The April that Dripped Blossoms

Big and bold, bawdy and brash, positively bodacious. . .

. . .they lured me in.

I will never complain about a rainy winter again.

How rainy was it? you ask.

I will tell you how rainy it was. One day in January I was racing the sun to plant some shrubs in a front bed. I had dug starter holes to mark locations.

(Who am I kidding? Starter holes! Fancy talk for refusing to admit I couldn’t dig more than a few inches down before I hit clay dumped from road construction, then rain-slicked into a pancake before it dried to faux concrete.)

So there I was, fighting gray clay, when the evening turned gray and my spirit turned even grayer. Enough, I said. I walked off the job, leaving pails of sand and compost (feeble bribes for asking plants to grow in clay prisons) tossed pots, tools (well, just a couple of shovels; I hadn’t gotten to the pickaxe stage), with tottery plants balanced in starter holes.

I’ll be back tomorrow, I said. Tomorrow rained, as did tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, cold, dreary rains. Water inched up the rain guage. I plumb forgot the tipsy plants. I plumb forgot the entire garden. A few weeks later I finally ventured out, expecting an unhappy quagmire.

Not so. (Though I wondered what was with those tipsy plants and empty pots.) Then I remembered. Oh. Yes. . .all that rain. . .and another unfinished project.

By now, mid-April, I have straightened the wobbly plants and the daffodils that hide the unwanteds have already bloomed and the ditch is dry-ish!

To have a lovely spring garden, we are told to water in the fall. Fat chance of that. My watering can is limited strictly to reviving already flattened plants in summer. Never mind dragging a leaky hose around to plants that are finally looking perky on the chance they’ll shine next spring.

Hmmm. I looked around. Maybe, just maybe, those plant gurus are on to something. The garden was so rich with blossoms that fragrances suspended on light breezes were sweeping along paths and around corners to tease me.  So I followed them. . .

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Some plants surprised me with their exuberance this year. Some had moped for years, others had teased me with on-again off-again blooms, still others rebelled in gray clay under loblolly pines that always seemed to be raining needles.

Spirea ‘Mt Fuji’ was one of these, quite the show on a gray day in early spring. Its leaves streaked with white, a crowning feature, are less fascinating to me today than when I first spied them in a nursery. In fact, its sister, spirea ‘ogon’ is much flashier, with bright yellow leaves. But this year, those tiny five-petaled flowers brought sunshine into the garden.

Spirea thunbergii ‘Mt Fuji’

Leonard Messel Magnolia, developed from a chance seedling found in a garden in England, was about two feet high when it came to us  in a quart pot many years ago. Here it spreads its branches wide to the sky, sweet, pink, strappy blooms with muted fragrance, that too soon blow off with the wind.

So dependable, but so early they surprise me each spring when they explode. Like all magnolias here, once established, they dominate the canopy with heavy growth that limits plantings to shade lovers.

Magnolia x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’

Armand Clematis is the earliest-blooming clematis in my garden, a parade of stars romping along the fence where we keep our potted cuttings. Once I gave it a place of honor near a special tree. Then I realized it was upstaging the special tree. So I moved it to the backyard and the special tree died.


Lenten rose, Hellebore orientalis sparkled as it has never sparkled before, though I must confess to sprinkling some fertilizer on the plants at one time or another. It’s been a long time since I planted the original pioneers, and, sadly, they went into hiding after Hurricane Isabel in 2003. These are seedlings that the original plants bequeathed to the garden.

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Loropetalum bloomed the entire month of April, the blossoms eclipsing its deep purple leaves. Thirty years ago, it was only questionably hardy here. Since then it has settled in nicely.

It’s planted too close to the driveway (Who thought it would get so bushy it would cramp the car?), so it got regular haircuts that removed most blooms. Finally, we limbed it up to a small tree just out of reach of our pruners. It laughed at us and reached for the sun and gave us a lovely surprise bouquet.

Loropetalum chinense’var. rubrum ‘Ruby’

Double Reeves Spirea, this one with classy pedigree, grown from a pinch-off in a University of Virginia garden, smuggled out in my sister’s capacious purse. A fantastic bloomer in sun, later than airy Bridal Wreath spirea, with a take-no-prisoners approach to blooming. Do you think this ten-year-old cutting, a descendant of the original cutting needs a haircut?

Spiraea cantoniensis ‘Lanceolata’

Close-up of the Double Reeves spirea remind me of snow balls tumbling from the sky.

Double Reeves Spirea, a closer look

Japanese snowball bush, a grand fountain of flowers in a friend’s garden, shrank to almost nothing in our garden. The deer helped with the shrinkage. It’s been rescued, repotted, rescussitated, replanted twice in fifteen years and I’d just about given up. This year the gawky, top heavy shrub bloomed like a champion for almost a month, and now it is big enough to prune to shape.

Viburnum plicatum

Here’s an earlier view of blooms still greenish but just as pretty. The white “snow cones” behind them is another Double Reeves spirea, and behind that is a loropetalum kept trimmed.

Viburnum plicatum

Azaleas, even those in full shade, outdid themselves this year with profuse and large blooms in a joyous spectacle across the garden.

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Demure deutzia nikko – I’ve given this plant to just about everyone I know. Here, in very little sun, its blooms are scattered, so are not as spectacular as sun-grown plants. Still, I must include it, as I love its airy blooms, and it is a sturdy edger that travels in a polite way.

Deutzia gracilis ‘Nikko’

Columbines, at last they have come back to my garden. This from a chance seedling, but the delicate red and yellow blooms of the native are scattered about, too. I hope they stay.

Aquilegia sps.

Deutzia ‘Chardonnay Pearls,’ a froth of white billowing over chartreuse leaves, was a charmer many years ago when it came on the market. It’s still a charmer for me, but I don’t notice it in much in nurseries any more. It brightens a semi-shady spot in our garden and never seems to complain.

Deutzia gracilis ‘Chardonnay Pearls’

Lady Banks rose – Many years ago I saw one draped over a fence along a country road. I had to have it. It’s a fixture in southern gardens, and in those days you could find shrubs for a few pence in family nurseries whose owners grew plants because they loved gardening and loved propagating. It’s always been a carefree standout, but this year the blooms crowd the branches with color.

Rosa banksia

Close-up of Lady Banks Rose

Pfizer viburnum we call this shrub, as does everyone else who has it from us (though it’s probably either European or American Cranberry Bush), since it came from Pfizer Pharmaceuticals parking lot in New England.

Months after we took cuttings from the plants, we learned that the fence they were fronting was part of video security triggered by movement. Oh well, five minutes of notoriety for a couple of skulking senior citizens. Despite our heat zone and shade from pine trees and ubiquitous clay soil, it puts on a respectable show, especially lovely this year.

Viburnum opulis or trilobum

Native honeysuckle is winding through unruly but quintessentially lovely quince ‘Jet Trail’, preferring the shrub to the arbor we so kindly provided.  I think the two are partners, each thriving on the other, but oh my, the housekeeping is most untidy. Both are old plants now, the honeysuckle has a thick trunk, and the hummingbird often drops by for an evening sip from a ripe blossom.

Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’

Fothergilla is the prettiest bottle brush I have ever met. It’s a native that has struggled pretty much everywhere I have tried it, even with generous bribes of compost. This particular planting has additions of sand, compost and wood shavings/sawdust.

Fothergilla gardenii ‘Blue Mist’ and Formosa azalea

Sometimes a combination of plants blows you over. These two, Viburnum rufidulum, or Rusty Blackhaw, and azalea ‘Pink Ruffles’, a Rutherford hybrid, were not intended to be companions. The viburnum was planted to hide the telephone pole, which it does not because its growth is so open, and the azaleas were planted because I had some extra rooted cuttings and there was an empty space.

This year, the duo stunned me. The viburnum seems to be floating off on its own, with no intention of covering the pole, and the azalea is on for the joy ride, though flagging a bit in the recent heat.

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And now it’s May and blossoms are truly dripping. Their petals scatter the lawn, drift across paths, float on the pond,  brighten the mulch, until they dry and brown and blend into the past. And we who look to the future, wind springtime into memory and watch for peonies and iris, roses, daylilies, phlox and hydrangeas. And so the garden turns.

There is a certain satisfaction in seeing petals from the Japanese Snowball bush drip onto the ground, an achievement of sorts for a shrub that is finally showing such promise it needs to be shaped and trimmed.


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Albemarle Sound: Voyage through the Centuries Part V

The Fight for Independence and the Independence Hurricane

It took a lot for colonists in eastern North Carolina to consider revolt. All they wanted was fair treatment.  Don’t exploit us. Give us some say. We’ll be loyal subjects.

But royal governors, born to silver-spoon aristocracy were tone-deafened by uncompromising loyalty to a patronising English system. Parliament expected the colonists to pay off England’s debts from past wars with Indians, plus some extra in appreciation.

In the end it came down to money.

Taxes Taxes Taxes

If nothing else, England was resourceful in thinking up ways to get the colonists to pony up. The Navigation Acts. The Sugar Act. The Stamp Act, The Townshend Acts. The Tea Act. And finally, The Intolerable Acts (retribution for dumping tea in Boston Harbor).

Charles Townshend (author of an Acts) stated the English position neatly, with a liberal dollop of cloying benevolence.

Now, will these Americans, children planted by our care, nourished by our indulgence until grown to a degree of strength and opulence, protected by our arms, will they grudge to contribute a mite to relieve us from the heavy weight of that burden which we lie under for their defense?

And here Americans thought they were the ones bearing the burden.

The Stamp Act in 1765 lit the fuse. It pitted angry colonists against England and its governors.

Depending on the document, stamps were applied according to a schedule of values

A stamp or British seal had to be purchased for every newspaper, pamphlet, contract, or other legal document. Effectively, no goods could be transported without using these stamps.

Governor William Tryon, who had just settled in at New Bern, the state capital, signaled unswerving support of The Stamp Act . . .

. . .when rebellion flared in North Carolina and every other colony.Tax collectors were bullied into resigning. Crowds — mobs — gathered in cities (five hundred in Wilmington, North Carolina) to mourn the death of Liberty in solemn processions.

Cartoon example of a procession mourning the death of Liberty. Wikipedia

Governors and tax collectors, were hung or burned or decapitated or a mix-and-match in effigy. In Wilmington, the victim is never precisely named, instead called that Honourable Gentleman).

The colonists organized a Stamp Act Congress to petition for repeal  (though North Carolina did not attend because the  Governor refused to convene the colonial Assembly so it could elect delegates.)

Sons and Daughters of Liberty formed among working classes.  Sons enforced boycotts on imported goods. Daughters made the boycotts work, spinning homespun and brewing herbs to replace tea.

The skull and crossbones became the common symbol of the death of the free press as a result of The Stamp Act (left)

After a year of futile attempts at enforcement and complaints from English merchants about boycotts and losses, Parliament repealed The Stamp Act. But a face-saving retaliation was needed. That’s when the Townshend Acts were passed, taxing certain exports instead.

How did the colonies become so united in their opposition? Never under-estimate the power of a Free Press. Printers of independent newspapers published slogans, reported ideas and events,  established networks. News and views traveled as fast as a horse could fly from town to town, colony to colony.

The Royal Governors and North Carolina’s Defiance

In the midst of the frenzy, Governor Tryon decided to build a Georgian-style brick palace that mirrored the suggested majesty of his position. One architectural writer called it a monument of opulence and elegance extraordinary in the American colonies. More taxes were levied.

Tryon Palace, a complex of buildings, shown here in a 1950 etching in paper by Louis Orr, is open to the public for tours and programs. NC Museum of Art

(At least colonists got quality for their shillings; the unfinished palace withstood the Hurricane of 1769 that leveled two-thirds of New Bern.)

Margaret Wake Tryon, wealthy, learned, accomplished, in regal attire befitting a colonial Governor’s wife. Wake County is named in her honor. Unknown artist. Wikipedia

Then, still mired in conflict and controversy, Tryon left the mayhem here to become Governor of New York. The next governor would have to deal with hostility in the colonial Assembly and with  sharp anger over a failed rebellion by back country dissidents, the Regulators, some of whom had been hanged after tangling with standing militia over taxes.

Amiable, hardworking, but equally tone-deaf Josiah Martin (who owned  several plantations) became the new governor and began to fill the palace with collectibles and live the high life.

He brought his family to Hillsborough to avoid mosquito-season along the coast.  There were dinner parties and tea parties, horseback rides and drives. The town was filled with the rich and the beautiful.

But Martin skirmished continually with the colonial Assembly. When they proved intransigent, he finally dissolved the group. Not-so-amiably, he began building a loyalist force.

Amiable Josiah Martin used his tact to pacify the Regulators but he had no idea of the turbulence to come in his colony.

In 1773, the judicial system collapsed. Cases would be decided by military tribunal instead of civil magistrate. North Carolina colonists were incensed. Radicals began to call for separation.

On top of this, came the Tea Act in 1773. Why in the world should the colonists complain about this Act? This was not a tax. Colonists were already paying taxes on tea. Instead, colonial merchants, middlemen in the tea-trade, would lose their profits to a monopoly given to the East India Company because it was failing financially.

England, still blinkered, assumed that nobody would notice and those unruly colonists would hush their irritating cacophany of complaints.

Colonial merchants and their profits were not so easily parted. The ruffians dumped East India tea in Boston Harbor! Now upper class merchants and planters were united with middle-class Sons and Daughters of Liberty.

Tempers might have cooled and saner minds prevailed, but England replied with the Coercive Acts, called the Intolerable Acts by the colonies, that closed the port of Boston and rescinded the Massachusetts charter until the tea was paid for. This was the final insult that united patriots up and down the coast.

In North Carolina a group of patriots formed the first provincial congress in Summer 1774 and called for a formal boycott of all British goods to be enforced by counties in the colony.

This action in North Carolina is widely accepted as the first formal declaration of defiance of British rule in the colonies. (Later, in October 1774 the First Continental Congress would call for a boycott of British goods by all colonies.)

Women from the town of Edenton (located near the Chowan River) formed their own Tea Party and signed a pledge to boycott British goods. North Carolina and other colonies sent food and supplies to their beleaguered northern neighbor.

The town of Hertford (located on the Perquimans River) shipped 2097 bushels of corn, 22 barrels of flour, and 17 barrels of pork.

Boston’s Committee of Donations, thankful for the food, wrote that the losses, sufferings, and distresses…are really great…not easy to be conceived. Particularly after Parliament enacted the Restraining Act directly against New England: no fishing on traditional grounds and no trading with any other country except England.

Informed by a patriotic free press that reinforced a single theme, colonies and communities were hardening their opposition against England and — significantly, opening their hearts in spontaneous generosity to their comrades.

Prayer during the First Continental Congress in Sept-Oct 1774 that voted to retaliate against the Intolerable Acts by boycotting British products.

The fuse was sizzling. By 1775 the Second Continental Congress had ordered counties to set up Committees of Safety that gradually intimidated and weakened the power of royal governors.

In 1775, fearing for his life, Governor Martin abdicated,  fleeing the palace in a coach one night to take refuge in the safety of Fort Johnston near Wilmington, which he described as a wretched little place.

He would eventually be fingered as the instigator of a plot to arm slaves against the colonists.

From secure exile on the HMS Cruizer, he denounced the Safety Commitees and worked to restore royal authority throughout the colony. He began to organize Loyalists, enlisting  Scottish Highlanders,  whose ancestors were known for their fierceness in battle, and who were loyal to the Crown.

The Lexington and Concord of the South

The Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge in February, 1776 near Wilmington in eastern Carolina was brief, maybe only three minutes long. Yet it was pivotal. It has been called the Lexington and Concord of the South.

It galvanized patriots. It defused loyalist activity. It marked the permanent end of royal authority in North Carolina. It would help to hold the south for the colonists during the early days of the war.

And it produced the historic Halifax Resolves in April, 1776, a full three months before the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia. This bold North Carolina document lists the colony’s grievances and England’s failure to redress them, with this key resolve:

Resolved that the delegates for this Colony in the Continental Congress be impowered to concur with the other delegates of the other Colonies in declaring Independency, and forming foreign Alliances, resolving to this Colony the Sole, and Exclusive right of forming a Constitution and Laws for this Colony. . .

It might have been an easy victory for the British if the regiments that were promised to Governor Josiah Martin had shown up for battle. They were delayed by bureaucracy and storms and arrived three months too late.

By mid-February 1776 Martin had assembled about 1600 Highland Scots and other Loyalists. Meanwhile Patriots began to assemble Minute Men and militia near a narrow bridge situated at the highest point along Moore’s Creek, an excellent defensive position. The bridge crossed the dark swampy creek where the waterway was 50 feet wide and three feet deep.

A bleak winter shot of Moore’s Creek Bridge. National Park Service

The Loyalists were camped about six miles away. At 1 am on the 27th they began their march through bone-chilling, icy waters. After several hours they found the Patriot camp with campfires left burning. There was no answer when the Loyalists called for surrender. Assuming the rebels were in retreat, they regrouped to pursue them at daybreak.

A Patriot sentry fired a warning round and the attackers forged toward the bridge,  shouting King George and broadswords while Scots played bagpipes.

The patriots, numbering about a thousand, had left their campfires burning, not because they were in retreat, but to trick Loyalists while they moved their forces into position across the bridge. Once across, they removed the planks from the bridge, greased its girders and went into hiding.

Only a few Highlanders made their way over the slippery remnants of the bridge, and they fell rapidly under heavy Patriot fire. Within three minutes the battle was over, with about 70 Highlanders killed or wounded and one Patriot who died four days later.

The patriots took about 850 captives who reported being treated with respect. All except ringleaders were released on parole. Spoils of battle included 500 muskets and 300 rifles, many probably used on farms, and $15,000 (value at the time) worth of Spanish gold.

Reconstructed Patriot earthworks at the Moore’s Creek Bridge site. National Park Service

The site of the battle, including the reconstructed bridge, is preserved in Moore’s Creek National Military Park, 86 acres managed by the National Park Service.

Josiah Martin continued planning and assisting British campaigns until he and his family left for England after the war. His property in North Carolina was apparently sold. Later he said he missed North Carolina and the people he had grown to like. (Absence makes the heart grow fonder?)

The Role of Albemarle Counties

The Albemarle area is the oldest settled land in the state. Older, too, than settlements in many coastal colonies. Many early leaders of the colony claimed the Albemarle as home.

While the voices of Virginia and Massachusetts statesmen are recorded eloquently in history books, less has been written about North Carolina’s early statesmen who raised clear voices for independence. John Harvey from Perquimans County, for instance, was every bit as vocal as Patrick Henry on independence, leading North Carolina to call for a boycott of British goods ahead of the rest of the nation. He was a wise and respected leader of men.

If you look at a map of military campaigns during the Revolution, it would appear that nothing happened in eastern North Carolina. There were no major campaigns here. Nevertheless patriots were active on the homefront, particularly as privateers.

Major campaigns took place in the central part of the state and were fiercely fought. The east and west were spared the ravages of battle.

The colonial navy was a fledgling operation compared to the mighty British Royal Navy that had protected American shipping during peacetime. Now, with their cannons reversed, the high seas became the arena for David and Goliath.

But David wasn’t standing still. In March, 1776, the Continental Congress enacted regulations for privateers (merchant ships turned pirates with a permit) to prevent the British from provisioning their armies.

A Yankee brig vs a British frigate off Cape Ann, June 1776. Privateers could go out in any size or type of ship, but they all had to be skilled at outwitting their maritime opponents. Many a prize was won on a bluff.

Bonds had to be posted to insure rules were followed, but all spoils belonged to Captain and crew. The purpose was not to enrich the colonial war chest but to break the back of English shipping.

Privateering became lucrative. It was so popular, about 1700 “permits” were issued. Incomplete records show that 800 privateers captured 600 British ships with a loss of about $18 million (value at the time). The English economy suffered and the war became unpopular with English citizens.

Individual colonies also had fleets of privateers who operated under rules designed by each colony, so privateering in North Carolina was different from the national model.

For patriotic merchants in Edenton and New Bern privateering became a way to donate funds to a struggling nation. In North Carolina, prize money from privateers was not split between captain and crew but rather given to the state and its people, with merchants underwriting the ventures. 

The Albemarle area also contributed companies of soldiers and volunteers to the Patriot cause, including a number of freed black men and slaves who served as soldiers and sailors.

Portrait of a Black sailor serving in the Revolution, Unknown Artist, ca. 1780

North Carolina soldiers saw some of the most intense fighting up and down the coast from Valley Forge to Charleston. After Valley Forge, where 204 North Carolina soldiers died, regiments that should have totaled almost 5,000 soldiers were only able to muster about 1,000. In the battle of Camden (near Charleston) South Carolina, 3,000 North Carolina men were lost.

They must have fought fierce on the battlefield, though. About six months before the end of the war, after the battle of Guilford Courthouse near Greensboro, British General Cornwallis concluded that North Carolina is of all the provinces in America the most difficult to attack. He left North Carolina to  skirmish in Virginia and surrendered at Yorktown in October, 1781.

The Independence Hurricane

Ironically, it was not the war but a hurricane that devastated northeastern North Carolina. In an odd turnabout, it bolstered the colonists’ cause.

The hurricane came after four days of heavy rain in early September 1775, several months after the first battles of the Revolution had been fought in Massachusetts. No one could predict its ferocity.

It’s called the Hurricane of Independence, or Independence Hurricane, and it’s considered the eighth deadliest hurricane in North Carolina’s history, probably a Category 4, with winds of about 140 mph. It tore across the barrier beach, sweeping towns away, tossing ships and their crews, destroying crops. Five schooners coming from England were lost.

Artist’s recreation of high seas during the Independence Hurricane

With equal fury it barreled through the Albemarle area, flooding towns, laying waste to an entire corn crop and killing over 100 people here. Tales are handed down, still told today, of dead animals and flotsam from broken up houses and barns floating down rivers into Albemarle Sound.

Was the tragic and violent storm that hit the English colony of Newfoundland a week later the same hurricane re-energized or an entirely different storm?  The American colonists were sure it was the same hurricane. In Newfoundland over 4,000 settlers and fishermen were said to have lost their lives. The fisheries industry was wiped out, a serious economic blow to England.

A storm surge of twenty feet drowned the coast. In The History of Newfoundland, the Reverend Anspach wrote in 1819:

On the 12th of September, in the year 1775, this coast was visited by a most terrible gale. In Harbour Grace and Carbonier all the vessels in the harbours were driven from their anchors; but the inhabitants of the north shore suffered with still greater severity. They even now with signs of dread and horror, show a cove where upwards of two hundred fishing boats perished with all their crews.”

As stunning as the losses had been to homesteaders in eastern North Carolina , the far greater losses to England’s economy were perceived as an omen of good fortune, a sign that the rebel cause was just. It boosted flagging morale, even persuaded the doubtful to enlist.

In a gesture that acknowledged the grave losses from the hurricane in North Carolina, the Second Continental Congress that governed the fledgling nation for the next six years gave farmers 40 shillings each to start over. A precedent that would be repeated many times in the history of hurricanes.

(Next, Navigating the Sound and the Beloved Shad Boat)


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Albemarle Sound: Voyage Through the Centuries Part IV

Second Chances, the Albemarle Connection, a Revolt and Noxious Disease

Less than a century after the first English families stepped ashore on Roanoke Island,  steady streams of pioneers were betting on hope.

They were settling along the north shore of Albemarle Sound in earnest. They had little inkling of the adventure ahead (reports from explorers were always glowing) nor how self-reliant they would become, nor how hard it would be.

Hunters, fur trappers, Indian traders, the solos of civilization, had boldly explored before, reaping marginal rewards. They understood the reality of life in the New World.

England, heady with anticipation for its rewards, awaited big returns from  her wilderness colonies founded on land she did not own.

Why Did People Come?

Some immigrants were leaving an intolerable life. Some wanted to get rich. Some wanted to worship freely. Some came to avoid being hanged.

If you couldn’t afford passage, or if you were offered the  choice of hanging or banishment, you came as an indentured servant, bound to a master for a certain number of years.

You might hope to learn  a trade and you might hope to receive freedom dues at the end of your tenure: money, clothes, seeds, a gun, or maybe even a piece of land.  Servitude could be a path to new beginnings, or it could be a dead end with overwork, early death, poverty, or continual re-indenturing to stay alive. 

Some had no choice. They came as slaves, chattel bound forever to planters, many from Barbados sugar cane plantations. 

Few came with the desire to enrich England’s coffers. 

But First They Had to Get Here

Albemarle Sound has no safe harbor. A barrier beach spells the lash of the Atlantic Ocean, but inlets are notoriously dangerous. So ships routinely sailed  into Chesapeake Bay to disembark along the James River.

The James River is the largest and most southerly river shown in Virginia. The Elizabeth and Nansemond Rivers flow south from the James River.

From there, settlers who wanted to go south had their choice of travel on two rivers, the Elizabeth and the Nansemond, which, according to propaganda-of-the-day will convey you into Carolana, so that this (James) River is a Haven to both Colonies.

Well, maybe. To get to North Carolina from the James River would require another 80 miles or so of hard traveling. First an upstream row on one of the two rivers on a flatboat or other small craft.

Then miles of slogging on Indian trails, many along rises through the Great Dismal Swamp (greatly whittled down today). Alternatively, a traveller could head west over land toward the Blackwater River, then navigate the Chowan River downstream.

Quaker missionaries William Edmundson and George Fox were overwhelmed by the trip in 1670. Edmundson, whose guide got lost, was sorely foiled in swamps and rivers.  And Fox wrote that he was overwearied  by the time he got to Carolina, having travelled hard through the Woods and over many Bogs and Swamps.

The Great Dismal Swamp, land that had to be gotten around or through to get to North Carolina from Virginia. From the Encyclopedia of Forlorn Places

Half a century later the land was still impassible. Surveyor William Byrd described it as a miserable morass where nothing can inhabit. (Except runaway slaves who forged clandestine communities in the tangle.) By 1796 there would be a canal through it,  initially proposed by George Washington, dug by slaves.


Surely the seeds of familiar grains, wheat, rye, oats and barley, would prosper here, since the climate and soil were so felicitous. They did not. Fortunately, there was corn.

Algonquians had adopted Three Sisters farming,  complementary planting of maize, beans and squash that sprang from the Iroquois creation myth. An Algonquian named Squanto shared the technique with Jamestown settlers.

Inspiration for the practice may have come from myth, but it was efficient, practical, nutritious and sustainable. GardenCityHarvest website

Plantings were mounded for drainage and minimally tilled. Corn stalks supported bean vines. Squash hugged the ground, kept it moist, cool and weed-free. Herring or menhaden and maybe some ashes were buried for fertilizer. Bacteria in root nodules of beans fixed nitrogen in soil. A truly remarkable way of farming.

We don’t hear much about beans and squash, but corn saved the colonists. They used every part of the plant. Kernels, dried, roasted, ground or green, kept people and livestock alive. Husks were woven into baskets or used to pad mattresses and collars for draft animals. Cobs became kindling and, of course, pipes. And corn liquor saved people from drinking bad water.

John Lawson was an explorer in the 1700s, a kind of self-appointed reporter who gave a pretty accurate, if optimistic, picture of the land. . . .Mild winters and a fertile Soil beyond Expectation produced everything that was planted to a prodigious increase. . .

He was less impressed with the homesteaders: he never saw one Acre of Land managed as it ought to be…and were the planters as negligent in their Husbandry in Europe as they are in Carolina their Land would produce nothing but Weeds and Straw. . .

We can make a couple of inferences from that quote. First, Lawson had a different perspective from the  farmer: he was briefly observing, not continually laboring under the grindstone of the wilderness.  Second, virgin soil, gift of the great forests had been building over centuries. It gave freely to the farmer, no prodding needed (though eventually it would give out from overwork).

Their methods might have been less-than-casual by Lawson’s standards, but eventually the colonists produced so much corn that New England sent vessels here to pick up cargoes of it, and wheat, too, that finally succeeded as a cash crop. (Stony soil and short growing seasons limited production up north.)

Those early days were often rough, especially if crops fell short and the winter was long. Then colonists traded with Native Americans, or waited for supply ships, or went on half rations until spring.

“The Manner of their fishing,” composite drawing by John White c.1585 showing brush weirs, spears and nets and a variety of fish including a horseshoe crab, whose eggs were eaten by Native Americans

Springtime brought the great fish migrations, and great joy, for with fresh fish came giddy salvation. Colonists learned from the Native Americans how to fish the rivers and salt the herring, small fish, to preserve them through the winter in buckets and barrels. Meals would consist of fried salt herring and cornbread washed down with yaupon tea. Three times a day.

Leaves and twigs of yaupon holly contain caffeine. Those cups of tea must have kept the colonists going all day long. Photo by Will Cook

(Yaupon holly is a robust, pest-free holly native to the coastal plain. The botanical name, Ilex vomitoria, comes from Native American rituals of drinking huge quantities, then purging before battle. In gardens today, its dwarf form is an excellent substitute for boxwood hedges.)

Scattered homesteads, isolated by swamp, produced self-sufficiency. Clearing, planting and harvesting were done with primitive tools: hoes, scythes, shovels and axes for the first hundred years until plows eased manual labor.

The great forests gave them skins and furs, especially deerskins, but birds and animals threatened crops. Bounties  on wolves and wildcats gave incentive for extermination.

Households produced their own food, drink, clothing (homespun of flax and cotton). They builttheir own homes and furniture — and boats, planted gardens and orchards with apples and peaches for good eating and prodigious quantities of liquor.

Dunghill fowl (chickens) provided food and feathers for beds, and stocks of bees provided wax for candles and sweet treats. Corn was pounded by hand, until grist mills in the 1700s produced a smoother product for a small fee. (One early traveler commented that there wasn’t much difference between corn meal for the family and fodder for the horses.)

Yates Mill, constructed in the 1750’s, is an example of grist mills of the time. Grist mills soon became centers of community life. Photo ca 1942. NC Museum of History

Farm animals fattened quickly. Cattle, horses, sheep and swine bred easily and spent the mild winters outdoors on their own. Before the Revolution, Carolinians grudgingly exported farm animals to stingy Virginians. Once the Revolution freed up trade, produce was sold up north instead, to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, at fairer prices.

As homesteads prospered, families  purchased ready-made clothing, shoes, sugar, salt, molasses, and rum from ships that came in from England and the West Indies.

Colonists had little money, so they bartered with each other for goods and services. Debts and fines were paid with country commodities: Indian corn, tobacco, wheat, port, or deerskins.

In time, a sort of division of labor for profit worked its way through society and particular skills were marketed: boat building,  corn grinding,  produce, shingles and barrel staves.

As society became increasingly complex, gold and silver coin and paper money supplanted barter and country goods.

Early Relations with Native Americans

Initially, most contact between the two civilizations was amicable.  One village, for instance, introduced explorers to roasting eares and Sturgeon.

Indian method of roasting fish. John White drawing, Theodore deBry engraving, 1586

There are recorded instances of trust and personal favors.

In the 1650s the King of the Roanoke Indians brought his son to the home of Virginia legislator Francis Yeardley to learn to speak out of the book and to make a writing. Yeardley provided a carpenter and workmen to build an English house furnished with English utensils and chattels for his chieftain friend.

Yeardley soon purchased land along three great rivers from the Roanokes for 200 pounds sterling. The deal was sealed with delivery of a turf of the earth with an arrow shot into it. 

The Duke of Albemarle and the Lords Proprietors

Governing this sprawling southern territory was a headache for the Virginia colony, especially with threat from the Spanish, who were nipping from the south.

Enter George Monk, 2nd Duke of Albemarle, brilliant leader of armies, adroit political strategist, and loyal friend of exiled King Charles II. After a decade of Commonwealth rule under dour Oliver Cromwell, England was ready for a change. Monarchy? Or anarchy? The Duke of Albemarle lobbied hard for monarchy until parliament finally agreed. 

George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle

In 1660 King Charles II, the Merry Monarch to his subjects, came out of exile to take the throne. He owed big favors to the Duke and supporters. He had an eye for empire that would bring guineas to satisfy debts and allow for kingly frivolities like theatre and lavish parties.

Three years later, he signed the Charter for the Province of Carolina, his land (Carolus is Latin for Charles), naming eight supporters as Lords Proprietors. They would rule the tract that would become North and South Carolina by committee from the comforts of England. The Duke of Albemarle, the oldest, was named first palatine, titular CEO in today’s parlance.

Lords Proprietors seal, with coat of arms on one side and inverted cornucopia with Indians on the other side. Translated, the motto reads The Taming Makes the Land

The motto on the seal, The Taming Makes the Land, embodies the English approach to land, used or abused, as an avenue to wealth.

Nobody truly understood what was going on here. The King and cronies remained in England with their wilderness fantasies stirred by glowing reports from explorers who never seemed to mention the muck, the snakes, the bramble and the bugs.

The Proprietors envisioned elaborate courts, feudal manors, and silk. One detail was missing. They needed people to work to turn their visions into reality. Never mind that survival alone was a full-time calling in over-drive.

They  gave settlers religious freedom, not because of a holy conversion to tolerance, but because Methodists, Presbyterians and Quakers were stable bodies that could populate the new land and that meant fewer infidels to contend with at home.

To further swell the ranks of laborers, English judges routinely meted out death sentences for trifles, then benevolently commuted sentences to indeterminate indenture in the colonies.

To attract investors, the Mother Country — temporarily — waived the Navigation Acts that would tax  goods and bind colonial shipping to England exclusively — a rasp of a burr that would lead to Revolution.

It was grand-scale venture capitalism. Tobacco was Aztec gold to investors. They would be sure to assemble the manpower to produce enough to satisfy a Mother Country that craved this novel opiate.

Planters with capital could purchase large tracts of land at bargain rates. Acreage granted was based on numbers of servants and slaves in tow, a tidy incentive that exploded into another two hundred years of bondage.

It all sounded so promising. But nobody was happy. Not the Proprietors who were getting complaints instead of tax money. Not the settlers who were paying higher quitrents than their neighbors in other colonies. And for what? Widespread corruption, broken promises, haphazard governance and lack of protection from Native Americans. (A gritty attitude toward justice and fairness was seeding in.)

Culpeper’s Rebellion

And then England decided to enforce the Navigation Acts. The goal of trading in the 17th century was to import as little as possible, export as much as possible, make as much money as possible and hoard the profits. It’s a practice known as mercantilism.

Example of British sailing ship of the 1600s, the Mayflower by Paul Strayer

Colonists were limited to shipping only raw materials only to England and only in English ships. England would send finished products back to the colonists for purchase at high prices. Taxes were levied on every transaction, at every turn, even on goods shipped between colonies.

Albemarle residents were irate. Tobacco was their cash crop, but it had to be sold to New England first because their small ships navigated Albemarle  inlets easily. Cargo was then loaded onto larger English ships.

Layers of new taxes took the profits out of tobacco, at a time when hurricanes, drought and hard rains caused years of bad crops. (The Albemarle would never realize the tobacco bonanzas of southern Virginia and central North Carolina.)

They decided to send an envoy to England to plead their cause in person.

They chose a sympathetic former governor, Peter Carteret,  to articulate their concerns: they were isolated by swamps with poor roads, cut off from sea trade by the barrier beach, they needed more help.

The Proprietors knew that governance had been lax and laws enforced without rigor. But they also feared their charter might be revoked if the Navigation Acts were ignored, for these were the embodiment of English law on the high seas.

Artist’s imaginings of the Culpeper Rebellion. Pretty civilized, as rebellions go. WilliamDentonblog


What else could angry settlers do? In 1677 they rebelled. It was a small rebellion. The idea of cutting ties with England was never entertained. But the rebellion lasted for two years and it epitomized the spirit that would propel the colonists toward independence a century later.

In historical accounts, Thomas Miller comes off as a rigid bureaucrat with a midget mind and a classic talent for ruffling feathers. As customs collector in an agitated colony, he was zealous about seizing illegally imported goods and imposing fines.

When the chance came, he appointed himself interim governor and proceeded to interfere with elections and imprison opponents, including George Durant, a prominent and highly regarded settler. This was not a good move.

Miller traveled with armed guards who apparently lost their nerve when forty armed colonists confronted them and jailed their leader. They did not fire  shot. The revolt was bloodless.

It was called Culpeper’s Rebellion. John Culpeper, a renegade who had been thrown out of Charles Town and who had the reputation of a troublemaker who enjoyed a good fight was the leader and took over as governor, presumably ruling to the satisfaction of his peers for a time.

Meanwhile, Miller escaped and fled to England to tell all. Culpeper followed to make his case and was tried for treason. One of the proprietors pointed out that colonists had a right to riot over poor governance and Miller’s abuses. And nobody was particularly keen for bad publicity about the colonies. Culpeper was acquitted and sailed back to a hero’s welcome.


In the long run, England did us a favor. You might call it benign neglect, the Proprietors’ lack of interest in the particulars of running a colony.

About a decade after the Proprietors laid down a general code of laws envisioning themselves as lords of the manor, they put together a more pragmatic set of rules that would authorize colonial justices to administer county functions.

Since most people could not read, justices came from community leaders. These were the tiny but visible elite who held the best land and ran the best farms.

Here is what the justices were responsible for:  adjudicating minor civil and criminal cases, probating wills, registering  cattlemarks, supervising orphans, opening roads, contracting for bridges, establishing ferries, overseeing public buildings, such as courthouse and jail, paying jurors, acquiring weights and measures, stocking the powder magazine,  levying taxes, and maintaining control over expenditures.

Detail from 1790 map based on 1733 Moseley map showing ferry crossings on the Pasquotank River that would have been managed by the justices. NC Maps Blog

As population  increased, counties needed decent roads. At the beginning of the 18th century, roads were impassable. By the eve of the Revolution an intricate highway system with bridal paths and bridges had been created.

Who was responsible for such progress? Justices who entertained petitions for roads, appointed juries of twelve to determine routes, designated a company and a surveyor to build roads and an overseer to maintain them. Justices then had to deal with swampy terrain, negligent overseers, and curmudgeonly landowners.

Good practical experience that would lay groundwork for managing a young country?

Noxious Disease

In 1729, the Lords Proprietors sold their rights to King George II and North Carolina became a royal colony. By this time, Native American populations had shrunk. 

Tribes who traded regularly with the English were devastated by smallpox. Only about 500 natives were left in the Albemarle; deaths were as high as 90 per cent in some tribes.

Unknown European artist’s imaginative rendering of trading that spread smallpox and other diseases. (Note: Women handled business affairs in Algonquin tribes, so the woman should be central, not subservient, in this trading tableau)

The immigrants had brought with them a cauldron of diseases. The English brought smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough and influenza. The Africans brought malaria and yellow fever. Parasites of shipboard rats contributed typhus, and contaminated water spread typhoid fever.

By 1755 the brew of wretched diseases must have gotten out of hand, because the colony had restricted tainted imports and passed the Distempered Act to bar immigrants who suffered from malignant infectious distempers.

Within a few years, investors and merchants began complaining that these restrictions interfered with profits and recruitment of fresh labor.The Act was repealed in 1760.


Despite diseases and taxes, the next century would be a prosperous one for eastern North Carolina, with rapid growth plucked from land rich in resources. By the decade of the Revolution, the entire colony had grown from 21,000 in the 1600s to about 250,000 in 1780, 80,000 of whom were slaves.

Though plantation life was expanding, most of the land was worked by independent yeomen who were able to cobble together a reasonably comfortable life by farming, fishing, and hunting, with maybe some logging for extra income. They were a sturdy, self-sufficient lot, able to improvise, wise in the wild ways of the land, unflinching in a fight, but with a neighborliness and generosity that continues to this day.

Idyllic afternoon on the water, unknown artist

As crossroads grew into towns and cities, or remained rural, place names once derived from names of Native American tribes blended with names given by the English to their settlements. Reading them is to reflect on the heritage and history of the Albemarle.

(Next: The Fight for Independence and the Independence Hurricane)

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Albemarle Sound: Voyage through the Centuries Part III

The History and the Mystery of the Lost Colony

In July, 1587, 115 English settlers and one Native American stepped ashore on Roanoke Island. Roanoke Island lies just inside the barrier beach, near the mouth of Albemarle Sound.

Queen Elizabeth had given Sir Walter Raleigh exclusive rights to a huge, vaguely defined tract of remote, heathen and barbarous lands in the new world with a proviso that he establish a permanent English presence by 1591.

(Archaeological digs show that these heathen and barbarous people had been occupying Roanoke Island for 1500 years before the colonists arrived, since the time of Christ. This was a technicality of no immediate concern as long as everybody played nice.)

Enlarged portion of White/DeBry artwork showing the barrier beach (The Outer Banks), settlement at Roanoke Island, fishing weir, Indians canoeing, shoals of fish entering inlets, and foundering ships

The newcomers had no way of knowing that their destinies would become tangled in the rivalry of two great world powers: England and Spain.

And they were not the first to settle Roanoke Island. They were coming onto an island where explorers led by Ralph Lane had already trespassed.

Three years prior, Raleigh had sent a group to reconnoiter the Albemarle and Chesapeake area to find a base of operations for privateering.

Queen Elizabeth was opposed to outright war with Spain, but she coveted the gold that Spanish ships ferried across the ocean from their colonies in Central and South America. She strongly encouraged her seamen to become privateers. (Pirates with permission and percentages.)

How much more convenient it would be if privateers could intercept Spanish ships from a colony in the New World!

Algonquian Indians offered the seafarers food and friendship and taught them how to survive in the wilderness. Short-sightedly, Lane and his adventurers repaid the kindness with arrogance. The colony was soon foundering from famine, storm, and disputes with Native Americans now hostile to the fractiously needy white man, once thought to be godlike, who spread smallpox.

Deteriorating relations with the Secota tribe caused Ralph Lane and his men to erect an earthwork fort in 1585. Archaeologists have located its exact dimensions and replicated it on the Fort Raleigh site in Manteo. National Park Service diagram

Supplying colonies with necessities from abroad was always a logistical nightmare.  Lane’s men might not have been so desperate if a long-awaited provisioning ship had not mired in an inlet. Unable to enter quiet waters, the ship lay at anchor in the ocean, battered until it finally sank.

The break point, however, was a terrible storm that lasted four days, flattening the island and wrecking ships. The troops had had enough. When Sir Francis Drake, the English explorer stopped by in 1586 after raiding Spanish ships, they wasted no time accepting his invitation of a sail home.

Despite the hard circumstances, the trip turned out to be a huge propaganda success.  The soil is the most plentiful, sweet, fruitful and wholesome of all the world … The earth bringeth forth all things in abundance, as in the first creation, without toil or labor, gushed a returning captain.

Investors swooned over visions of an idyllic land and Spanish gold. They clamored for shares in the enterprise. ( Lack of a safe harbor and incipient war with Spain would eventually lead to unfulfilled expectations.)

There were two men in Lane’s party who took a more thoughtful approach. Each of them appreciated the wisdom of the natives and saw the potential for colonizing the land and developing its natural resources for England.

Thomas Hariot was a scientist, and John White was a painter, a map maker and a keen observer. White’s artwork and maps give us the first historical glimpse into native life in a new world.

Hariot’s book, A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia was the first book about the land and its people written by someone who had actually spent time here.  White’s artwork and Hariot’s book stimulated continued interest.

Sir Walter Raleigh helped John White put together a community of men, women and children, families mostly middle class hoping to jump a rung, who would brave this new world. Their original destination was Chesapeake,  hospitable and safe, but during what may have been a mutiny, the Navigator ordered sailors to leave the group on Roanoke Island.

The nominal reason? It was too late in the season to go on to Chesapeake and return to England before winter. The more likely reason?  Privateering.

Sailors would happily follow these orders; often their only pay was a share in the proceeds from high seas adventures, more financially rewarding than ferrying colonists.

As Governor of the colony, John White objected. He was overruled.

Almost immediately after the settlers landed there was a birth and a death.

A colonist collecting shellfish along the Sound was killed by Native Americans . . .

Dramatic rendering of the Death of George Howe, unknown artist

. . .And a baby girl was born to Eleanor Dare, John White’s daughter. She would be the first English child born in the New World.

The baby was named Virginia Dare in honor of the Virgin Queen, and the land was named Virginia.

Baptism of Virginia Dare, illustration by William A. Crafts, 1876. The  comfortable quarters depicted was typical of renderings by English artists who could not imagine the raw circumstances the settlers faced in a new world

The colony was low on supplies. They had arrived at the end of the growing season so there was no time to plant crops — if they had any inkling of what they should be planting.

John White reluctantly left his family and the new settlement to collect provisions from England. He expected to return the following year.

In the days of sailing ships, it took more than two months to cross the ocean, that is, if your ship was lucky and was not blown off course or smashed by storms or boarded by pirates or detoured by a Captain who hankered for privateering —  or caught in a war.

Imminent war with Spain took precedence over carrying anxiously-looked-for supplies to a beleaguered colony. Queen Elizabeth issued a stay of shipping in preparation for invasion by the invincible fleetes made by the King of Spain: the infamous Spanish Armada. All ships were commandeered for an ad hoc English flotilla.

Still,  John White managed to locate a pair of dinky pinnaces that had been rejected for military service. Barely seaworthy, they were attacked by French pirates who playd extreemely upon us with their shot, hitting White in the side of the buttoke and robbing us of all our victuals, powder, weapons and provision… They aborted the expedition and limped back to England.

Dutch Pinnace in Rough Seas by Cornelis Verbeek, 1625

Finally, in March 1590, threat of Spanish invasion had passed and White was able to set sail again with two ships equipped by Raleigh. The voyage took almost six months;  privateering and sea battles doubled cruising time.

It was too dark to navigate the shoaled inlets when they arrived, so White and his party shouted and sang folk songs and sounded trumpets to reassure the colonists. Nobody answered, but a column of smoke gave hope.

Bad weather and capricious currents made threading the inlet from the Atlantic Ocean into Albemarle Sound hazardous. During the short sail, seven of the chiefest (mariners) were drowned. 

Governor John White had finally reached Roanoke Island, on August 18th, 1590, his granddaughter’s third birthday.

Unknown to White, crops had probably failed during his three year absence.  Tree rings show extreme drought in the southeast from 1587 through 1589.  Colonists were likely dependent on largesse from Indians that could be unreliable if their crops were failing, too.

He found no one. The smoke had apparently come from dead grass and trees. Chests that White had buried were unearthed, his belongings scattered, my books torne from the covers, … my pictures and mappes rotten and spoyled with rayne, and my armour almost eaten through with rust.  Scattered dwellings were in ruins, but White found no signs of strife.


They had all recognized what a slender thread connected them, one to the other, and to their  survival in the wilderness. Before John White left, some of the settlers agreed to make their way to Chesapeake; others would stay and await White’s return.  If they had to vacate the island, they promised to leave a sign for him.

CROATOAN, carved into a wooden post, was that sign. I greatly joyed that I had found a certain token of their being at Croatoan where Manteo was born and the Savages of the Iland [are] our friends.., White wrote.

John White watercolor of an Algonquian village, possibly Croatoan, c. 1586

Manteo, you may now have gathered, was the Native American travelling with the English. He is memorialized in the name of the town where Fort Raleigh is located.

(The name of one other Native American, Wanchese, is memorialized on Roanoke Island. Like Manteo, Wanchese, had spent time in England. Though he was initially on friendly terms with the English, he grew increasingly mistrustful and ultimately hostile. In fact, he was one of the group who attacked George Howe while he was collecting shellfish.)

Manteo was special. He learned how to speak English. He was impressed by English technology. He worked with Hariot to record Native American language and customs. He was presented to investors at Raleigh’s home in full (English) costume. He befriended Ralph Lane during his explorations. He assisted John White in establishing the colony. He was an interpreter and peacemaker on Roanoke Island.

He was both an oddity and a tool for the English, but genuinely respected, especially by John White and the colonists. A month after the colonists landed, Manteo was christened in Roanoak, and called Lord thereof. . . in reward of his faithful service.

Water color by John White of an Algonquian chief, not necessarily Manteo

Manteo was royalty. He was chief of the Croatoans, a small tribe who lived on Hatteras Island. His mother was royalty, too. She was, for lack of a less awkward term, chieftainess of a tribe. (In Algonquian communities it was not unusual for women to hold high office.)

Like the Lost Colonists, Manteo fades into history in 1587.

The word on the post gave hope. It would appear that the colonists had left Roanoke Island to join the Croatoans.

John White would have liked to sail the fifty miles south to Hatteras Island to re-unite with the colonists. But the deaths of those critical crew members, coupled with the loss of one of the ship’s anchors (the fourth on this particular voyage), and bad weather, precluded the trip. Sailors were impatient to head back to England.

John White would never find the colony nor see his family again.The loss of the colony was a personal tragedy for White from which he did not fully recover. He never returned to the New World. Resigned, he wrote to a friend that he must give over the fate of the colonists and his family to the merciful help of the Almighty, whom I most humbly beseech to helpe and comfort them.

Searches for survivors were futile, though one Jamestown colonist wrote that he had seen an Indian boy whose hair was a perfect yellow with reasonable white skin. . .a Miracle amongst all Savages.

Meanwhile, the mystique of the Lost Colony cast a spell that exists today. All sorts of theories short of alien abduction have been advanced to explain the disappearance of the colonists.

They were murdered by hostile Indians. They were prisoners of the Spaniards.  They died of famine or disease. They left the area to settle elsewhere.

Under the auspices of the Croatoan Archeological Society in Buxton, an archaeologist from England and volunteers have uncovered thousands of artifacts on Hatteras Island.

Lost Colony archaeological site on Hatteras Island. Croatoan Archaeological Society

They show a clear mix of Native American and English pieces, copper rings, sword handles, earrings, a Nuremberg token, writing slates, glass, that appear to date back to the time of the Roanoke colony. Many are displayed in the Hatteras Public Library.

Co-founder of the Society and author of The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island, Scott Dawson,  stresses that it is a story of  brotherhood and friendship rather than violence and hatred. . . a story that leads to assimilation and family.

Hilt from a sword probably owned by an upper class individual unearthed at the Hatteras Island site.  Croatoan Archaeologist Society

Two sites, called X and Y, have also been worked in Bertie County near the mouth of the Chowan River. Motivating this archaeological dig is the belief that colonists may have sailed west in Albemarle Sound toward the Roanoke River. This was Tuscarora territory, and these tribes were known to be hostile to the white invaders. However, there seems to be evidence that English settlers had successfully set up housekeeping.

Sixteenth century English pottery found in Bertie County sites, dig sponsored by Lost Colony Foundation

Had John White not been caught between war and weather, his quest might have ended happily. We can only speculate and wonder. 

The history and the mystery of the Lost Colony is kept alive by nightly performances in summer overlooking the water and by exhibits at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.

Lost Colony Outdoor Drama on Roanoke Island has been performed since 1937. Carol Highsmith photo, 1946, Library of Congress


(Next: New Beginnings, the Albemarle Connection, a Pandemic and a Revolt)


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Albemarle Sound: Voyage through the Centuries: Part II

Estuaries: Cradle of Life

What is an estuary? In simplest terms, it is a place where fresh water from rivers mixes with salt water from the sea. Under quiet conditions, “lighter” fresh water will float atop “heavier” salt water. But tides, currents and winds cause mixing, and that is the secret to the vitality of an estuary.

An astonishing miracle plays out in estuaries each spring with a cast of millions, no billions or trillions, or more.

Shorelines of estuaries are often fringed by wetlands like these in game lands along the Roanoke River near Albemarle Sound.

It begins with phytoplankton. These tiny plants, such feeble swimmers they can only drift at the mercy of tide and current, are the wellspring of life in the waters of the world.

Spring sunshine penetrates shallow water. Water temperatures rise, maybe to 50 degrees.

Currents of fresh and salt water mix and layer and mix again. It’s never quite the same each year. During rainy seasons more fresh water flows from the land; during dry seasons, salt water moves further west in the Sound and up into rivers. But the miracle plays out.

Decayed remnants of past lives dissolve into nutrients that create a soup in churning waters. Phytoplankon begin to stir. They make food from these nutrients with the help of sunlight.

They divide and multiply. Or they reproduce and multiply. Or they break apart and multiply. They multiply. They multiply. They feed zooplankton and small shrimp that become food for the fish who will come.

Artistic montage showing the great variety of phytoplankton. Zooplankton and other aquatic animals feed on phytoplankton. The entire aquatic food web depends on these tiny plants that drift with tides and digest the past and move to sunlight. Internet, unattributed

And the fish did come,  hustling in from the ocean through inlets along the barrier beach. When water temperatures rise to about 60 degrees,  and plankton are on the move, fish would teem by the millions from their ocean homes through inlets into Sounds and up rivers.

In 1612, William Strachey noted “great Shoells of Herrings” (and relatives) in North Carolina. Swimming upstream in a frenzy against river currents, adult fish would seek the quiet inlets or coves where they had been born, and there they would spawn.

Unless they were eaten first. These small fish, at the bottom of the food chain, feed the world. Every imaginable fish or shellfish with a big enough mouth eats herring or shad, including man. Herring and shad are nutritious, oily, bony fish with white flesh, traditionally eaten bone-in.

American shad, relative of the herring, about two feet long, begin migrating when they are about three years old but are not sexually mature until their fourth or fifth year. Their life span is about eight or nine  years. Images above and below are from the Raleigh Ecological Service Field Office

Hickory shad came first, in mid- to late-February, then alewives in March. Blueback herring and American shad followed in three or four weeks, one group pacing another, each taking its turn, streaming in for the great spawning adventure.

Two species of herring, alewife and blueback, small fish, under a foot, were once caught by the millions, as were shad. Like shad and striped bass, they live in the ocean most of the year but migrate to fresh water to spawn. They are called anadromous, from the Greek meaning up running.

Striped bass (or rockfish) spawn along with shad and herring (if they are not eating them or any other creature they can find) from April to mid-June. When their eggs hatch, the young depend on river currents to keep them afloat while they drift downstream to feast on a ready-made food supply of plankton and fry.

Striped Bass, top dog, will eat all the fish shown above. Spawning is a tumultuous affair involving several males and one female. Fishermen call the wild spawning “rockfish fights.”  Some romance! Adults will be back in the ocean by summer, males first, followed by females. Photo by Steven Johnson

At the same time, Atlantic croaker and spot are spawning in the ocean. Their youngsters drift into the Sound through those tumultuous inlets and settle in shallow bays and coves to feed.

For centuries, this upwelling of new life, powered by plankton, this multitude of fish hurrying to spawn, was one of the grandest celebrations of springtime witnessed and welcomed by multitudes who hurried to dip their nets into the water.

Fishermen cast their net baskets off a bridge in Martin County late 19th century

The Sound is also host to resident fish who lead less tumultuous lives. They are bottom-feeders and stay here year-round. As traditional catches of herring and striped bass declined, catfish and perch became valuable resources.

Blue crabs make their homes in the Sound, too. The female can release eggs several times a season, up to three million in her short life, making the blue crab fishery one of North Carolina’s most valuable.

Male crabs, called jimmies, have the most meat, though she-crab soup is a delicacy. A commercial crabber lays down  hundreds of wire pots on lines that can stretch for miles, marked with ID buoys. Pots are checked at least every 5 days. Internet photo, unattributed

Crabs spawn in spring and summer. Depending on sex, molting and stages of growth they range the Sound seeking waters of varying salinity. If you are out on the Sound in summer, you can follow long lines of traps that commercial and recreational fishermen bait with shrimp heads or menhaden. Catches will go to local markets or be shipped as far away as New York City.

Blue crab in underwater meadow of grasses. These grasses play vital roles in protecting fish and buffering shorelines against storms. Photo by Jay Fleming/Getty Images

Crabs and fish find food and hiding places in meadows of grasses  growing in soft sediments and shallow waters where sunlight can penetrate. Few of us notice these plants (unless they foul the propeller of a pleasure boat). Even fewer of us realize how much they contribute to life in the Sound.

As submerged grasses take in nutrients and produce food for themselves, they absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Oxygen levels remain high for young, actively growing fish, water stays clear, and tied-up nutrients slow growth of unwanted algae.

If fish take center stage in spring, wildfowl take center stage during fall migrations. Wildlife refuges, wetlands and harvested croplands are winter destinations for thousands of migrating waterfowl: Canada and snow geese, tundra swan and ducks.

Tundra swans over the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula. Photo by Tom Earnhardt, called the  Steward of North Carolina Outdoors for his work as an environmental lawyer, writer, and co-producer of the PBS television series Exploring North Carolina

The south shore of the Sound is one of their last outposts. They once frequented wetlands along the eastern seaboard but ancestral winter homes disappeared into airfields and cities. Leigh, a friend-now-gone spoke of throngs of wildfowl darkening the skies for hours as they passed over his house each fall when he was a youngster.

As a changed landscape pushed their congregations farther south, their numbers shrank. Today, the spectacle of thousands of birds feeding, loafing, and flying at will renews faith in the survival of wildlife and the environment.

They don’t visit for long. They arrive in December for the winter party, as they have for eons, leaving a wintry tundra, commuting thousands of miles from summer homes on lakes in Alaska and Canada. They’ve begun the return trip to the Arctic by March, the great migratory flocks,  ready to mate and raise young who will accompany them on their flight south next winter.

Thousands of northern pintail ducks winter in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge waters. US Fish and Wildlife Service photo

During spring and summer, the more diminutive “Kermit” frog takes over creeks and ditches throughout the coastal plain. The nasal queenk queenk queenk of mating green tree frogs rises through the night. They are acrobats, leaping with grace to catch their meals, depending on large toepads for reliable holdfasts when they land. During the day you can find these light-weights snoozing on green leaves, perfectly camouflaged.

Green tree frog, Photo by Todd Pierson

Heron and osprey, alligators and snakes, brown bear and white-tailed deer, neotropical song birds and water fowl are all creatures that call the swamps, forests and fields that surround Albemarle Sound their homes.

Great  Blue Heron soars over water on a cloudy day. Internet photo, unattributed

Into this latter day Eden, English settlers would plant a civilization.

(Next: The History and the Mystery of the Lost Colony)

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Albemarle Sound: Voyage through the Centuries Part I

(The first in a series on Albemarle Sound and its rivers in northeast North Carolina)

Freshe Water with Great Store of Fishe

If you live on the coastal plain in northeast North Carolina you are never very far from a river or a creek, and you like it that way, though sometimes your feet get wet.

A wide, flat coastal plain ribbons the southeast Atlantic coast from Virginia through Georgia and into Florida. Meandering through it are rivers and streams that cascade from mountains to sea. Here, fresh and salt water mingle to create estuaries, some of the richest environments on earth.

Albemarle Sound, among the richest waters on earth. Photo by Toni Abdnour

Back in time, pretty much everyone who lived on the coastal plain was never very far from a river or creek. But then there was progress, and creeks and marshes became nuisances. They were cast into culverts or grew up as shopping centers or smothered under trash heaps. In a few years nobody remembered they ever existed.

Millions of acres were lost. But here, in this corner of the world, though very much has been lost or altered since colonization, there remains a dynamic, quietly beautiful mosaic of swamp, marsh, river and creek that can teach us a lot about the rhythms of seasons, waters and wildlife, and where, when the moon is hiding, you can still see the glory of a night sky from a wild place.

For centuries, Albemarle Sound and the coastal plain were givers of life to Native Americans and early settlers. This is the story about a land, how it was, how people changed it, and what the future may bring. In many ways it is a reflection of the waves of change that rippled across our country as it became a nation.

Those Devilish Waters

On a clear windless day, when you can see forever across the Sound, you are struck by the beauty and the peace. Do not be fooled. The rages of water have influenced Albemarle history from first discovery.

Albemarle Sound is cradled by a barrier beach that snugs it in, no harbor, no easy port of call. But the ocean outside is relentless, and it is as much a part of the story as the land itself.

Let’s begin with a few maps to orient you to where and what the Albemarle Sound and its environs are like. The first map shows the area in northeast North Carolina that we will be talking about, tucked directly below the Virginia state line. It is part of a vast, watery system that drains wide swathes of land in two states.

Map of Albemarle Sound and rivers that feed it, from the Virginia border south. South of the Sound lies the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula. To the east are the barrier islands called the Outer Banks that flank the Atlantic Ocean.  Artwork by Elaine Roth

When explorers sailed up Albemarle Sound in 1586, they rode out gale winds, skirmished with hostile Native Americans and faced near starvation as they navigated the fifty-five mile-long stretch of water. Yet what they found,“freshe water with great store of fishe, pleased them greatly.

The arrival of the English, showing barrier islands with several inlets, Roanoke Island, and the wide Albemarle Sound running toward the top (west). Shipwrecks around inlets were common (noted here as warning to future mariners?)  Theodore de Bry engraving from John White watercolor 1590, compiled from voyages 1584-88.

Explorers could not immediately embrace the scope of the waters they were venturing into. Nor could they navigate them today in quite the same way they did 450 years ago.

Waters have risen, islands drowned, shorelines eroded, inlets closed (or opened). This land is a study in quick change. Unlike mountains whose risings and crumblings take eons, change along the coast can take place within our life spans, indeed within moments of our lives.

Let’s pause a moment to look at the dynamics of change before a hurricane comes along to re-arrange land once again. We’ll take a brief look at the rivers in the Albemarle, then we’ll look at the larger picture.

Nine rivers flow into Albemarle Sound. They drain an impressive 18,000 square miles in two states, with 350 miles of navigable water. Unreckoned miles of shoreline along creeks, bays and bottomlands fringe the rivers, quiet hideaways for wonderfully diverse wildlife.

Two of the rivers, the Chowan and the Roanoke contribute most of the fresh water that flows into the Sound. They are fed by tributaries that stretch miles into Virginia, which means that far-distant land uses along them can affect the vitality of the Sound.

Albemarle Watershed with river basins in yellow that extend to Virginia. Pamlico Sound (light blue, not labeled) meets Albemarle Sound at Oregon Inlet. Graphic from Wikipedia, possibly K. Musser 2007

The Sound and its rivers are part of an even larger system.  Albemarle Sound merges with Pamlico Sound to the south, which drains 10,000 square miles. Together, the two Sounds and their rivers are known as the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary.

The entire drainage area of the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary is 28,000 square miles in two states, an area that’s slightly less than the states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont combined.

This estuary is the second largest estuary in the country, a cradle of life, as we shall see.

(Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia is the largest estuary in the country.)

An estuary is a place where rivers meet the sea, where fresh water and salt water mix. Inlets along the barrier beach give passage to sea water into rivers and sounds.

But inlets are fickle. They can be blasted open by a hurricane or silted in, even displaced by relentless currents.

History records several inlets along the barrier beach. Today, a single inlet, Oregon Inlet, brings salt water into the Albemarle-Pamlico system.

Let’s look a little more closely at this magnificent landmark on the barrier beach.

In 1846 a fierce, slow-moving hurricane carved it open (along with Hatteras Inlet further south). It is named after the first boat that rode out that storm and reported on the new inlet.

Commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, pleasure cruisers, anyone who knows the inlet say it’s the most treacherous along the east coast. Dredging maintains navigational channels, but they are quickly shoaled in or displaced by unpredictable currents.

Oregon Inlet and its restless shoals, hazardous to fishing vessels and charter boats, has been the target of endless debates about costly jetties and groins to “stabilize” it. This is a classic example of nature holding sway over man. Stay tuned. Oregon Inlet Task Force

Long shore currents are at work, too, propelling Oregon Inlet inexorably south  — about two miles in almost two centuries. Long shore currents sliding along the coast at an angle can also close inlets or make them too narrow for navigation.

Before navigational aids, captains often had difficulty locating inlets that may have shifted or closed since their last voyages. Sometimes they were tricked by a mirage of low beach, discovering the error too late.

Graveyard of the Atlantic this watery province is called. With good reason. Latest count: about a thousand ships sunk since 1851. Many more, uncounted, have sunk into oblivion.

There is good reason for this maritime mischief. It’s brewed by a pair of opposing currents that turn rowdy as they round the Outer Banks.

The Gulf Stream begins in Florida and flows north, its warm waters splitting as it heads toward northern Europe or the Canary Islands. The cold-current Labrador originates in the Arctic Ocean and hugs the coast. They meet and do a violent hip-bump around Cape Hatteras, where the barrier island makes an abrupt turn to the southwest.

Two currents that skirt the barrier islands cause much of the turbulence in this part of the Atlantic Ocean. WNCT 9 Weather

Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras are fearsome waters for ships but fabulous waters for deep sea fishing.

During World War II Germany was well aware of military possibilities off Cape Hatteras, soon to be called Torpedo Junction. In 1942 more than 65 U-boats were deployed to torpedo merchant vessels and their military escorts.  Within six months 397 ships were lost with 5,000 souls in this most dangerous place for merchant ships in the world, according to the US Navy.

This 452-foot-long passenger-freighter City of New York, torpedoed in 1942, sank in ten minutes. Passengers, including a newborn baby,  and crew were rescued by the USS Jesse Roper, a World War I vintage naval destroyer. Photo: National Archives

About now you may be wondering how stormy currents and capricious  inlets in the Atlantic might affect life in the Albemarle. Those barrier beaches on the front lines of waves were also barriers to transportation and trade from colonial days on.

There is no fine harbor within the 200-mile stretch from Chesapeake Bay in Virginia to Beaufort in North Carolina.

Captains of sailing ships and steamers could choose the safety of landing in the Chesapeake and the James River, in which case, days of travel south to North Carolina would be added to the journey. Or they could save time and take a chance on maneuvering unpredictable inlets and rough seas. Too often, saving time was not a worthy choice.

And finally, hurricanes stir up the mix with winds, waves, drenching rains, overwash, embedded tornados, storm surge and flooding. Cape Hatteras is the spot on the Atlantic seaboard most targeted by tropical storms and hurricanes. If a hurricane heads for Hatteras, it will surely, in some way, affect the Albemarle region.

Historical tracks of hurricanes over the past 150 years. NOAA

Each storm leaves a distinct signature. In 2003 Hurricane Isabel drove a path north directly through the Albemarle with 100 mph winds causing massive destruction to crops and farms. Few homes were spared damage from flooding, high winds, or tree falls.

Hurricane Floyd, coming on the heels of Hurricane Dennis in 1999,  brought 500-year floods to parts of eastern North Carolina. The record-breaking floods put entire towns underwater and killed 52 people.

Inland flooding caused by Hurricane Floyd. Aerial photo by J. Jordan of the US Army Corps of Engineers.

If you live through a hurricane you don’t forget it. For a long time afterwards, people tell stories.  Such is the case with the San Ciriaco Hurricane of 1899 that first devastated Puerto Rico and then flattened the southern Outer Banks with high winds and flooding before finally limping toward Ireland.

It is considered the worst storm ever to hit the Atlantic coast. Residents  had had enough. They packed up their belongings and moved inland, but they still commemorate the anniversary with exhibits, crafts, traditional music and — storytelling.

Rasmus Midgett sits atop the wreckage of the three-masted Priscilla after singlehandedly rescuing ten men from the sinking craft, including three wounded that he had to carry to shore. It is considered the most daring rescue ever. NC Division of Archives photo

By the 18th century several lighthouses warned sailors of dangerous waters. Each lighthouse has its distinctive day-mark, or painted pattern, and night-mark, or beacon pattern. During warm months, hurricanes and tropical cyclones do the battering; nor’easters take over during winter, though there is always the exception.

Hatteras light, the most enduring landmark on the Outer Banks, being moved 2900 feet from the shore in 1999 to avoid the encroaching ocean. Today it lies about 1500 feet from shore. National Park Service photo

Lighthouses weren’t enough. By 1848 life saving stations up and down the beach were manned by heroic crews who, during the worst of weather, rowed repeatedly through crashing waves in small dories to rescue survivors.  Later, special boom buoys and motor-driven boats were used. Today, the Chicamacomico Life Saving Station is a museum on the Outer Banks commemorating the heroism of these courageous men.

The all-black crew of the Pea Island Life Saving Station, with their captain, Richard Etheridge far left, who ran a tight company of life-savers. c. 1890. US Coast Guard photo

Now let us take a look at piture-postcard Albemarle Sound to find out why it has never particularly become a sailor’s paradise.

The  Sound is governed by sweep of wind, not lunar tide. Winds from the south will drive water to the north, for example, while northerly winds will drive water from the north shore to the south shore. When the winds turn, as they do, and water heads back, the Sound can seem like a sloshing bathtub. When winds run high, this can make for minor but temporary flooding on one side or another.

Depths in the Sound can go from negligible near shore to a maximum of 25 feet. Winds and sudden blows can create choppy seas that turn a pleasure outing into a boater’s distress in a matter of minutes.

A fine day for parasailing above water smooth as glass. But. . .Unattributed, Internet

Albemarle Sound is part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. Experienced ship captains who must make the short trip across the Sound during their travels have a healthy respect for the Sound’s erratic temperament.

…the Sound can have its rough moments. Here, a sailboat is waiting for rescue. Photo from OBX Today

Near shore, the Sound is threaded with shoals and bars, products of currents and old, drowned shorelines as sea level rose over millennia. Sailing ships must have run aground once too often, because, early on, duties were imposed on ship owners to maintain beacons and stakes in the water as navigational aids.

Marsh and swamp forest buttress the shores, protect the land against storms. Testimony to sunken and eroded shorelines are stranded baldcypress trees. Their seeds germinate on land where they grow best in moist soils.

For a long time, they will tolerate a watery existence, but as sea level rises and water floods the land, waves will continue to erode the shoreline and leave the cypress in deep water until they finally fail.

Bald cypress stranded along an eroded beach. Note the gnarled “knees” arising like middle-earth gnomes near trees to the right. Their function is still the subject of speculation. Once they were sawed off for use by arts-and-crafters, but today the practice is illegal. US Fish and Wildlife Service photo

All along the Sound, osprey are attracted to craggy, independent old cypress. Here they build penthouse nests called aeries and raise their young. They return from points south each spring when the shadbush blooms, which means the shad are running and fishing is good. The skies are filled with their aerial displays and high-pitched keening.

They are faithful to the same nest year after year,  enlarging and refurbishing until it becomes a mansion in the sky. Unless, of course, their stranded foundation of a cypress creaks and gives way to the watery environment it did not choose in the first place.

Then the osprey must seek a new home and rebuild: another unscripted result of living with the uncertainties of a dynamic environment.

A pair of ospreys on their nest. Photo by Donna Smith

(Next time:  Estuaries: Cradle of Life)

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Top Ten Tips for the Tidy Gardener

Compliments of the Untidy Gardener

Now that we are beginning a new gardening year I thought it would be nice to offer the following suggestions. I hope you find them timely and inspirational. Sorry, only two pictures because the garden is still in its underwear and buds are requesting more time to sleep until a warm spring sun nudges them to stretch out and put on their finery. Happy Gardening.

1. Decide on a plan of action for the day.

The plan should be a simple list, such as #1. Distraction; #2. Distraction; #3. Distraction. Do not include more than three distractions. Any more than three distractions and you might get too distracted. You do not have to have a preconceived idea of what any of these distractions may be as they will come to you as if by magic once you step outside and see where the distractions (messes) are.

Here is the value of gardening by distraction: Your spirit is not confined to the items on a list. It is free and unbounded. You will see the world with clarity and your mental and physical stamina will be revitalized and you will find joy in pulling weeds. Trust me.

2. Do not bring more than one gardening tool outside with you at a time.

If you need another tool, put the first one away. This may sound like a frustrating waste of time but consider the aerobic exercise you will get from the aimless walking back and forth and the deep breaths of fresh air you can take now that you are not bent over a garden bed. And your back will thank you, too. (Caution: If you live near a refinery or somebody is crop dusting, be sure to don your N-95 covid-19 mask while walking. You may remove it, of course, when you poke your nose back into the garden.)

Here’s another advantage: At the end of the day you will have the satisfaction of knowing your tools are put safely away and you will not have to wander aimlessly by the light of the moon (because that great new flashlight needs batteries) hunting for tools you can barely remember using.

3. Don’t spend endless hours planning your garden.

Try the willy-nilly method of planting for a change. You will save a lot of time and pencil erasers. Also money, as buying three’s of this or five’s of the other (a must in a properly planned garden) can be expensive. And then stuff dies anyway.

The willy-nilly method can cost almost nothing if you have good friends. Gardeners who know what they are doing are always dividing plants and throwing them out and feeling bad about it. You would be doing them a favor if you begged a few.

4. Plant a hedge.

If willy-nilly gets out of hand, you can hide some of it with a hedge. Hedges make gardens look important. They keep willy-nilly escapees in bounds and make willy-nilly look like a planned garden instead of a perennial bad-hair day.

Now, if you have a couple of plants with flowers (attach fake ones, if necessary, see above) you can tell everyone about your natural butterfly garden. Butterflies rather like willy-nilly gardens as long as they are in the sun (though they prefer real flowers). Be sure you have a hedge trimmer in mind (person, not tool) as hedges should be kept tidy. Willy-nilly hedges will only emphasize the willy-nilliness of a garden.

5. Consider phony flowers.

Hanging baskets and pot gardens are popular these days, but they require water and grooming. And real plants die. You can eliminate all this work if you keep a supply of dollar-store fake flowers on hand. Simply tuck a couple into empty spaces and voila! you have a (partially) living exotic bouquet. As with any flower arrangement, your choices should include round and spikey, short and tall, bold and retiring blooms.

Alternatively, you could start with dollar-store flowers and save time and money (unless a squirrel knocks over a pot or a bird decides to nest in one). For the natural look, avoid fake colors and chartreuse plastic ferns. If you are crafty and going for campy, go for glue, glitter and spangles.

Our fake-flower windowbox after almost two years with no care (except we did have to remove an old wren nest and a couple of pesky weeds that looked too natural). Once the flowers had more petals but some of them blew away

6. Do the quick and easy tasks first.

Leave the hardest and longest for last. This sounds counter-intuitive. Most people want to finish the big, difficult ones first so they can take the easy ones in stride. Do the math and you will understand why I suggest this. Example: You have ten easy tasks, like cut down a row of tulips or plant four marigolds, and so on, and two difficult tasks like edge a two-acre lawn or double-dig a bed.

Wouldn’t it be much more fulfilling to whip through those ten easy tasks and bask in the glow of self-fulfillment than to tackle the two time-consuming, backbreaking, strenuous, toilsome, terrible tasks that you will probably not finish anyway? The trick is not to consider tomorrow, because if you can get ten easy tasks finished by lunch time today you can take a nap in the afternoon and forget about it all.

7. Do not keep records.

Instead of keeping records you should be enjoying your favorite Netflix series. We have probably all been told at one time or other that we should keep records. And sometimes I think, darn, I wish I had a record of where I planted that purple tulip. On the other hand, the tulip bulb probably rotted over winter or the voles ate it. Few people (actually nobody) I know keep records.

If you do keep records, you need to have a dedicated record book (no jottings on the backs of envelops or grocery lists thrown into limbo) that you can find after a reasonable search (no tossing in with piles of magazines or unpaid bills). You also need to remember what you wrote about and how to find your notes, and if, in the end, you actually took those note that you so clearly remember but can’t find. Then you must be able to read your handwriting and hope the page is not so mud-tea-or-coffee-stained that you need a spotlight and a five-power magnifying glass to decipher the text.

We must hold in high esteem those great garden writers who kept excellent records that were legible, too. I wonder if they would have kept such good records if they had been able to subscribe to Netflix. I should add that there are mighty advantages to cultivating your memory instead of keeping records. You will boost your brain power and see the world with greater clarity and your spirit will be revitalized. Oops, I think I said that stuff before.

8. Fill the garden with ornaments.

People love ornaments. They love them more than plants, especially if they are shiny. If you have ornaments around, people will not notice weeds or dying plants. (Presumably you have pulled out the already dead plants.)

Once I was so proud of a plant I had rescued from a vacant lot that didn’t have guard dogs that I had to show it to every visitor. Nobody paid attention to my plant. They all thought that pink flamingo next to it was the best. (Of course, the plant in question (partridge berry) hugged the ground and had leaves the size of a baby’s finger nail, but they could have pretended.)

9. Wear appropriate gardening gear.

This should include sturdy shoes, sturdy pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Pajamas are not advised, even for quick forays, because of the possibility of bringing unintended bugs to bed with you, or more troubling, the idea that you may bring unintended bugs into your bed.

Quality of gear should be prioritized by whether you are working in the front yard or the back yard. Rags are fine for the latter, but smart, color-coordinated outfits are best for the front yard, where dog walkers and joggers, who may also be wearing spiffy outfits will be duly impressed with your stylish duds and your gardening prowess. Spanking white is by far the most dramatic but remember to skip the kneeling or you will ruin the effect. Ditto for bending over.

10. Skip the jargon and loaf in the garden.

Books do not talk like a plant. A plant would never say things like I am drought tolerant. (Personally, I have never met an eastern plant that didn’t love more water than less.) Or, Put me in moist but well drained soil, please.  (Who knows what moist but well drained soil is? Does the plant? Who even has moist but well drained soil?) I do not believe anybody has ever directly asked a question of a plant, and I do not believe plants would answer with those big words we find in books. And, furthermore, I do not believe plants like to be called “plant material.” What does that mean? A pile of hedge trimmings?

This “drought tolerant” camellia ‘Berenice Boddy’ has done well in our garden but it never had cascades of blooms until we had a couple of soggy years

But plants do have great body language. Their leaves simply turn gray or go dull or droop or look sad when they are thirsty, or they get very energetic when they like a spot, moist but well drained soil or not. Maybe our plants would like us better if we just loafed and hung out with them and maybe told them how much we liked them. (Caution: It’s probably best to keep your conversations with plants a secret. If you admit to hearing answers. . .)

11. Avoid sporadic, exuberant weekend gardening that can tear muscles up.

(This is a bonus tip.) Daily gardening sprints will help firm and strengthen muscles and may even help you age backwards, a goal that seems to be promoted by health gurus these days. This may have major ramifications for eighty-year-olds. One genetic study is taking place now on a ninety-five-year-old gentleman who acts like a six-year old and has the stature of a six-year-old. (Which means he has apparently lost 89 years.)

Whether his present height is due to aging backwards or being bent over a hoe in his vegetable garden every day is still under investigation. Note: This gentleman also tops his vegetables with yogurt and wheat germ and practices meditation (or dozes, not yet ascertained) when curled up over his hoe, variables that have not been included in this particular study. Stay tuned. Maybe you, too, could age backwards as you garden.

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My Love Affair with Mulch

Back is Broke, Shoulders Sore
But Still I Carry the Torch…er Pitchfork

A love affair with mulch? How desperate can she be?
Truly. Hear my story.

It was not love at first sight. Half a century ago I barely knew what Mulch was, nor did I know of his sister, Compost. The first glimmerings came when I began to think it was stupid to rake dead leaves and stuff them in plastic bags (compliments of our town) for delivery to some high-rise dead-leaf tenement city over there, somewhere.

Besides, maybe I could use those plastic bags for other things. Much easier to toss the leaves into the sandbox-playground the kids had outgrown. Occasionally, other garden undesirables, like gnarled, broken, unpromising peony roots were added.

One day one of those unpromising peony roots bloomed. My perfectly planted-by-the-book peonies never did. What had those dead leaves wrought?

Festiva maxima, a piece of that peony from years ago. The best peony I’ve found for our Carolina heat in a bed of perlite and finished compost. Still nothing compared to the peonies I saw on the black rich floodplain of the Hudson River in New York State

I am thinking back to this now because Mulching turned out to be our fall adventure this year.

She’s really bonkers now, calling Mulching an “adventure.”
Patience, dear reader.

Most years mulching for us is a routine affair. We rake, Bob shreds, I spread. The chopped autumn salad composts nicely on garden beds and, if applied liberally, keeps winter weeds at bay. After so many years of this routine, our soil is rich.

Usually there is a pile of leaves waiting to be ground on top of this black dirt composted from leaves of past years. After thirty years, this is what our soil looks like. Opportunistic tree roots are taking advantage of idle good soil, but we’ve already rescued pots of it for use when planting

But rich soil doesn’t necessarily compensate for land sinking and sea level rising and volumes of rain that bring puddles and sogginess.

We needed volumes more mulch than we could create. Immediately. Mulch soaks up water, regulates its seepage into the ground. Puddles tend to disappear from sight (if not in fact).

Azaleas are planted on hills of compost, their shallow roots happy above the puddles  — maybe. The flooded area is large, so I’ve not been successful in raising the entire bed. Tree branch is a victim of twig girdler

Like Disney movie-magic, the answer to our dilemma came from above one day. Linemen from our electric cooperative began trimming branches near power lines.

I happened to be outside when the basso-staccato of their chipper-shredder began to bellow. My spirit came alive, sort of like what happens on that first musical thunderclap in Phantom of the Opera.

The tree trimmers were great, took time to tell me what they planned to do with our crepe myrtles near the street

Now she’s comparing leaf-grinding to theatre. Tell us, do we need tickets for the rest of the prodction?
Tease me if you want.

Could you leave us a pile? I asked. Sure! It will be big. That’s OK. You can put it in that driveway on undeveloped property.

And one day there was a great pile, sunbeams glancing off rain-shined, jumbled cracklings. Wonderful stuff! Shredded twigs, chopped leaves and pine needles, an elegant woodland cocktail.

Jumping ahead in the story. In lieu of a picture of the pile which I forgot to take, here is what the mulch looked like on the ground after leaves had fallen

It smelled good, too. I could imagine a pine forest. Or a walk in late-autumn woods, damp moldering that signals toadstools on dead wood or microscopic millions prepping meals for hungry plants. Or dust in the air. This monumental pile represented the future of our garden.

But first this monumental pile had to get into the garden. Somehow.

I still needed to figure all that out so I dawdled over a cup of tea, or maybe two.

Where else to relax on a sunny day but on a bench near a fading crepe myrtle festooned with Spanish moss streamers?

Which gives me time to tell you about the vicissitudes of my romance with Mulch.

Will we read about this in some True Confessions magazine?
Probably not. Too tame.

I’d given cold-shoulder to most mulches. Pine straw is one. It’s hard to lay in place. It should be thick to keep the ground moist and the weeds down. (You never see a weed in those bulky pine-straw donuts people put around trees here.) And pine needles take forever to decompose, add little organic matter to the soil.

To be an effective weed suppressor, pine needles must be laid more heavily than pictured. The mushroom tells me the soil underneath has some organic matter. We have an abundance of pine needles that we usually grind with leaves

Fresh bark mulch from the nursery looks smashing. Once down, a gardener feels like he/she, not the weeds, is in control. It conserves water. It decomposes more quickly than pine straw, but it adds few crumblies to clay soil.

This path pictured ten  years ago, was mulched with bark. Edgers are landscape ties to keep soil in raised beds from spilling onto path. River run with landscape cloth under it has replaced the mulch and is weed free unless seeds from rowdies I have planted escape

If you live near a peanut processing plant, peanut hulls are fabulous, especially when laid on a few inches thick. They keep out weeds, soak up moisture and create good black soil fast.

They are uniform in appearance and resemble river-run rock from a distance. What’s more, they don’t need frequent replacing. Which is why we dressed paths with them years ago. Today, our paths would be most fertile.

Year 2001. That’s how our peanut-hull paths looked before Hurricane Isabel came through in 2003 and knocked out paths and trees

Would we had used peanut hulls on our beds instead of on our paths. We still could, of  course, but that four-hour round trip for peanut hulls doesn’t have quite the appeal today as it did those many energetic yesterdays ago.

Another view of woods and paths now gone. In fall they would be covered with leaves that we would rake onto beds, leaving packed peanut hulls still in good shape

Of all these, our garden grindings are the most reliable, the most dependable of mulches. They say you have to work to keep love alive. That we do. Between Bob’s grinding and my broadcasting, autumn golds and browns quickly become dark soil when spread generously on beds. (Weedy plants are banned from the mix, carted off in Ranger.)

Tools of the Chipper Captain: rake, cart, grinder. Lattice backstop helps keep ground mulch from flying into the woods

It’s been a long and beautiful relationship. Hurricane Isabel sparked the romance in 2003. We lost countless trees during that storm, but in the weeks that followed, many of them found their ways back to our garden as roughly ground mulch.

Even then, the rumble and whine of chipper-shredders stirred memories of those piles of dead leaves that brought a peony to life in a children’s abandoned playground.

Our backyard after Isabel. Into the chipper for many of these trees

Breakdown was faster than we expected. The jumble of sizes, shapes, and textures may have helped the process along to create a veneer of soil that was a dark rich gift to the clay.

Back to the present. That cup of tea gave me the boost I needed to figure things out.

Pickle pails and Ranger (our 1992 Ford truck, in case you haven’t followed Ranger’s life history) would be our helpmates. We loaded 20 pickle pails onto Ranger’s bed each time we drove to the driveway. That is, Bob drove because the driver’s seat doesn’t adjust any more and my feet can’t reach the gas pedal.

Pickle pails staged for mulching. There’s no picture of the chipper pile, we worked so hard I forgot to record it

It took a while for us to come up to speed, but we managed a routine: Bob hauled pails, and I scooped and stuffed. We worked quickly because the pile was settling and had to be turned with a pitchfork to loosen it. Back at the garden, Bob unloaded and I spilled and spread. Rain settled the mulch in.

It seemed we had everything under control. Halfway through the pile, work stopped.

Ranger had been feeling poorly. Nothing serious, we thought. Just seemed a little sluggish. Surely Ranger could rise to the occasion.

We couldn’t imagine that our garden-trash chariot could ever fail

He was up on the rack for state inspection when he gave out. Would this be the end for our 28-year-old partner?

He had to be towed to our favorite mechanic. How embarrassing for this workhorse! What’s the verdict, doc? we asked.


Ranger’s heart had given out and he had an aneurism. In car talk, this meant a failed fuel pump and a hole in the air line to the carburetor.

Our mechanic is a pro! Replacing the fuel pump was routine for him, but a new air line for such an old truck was elusive. He reached out to dealers, parts suppliers, even owners of junkyards, in an exhaustive search.

Well, he said like the pragmatic surgeon that he was, we’ll just put some duct-tape over that hole and he’ll be good as new. And so he is.

We’ve just about finished hauling. Last count, recorded on our eraser board so we wouldn’t forget, was 260 stuffed pickle pails. We’ll be up to 300 before we’re done.

It’s still raining. Mulched beds glisten with shredsd and curled leaves, and plants stand out in full dress against the dark mulch. Puddles are banished, temporarily, anyway.

Rainy days are best for mulching! Messy but good. The soil is wet and the mulch is wet, so plants are not stressed by putting dry mulch on a dry bed. During hot dry weather beds should be watered before and after mulching. Here, leaf fall has naturally covered the bed before poinsettias were dug, but not thickly enough yet to prevent weeds

My love affair with mulch goes on. Time for another cup of tea.

Even though mulch is covering the puddles, you can tell this bed is wet by the healthy moss growing on the concrete mushrooms. Camellia sasanqua petals add their caresses


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Holiday Poinsettias for the Garden

The Unruly Gardener Shares her Experiences

In late December 2019 I wound up with seven ailing poinsettias, four from people who know I am a pushover for ailing plants and three carry-overs from winter 2018-2019. These were gifts from friends who got them free from a farmer’s market and survived the 2019 growing season in my garden.

Here’s a mid-November 2020 picture of one of our poinsettias

What did I do? What worked? What didn’t?

Sorry, no hard-bound instructions here, or diary-documentation. Not the style of an unruly gardener. But I will revisit their story, as truly as I can.

On this cold December day in 2020 all our tropicals that had once been lolling in balmy sunshine are now incarcerated in a makeshift prison (our garage) where nighttime temperatures of 45 degrees or lower are common, and where they are ignored until they droop for a drink.

Adequate light during the day helps make up for overcrowding and low temps

Since temperatures are easily ten degrees  below ideal, most of them are too chilled to do much drinking, which is fine with the warden.

Peace lilies are the first to gasp, and I am kind to them because they’ve been reliable allies for more than three decades, blooming nicely in the garden. Boston ferns drop fragmented leaves (pinnules, if you want get technical) with abandon, spider plants shrink, and poinsettias eventually turn to sticks.

Boston fern being led from its home in the urn. It pops in and out easily, a joy to move, a mess by spring, but handsome and happy once it is back home

None of these plants ever dies outright, so the austere watering regime is probably kinder than lavish doting. It’s a messy but no-work business unless the warden decides she must sweep out the dross.

As days grow longer and daytime prison temperatures rise consistently by ten degrees or more, tiny leaves emerge on viable poinsettia stems. By this time their soil is dry and tired. I trim back the dead and untidy and give them a sip once in a while, not very much.

It would make sense to fertilize them when they put out that first tentative growth, but I do not want to inspire false hope. Besides, if growth is stimulated,  I might have to water them more frequently.

In April, when I’ve gotten tired of the mess and sunny days have heaved away frosts, I set them all free. In years past I would repot poinsettias up one size in good potting soil.

About the time this earlyCoral Bells azalea blooms, poinsettias can go outdoors. Bridal wreath spirea pokes from behind

After numerous pot-stirrings it became obvious that hunting for a decent pot and mixing ingredients took far longer than scratching out a hole in a non-rooty part of the garden and dropping the plants in with some water and a casual toss of 10-10-10 (Too much? Too little? I never know.).

Aesthetically, poinsettias in pots, sunk in beds or not, do not excite me. They look more like props than partners in the garden. These wild plants, small trees in Mexico, need space, so their roots can roam.

The camera did not capture the stature of this poinsettia in fall, 2019. Its roots were strong, as round as my thumb, and they wandered through the bed making removal of the plant a major chore and  ultimately, sadly, futile

Back to the recently liberated sticks. Shackled all winter, barely awake, they still look like last fall’s castaways, so I camouflage them. I do not want them out in full sun withering as they come to life. I tuck them discreetly into shady bowers where ferns will distract the eye until they get dressed.

A shady bed in late April where some poinsettias went. I never thought of including them in this picture — they were nothing-plants at the time — and I never came back to record them till they came into color

Their rich green leaves in summer, so handsome with a subtle red midrib, have always fascinated me. Since they are tropical guests in this temperate garden, insects tend to ignore them and the leaves stay fine all summer. They have their natural defenses, too. Milky sap that exudes from bruised leaves may repel insects and mammals that don’t want their mandibles clogged with nature’s gummy bear.

This 2020 plant near a path remained small but its leaves were still almost perfect in December

I grow poinsettias because they are handsome and carefree in mid-summer, when the rest of the perennial garden is ready to call it quits. If I want pzzazz for the holidays, I depend on plants pampered by a nursery.

So I never expect to have bracts form and glow red in my garden beds. Subtle changes begin as daylight wanes and the blooms of sasanqua camellias emerge.

 Here, camellia ‘Apple Blossom’ pokes out a single bloom high over a poinsettia below.  They’re a bit of an odd couple: camellias and poinsettias

With each tilt toward the winter solstice the entire plant seems to liven and put out modified leaves that slowly enlarge and become more and more vivid. What a bonus!

A December 1 photo of the plant shown in November, above, probably at its best

These autumn nights are not long enough to punch out high color. To get that, I would have to run around putting big nursery pots over plants to give them the 15 hours of complete darkness they need to come into full plumage.

That would mean setting alarms or plastering sticky notes around the house to keep me on track. Not my style, and I’m not sure I would like spikes of untimely bright red poking out among dying hosta (rationalization, again).

Ironically, I wind up running around putting large nursery pots over them anyway (and bath towels with a brick for good measure, don’t ask why). Instead of setting an alarm clock, I check the weather forecast multiple times daily to see if nighttime temperatures will drop into the low 30’s, at which time action must be considered.

Poinsettia with Pot with bath towel, one of my more aesthetic efforts in the garden

I’ve discovered that protected poinsettias can take temperatures that drop to freezing or slightly below, as long as these temps do not linger. The plants emerge perky from pots after rainy nights, too.

We had so many cold, windy, and rainy days and nights this year, and so many twigs, branches and limbs down, I thought the sky was falling on our garden

But snug in their pots, poinsettias emerged glistening from water that had apparently seeped through pot and towel

This all works pretty well as long as daytime temperatures are benign. Cold 40’s and rain take their toll on these plants.

Then there is that little matter of aesthetics I’ mentioned before.

Towels drying on a fence with overturned pots would not be considered House and Garden decor

I’m not sure these plants are particularly fond of pot-on, pot-off manhandling, either, especially in the dark of night when the forgetful gardener has to run out with a battery-dimmed flashlight to do pot-duty.

Final photo of poinsettia pictured in November and early December. Still valiant but beginning to  show signs of wear

The smart gardener keeps poinsettias in pots during summer. They don’t shock when they are brought inside and closeted for 15 hours a day to emerge Voila! gorgeous before Christmas. Maybe.

The unruly gardener, on the other hand, would forget to set the alarm or look at the sticky notes and they would languish in the closet until she needed a broom. Ole! Ole! to the nurseries that successfully manage these crops.

Nighttime temperatures of twenty-plus degrees near the end of December prodded me to bring poinsettias and other chilled but still happy tropicals into prison.

After having wrestled with the doomed granddaddy of our garden poinsettias in 2019 (pictured earlier) and losing,  I recruited Bob to do the tough digging

Surprise! This year poinsettias popped out with barely a poke or a pull. There were no long wandery woody roots that could fill in for a neighborhood pick-up stickball game. Here is what we found.

Roots were so limited they could not hold on to a decent ball of soil. Why? We do not know. Note plant on the right with girdling roots. During the summer, flexible slender roots that I failed to spread when planting grew and toughened. This time I pruned and straightened before replanting

The discovery of inadequate roots did not bode well for a winter stint in prison. The plants drooped immediately and have not perked up. One good sign: they stand rock-solid in their pots, so roots  might be welcoming the humusy soil-and-perlite mix I used.

Time will tell. I could have left the plants languishing outside for the winter and begun anew with fresh 2020 poinsettias from a garden center. But where is the mystery? For me, I guess, gardening is as much about experience and observation, disappointment and loss, as it is about success with pretty flowers.

But I do enjoy those pretty flowers, especially in winter when sasanqua camellias bloom so freely and reliably.

Camellia ‘Sho a no saki’ has bloomed since October, still going after three months

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Reviving Old-Timey Sorghum Molasses Days

A New-Age Experiment on an Old Southern Tradition

At the end of August good friend Steve invited us to come by for a try at making sorghum syrup at his barn. This would be an adventure, he said, as no one attending had any practical experience making syrup. But, for a start, there was guidance passed down from old-timers, and the Internet dispenses a generous buffet of book learning. And, he added, this would only be the small beginning of an annual tradition.

Sorghum syrup! My northern-bred bones thought sorghum syrup was a relic by now. After all, you can’t find it in a supermarket.

Making “molasses” or “sorghum molasses,” as it is often called, became a southern tradition during the Civil War, when northern blockades cut supplies of sugar. Sorghum cane grew happily in the South and resourceful farmers soon honed techniques for pressing the sweet juice and boiling it down.

This is a long and labor-intensive process — tailor made for community camaraderie and celebrations of the harvest. There are few practitioners in today’s hurry-up world, but nostalgia for these good times still lives, thanks to wisdom handed down through generations.

Bottled sorghum syrup. It takes about 50 gallons of juice to produce a few dozen quart jars

A long time ago, I had an untidy brush with sorghum syrup in a western North Carolina restaurant. There, on the menu, was an entry for buckwheat pancakes and sorghum syrup, right below a sinful entry for light and fluffy Bisquicks with butter and maple syrup. (My kind of breakfast!) Buckwheats and sorghum? Not so tempting, but a good friend of mine, Anne, loved them, and they sounded so-o nutritious.

How far wrong could I go

One bite. One bite and I spent the rest of breakfast lusting for Bisquicks and maple syrup.

Memory has mercifully dulled my senses, but what I recall of the meal tasted like a medley of tin, dirt, bog (whatever that tastes like) and bottom-of-the-bag Harry Potter jelly beans.

(By now I have mightily insulted my southern neighbors and the sorghum-molasses-syrup lovers of the world, so I’d better back out of this tunnel and simply call the flavor complex.)

Sorghum “berries” against a blue sky. The crop is related to sugar cane, which produces molasses as a byproduct of milling. Sorghum is more tolerant of cold weather. Photo by American Distilling Institute

In my defense, I would like to point out that even though sorghum flour makes highly nutritious tortillas, most tortilla-eaters prefer theirs made with corn. Nutritious sorghum silage is, however, fed to cows. I wonder if cows would prefer corn if they were given a choice.

Well, I would give this sorghum molasses a try.

Now, for those who may be seeking advice on sorghum-syrup-making as a second career, or even just a sideline hobby, here is a step-by-step guide to help you achieve the ultimate success – delicious, nutritious, sorghum molasses.

Be forewarned. This undertaking is not for the faint-of-heart. It takes patience, persistence, and honing of skills that are mostly lost to us.

Did you know that sorghum syrup can be drizzled on pancakes and biscuits, added to cookie, bread and ice cream recipes, used to sweeten barbecue sauce and baked beans? How about bacon sorghum cornmeal sandies?

If you are still serious about sorghum-syrup-making, you should plan to spend Fourth of July, or, if you prefer the more traditional barbecueing, then the day after, planting about a quarter acre sorghum seed in rows, about a hundred feet long. After the canelings are up you will have to thin and weed.

A sorghum field after thinning

Sorry, but your local nursery probably does not sell starts in pots. Remember, summer days can be hot. Hydrate to avoid heat stroke. Knee pads and back brace recommended for novices. For tips on fertilizing, check out the 1891 University of Arkansas Agricultural Bulletin #16. Very informative.

Some time late August or early September the cane should be harvested. Before being fed into the press it must be “dressed,” which means stripping the leaves from each individual cane and chopping the heads off. (Seems to me this activity should be called “undressing the cane,” but I am an ex-northerner, so what do I know.)

This is a big job, so you will want to invite a dozen or more unsuspecting good friends to your sorghum-syrup party. They will be “dressing the cane” but you needn’t mention that in the invitation. Be sure to call it a party. Everyone loves a party. Which means that you should have enough finger-lickin’ food on hand to bribe, er, feed, them all.

You will need to find a sorghum mill for pressing the cane. A diligent search of old barns across the south will no doubt turn up a rusty cast iron mill that you can either bring to Antiques Road Show (hold the rust remover) or have refurbished and repaired by a sorghum-mill restorer. Check out an old copy of the Yellow Pages.

Here is an example of a mill used for pressing. Dressed canes fed in on the right, crushed canes exit on the left

An Enthusiastic Mule (or horse) is key to success. Without The Mule, there will be no juice, since The Mule must walk around in circles to turn the crank to press the cane to release the juice. Unfortunately, mules these days tend to be independent, so you might have to substitute a ride-on mower for The Mule. The rider need not be enthusiastic, but he should be mellow.

Buster Norton is harvesting sorghum in western North Carolina. Note that the chestnut horse is striding around the mill like he has a real purpose in life. Photo from NC Field & Family

You should assemble a small, knowledgeable crew to feed sorghum cane into the mill and draw off the pale green juice in buckets. (If you are short on buckets, you can use five-gallon pickle pails.) Your crew can be chosen from the first three or four individuals who respond affirmatively to your invitation.

You will need to construct a fire pit. This should have sturdy support for the trough that will hold the juice and a chimney constructed of concrete block. You can probably find directions for this in an old Popular Mechanics magazine. Check out Useful DIY projects in the Index.

Here is the fire pit that Steve and crew built

But don’t worry if you don’t have directions. This is an easy weekend project. You will have plenty of time left to fell a couple dozen trees and split the logs needed to maintain a crackling fire for the several hours it takes to boil the juices down. You’ll get about one gallon of syrup, maybe, for every ten (or more) gallons of liquid you pour into the trough.

Be sure to have a variety of kitchen tools like ladles and sieves on hand. The liquid must be continually stirred to keep it from burning as it thickens, and the green gook that rises to the top needs to be regularly skimmed off to maintain peak flavor.

The crew skimming the juice

These tools are all available from homey stores like Bed Bath and Beyond. Alternatively, you might find some in those old barns you’ve visited. Wash thoroughly to remove spider egg cases.

Production was in full swing when we arrived. There were maybe fifteen of us and what seemed like a thousand (though I’m not good at counting this type of thing), no, at the very least ten thousand sorghum stalks piled on an assortment of truck beds and trailers scattered along the farm road.

At least ten thousand canes?

Steve had graciously assured us we were not expected to work. But when you see piles of maybe twenty thousand stalks hanging off truck beds, it seems gauche not to volunteer. And besides, lunch of hot dogs and fixins’ would be served after stalk prep, so it was in everyone’s best interests to hurry the task.

Stripping the cane, one cane at a time

No, Steve did not rummage through barns looking for an old mill. He purchased his from a local farm family and says he remembered seeing it used by a black family in the 1960’s. It had been in that family for a least a generation,  since the early 1900’s. The mill is bright red and made of cast iron and probably manufactured in the late 1800s.

Three Sorghum Syrup Tenders were monitoring the operation as we arrived, having just jury-rigged a break in the press which set progress back by about an hour. (If you were 150-odd years old, you might break down, too.)

Tending the mill while the ride-on mower turns the crank

A ride-on mower proved to be an exceptional substitute for The Mule (except when the rider was called off duty to monitor lunch preparation). Steve’s horses must have gotten wind of the project because they made themselves scarce. One dissolved into the shadows and the other had that attitude that says You’re crazy if you think I’m idiot enough to spend my day walking in circles.

Bucket after bucket was emptied into the trough. Time came to start the boil.

The grand experiment begins

The fire roared. Smoke churned out of the chimney.

Steam rose from the trough. Stirring the liquid and sieving off green goop began nonstop.

The green goop is actually chlorophyll, which may have been fine in toothpaste years ago, but is not recommended in sorghum syrup

The piles of wood that had seemed so grand began to disappear stack by stack.

The woodpile, made up of split logs and scrap lumber, must keep the fire going for several hours

Expectations were high, but it would be a long time before syrup would actually appear. The hardest part of the process is knowing when to take the sorghum syrup off the fire. Too early and the syrup is watery; too late and you run the risk of a burnt product.

Next day, we waited anxiously to hear the results.

Despite hours of skimming and stirring. . .

. . .those piles of pressed cane just did not produce enough juice to make for a reasonable quantity of syrup. The cane had been planted too early, in May, instead of July, and it was already drying up by the time it was harvested.

When the liquid finally boiled down into a syrup of sorts, there was so little left, even vigorous stirring could not keep it from burning. A single jar of syrup was rescued. Nobody liked it. It was poured down the drain.

We came away with renewed respect for those intrepid farmers a century and a half ago who began the sorghum-syrup tradition. They had to figure out what to do from scratch. They couldn’t tap Grandpa’s memory or the Internet. They had to persist until they got things right. And then they invited the community to celebrate the harvest.

Next year, another try

Steve says there will be another try at Sorghum Molasses Day next year. They’ll change some techniques based on this year’s hard-won experience. And he promises the cane will already be dressed by the time we arrive! Maybe next year we’ll all get a taste of real sorghum molasses for a new twist on an old tradition.

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