The Understory: Orange Twin’s Woodland Diversity

Twirling wild yam

Last April I was invited to take a walk in the woods at the Orange Twin intentional community in Athens. Never having been to Orange Twin, but having walked in the woods of the surrounding area, I was expecting to see the same old story, plants growing in the regenerative stage of previously disturbed soil, which usually means a lot of invasive plants. The woods of Orange Twin were a whole new story, or rather, an old understory; the plants growing beneath the tree canopy were the kinds of species one could find in this area in the 17th century. I can’t tell you how happily surprised I was to see trillium, profuse colonies of jack-in-the-pulpit, blueberries, gorgeously blooming mountain laurel and native azaleas, partridge berries, heart-leaved wild yam vine, and along the creek bank grew ecologically and medicinally valuable yellowroot.

Yellowroot, Xanthorhiza simplicissima

As a plant lover, it does great things to my soul to be among native plants in a region that has been over-farmed, sprawled-out, and over-run with invasive plant species. These diverse species have grown together harmoniously for centuries, before any of the Europeans arrived. Being among the native plants is a glimpse of woodland diversity as it might have been when the intrepid William Bartram was trekking through the Piedmont.

One can experience such native plants in botanical sanctuaries where natives have been reestablished, such as the State Botanical Gardens, Atlanta Botanical Gardens, Atlanta History Center’s Quarry Garden, Stone Mountain Park’s native plant garden, and Perimeter College’s native plant sanctuary. The difference with seeing these plants in the sanctuaries versus in a woodland where the plants are all growing at will is that people have chosen to plant the natives in the protective setting; at Orange Twin, the plants have chosen to be where they are. And the stewards of Orange Twin will see to it that the plants’ wishes are respected. The woods are forever protected in a land trust in memory of the beloved historian John Seawright, who would appreciate a good understory.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum
Yellowroot doing its job holding up the bank.
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