies," they were called, because they came from Ireland's Ulster Province and brought songs about "Billy" --William of Orange, whose Protestant army defeated the Catholics at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
The newer songs resemble the old. Hear the music in the night air --and the edgy harmonies that could scare you.
I wandered again to my home in the mountains
Where in youth's early dawn I was happy and free
I looked for my friends but I never could find them
I found they were all rank strangers to me.6
-- Far Appalachia: Following the New River North by Noah Adams
The galax leaf is heart shaped, thick/leathery and grows singly above a long stem that arises from a basal rosette. It holds its deep shiny green color and shape for very long periods of time, making it a favorite in the world of floraculture. The leaf turns bronze in the winter.
Appalachia has an ecology that encourages unique flora and fauna. Ridges and hollows isolate islands of land without water. The area was, not that long ago, covered with deep dark hard wood forest. At one point in time every 4th tree was an American Chestnut. Sycamore, beech, sourwood, and hickory still prosper.2 The hemlock maybe not so much. Shade and leaf mould is what galax needs.
Galax is a slow growing rhizomatous plant producing less than 10 leaves per rhizome per year. Highlanders have pulled galax leaves for the last 100 years or more. Over time the plant has become somewhat decimated...much like ginseng, ramps, log moss and ponderosa pine. Some work is being done to learn how to replicate the deep dark forest floor conditions to farm a domesticated galax but progress is slow. 1
Making a living in these mountains is difficult. Galax has less than 7000 citizens, with a medium income under $30,000. Furniture manufacturers, railroads and textile plants have closed. Tobacco farming's days are numbered. Tourism is increasing. Christmas tree farms are increasing. Domesticating galax and other non-timber botanicals could preserve the wild populations and provide needed employment.
A bit of recent synchronicity found me reading Far Appalachia: Following the New River North, hiking in an old growth Maryland forest and finding a bright green heart shaped leaf which I think was galax although it may be wild ginger or Oconee bells.
"Galax leaves have long been used in the florist trade. The practice is passe, but time was the children of the mountains were frequently absent from school in autumn because they were "galaxing a pair of shoes" - or a coat, or books, their money project." 2
Children harvestors have been replaced with Latino workers and the volume of galax in trade has doubled since the 1990s. Some federal moratoriums on harvesting have been imposed. Both Galax the town and Galax urceolata may find a synchronous solution in respecting the unique Appalachian ecology.
1 Hopeful Eyes Turn to Burnsville, N.C.-Area Mountain Plant.
The Charlotte Observer
Byline: Charles Lunan
2 Hollows, Peepers, And Highlanders: An Appalachian Mountain Ecology
by George Constantz
3 WINTER GARDENS THRIVE DESPITE ERRATIC WEATHER
The News & Record
Byline: Nell Lewis
4 THE LOWDOWN ON PLANTS NEAR THE GROUND
6 Rank Strangers to Me
Copyright 1943, Stamps-Baxter Music & Printing Co.
from the Brumley songbook, The Best of Albert E. Brumley
8 Far Appalachia: Following the New River North by Noah Adams
9 Bob Dylan singing Rank Strangers