Carolina Naturalist explores the natural heritage of North Carolina through art and storytelling.
Codex Carolinum is a didactic botanical illustration series showcasing native or naturalized plants of North Carolina that have traditionally been used for food or medicine. The 26-piece series uses art and storytelling to explore relationships between the state’s plants, animals, and people for the purpose of encouraging natural science literacy. Each illustration is drawn en plein air, and from live specimens when the opportunity presents itself. Each letter of the alphabet will be represented and posted as they develop.
Alder – Pioneer of the Stream
Responding to sunlight’s call, Alder the Pioneer emerges from the forest to plant its flag in new territory. The small tree sets root, building the foundation of its new home from sand and silt from stream’s edge. Upon this frontier Alder settles, but not alone. A tribe of bacteria – tiny pioneers in their own right – colonizes Alder’s roots and dutifully follows their host into foreign lands. These bacteria are farmers, cultivating nitrogen from the air to trade Alder for shelter. Together they urbanize stream’s edge, making it habitable for other colonists not far behind. Among these are humans who come to Alder to collect its branches. From the bark they will make a tea that cleans their gums and teeth.
Butterflyweed – Monarch’s Host
Orange blazes form a pattern on the meadow, illuminating an ancient path. They signal the house of Asclepias, a rugged clan of innkeepers that host the Monarch’s family on their annual pilgrimage north. The Asclepias soak the Monarch’s robes in poison to protect it from highwaymen, ensuring safe passage to the next house. Though the threat of poison has long kept the Monarch safe on its journey, a new challenge has emerged for which our traveler is ill-prepared. Humans are here, and have claimed the meadow for their own. Where once they walked along side the Monarch seeking clear breath from the Asclepias, humans now come to replace the meadow with impenetrable rock. Few of the Asclepias can remain in this place and the Monarch is increasingly hard-pressed to survive the trip. The dynasty is in peril.
Cohosh – Grandmother’s Pearls
Beyond the fall line now,
Climbing into this turtle place,
A path of least resistance,
Smooth-skinned, stars reflecting
Behind me, fading.
All the maps point right, and silly me I’ve turned left
Lured by low-hanging branches, teased by white water,
Crashing into rocks, cobwebs on the face
Groping in the dark, grandmother guides my hand,
To pearls hidden in the mouths of snakes.
They glow, luminous,
Drying the mud,
Drawing the confusion out,
Reminding me that being lost is an opportunity,
Pushing one foot ahead of the other.
Elderberry – Nature’s Medicine Chest
Rising from the mud, soggy-footed Elderberry stretches above its wetland neighbors to reach the sun. While up on the toe Elderberry spies its kin lined up neatly in a row, a sure sign they have been called into the service of humans. These urbanized ex-patriots of the swamp have moved to town to trade their wares for the persistent care of humans. These humans call the Elderberry, “Nature’s medicine chest,” and rely on its fruit to prevent colds and flu.
Yaupon Holly – The Aegis
Marching along our southern coast is an army of wind-scarred oak and pine who protects us from ocean’s temper. Beneath this aegis of maritime forest winds a tangled world of shrub and vine that offers riches to any creature brave enough to navigate its depths. At the threshold of this formidable scrub is the Yaupon Holly who lures visitors in wearing a cloak of fruit that glows red against the hurricane sky. Among the guests at Yaupon’s door is man, who comes not for berries, but for the caffeine-rich leaves lining Yapon’s arms. With these leaves he will brew a black drink to share with his inland brothers, extending Yaupon’s hospitality deep into the country’s interior.
Indian Pipe – Ghost of the Forest
Deep in the forest where wise men once quarreled spring the Indian Pipes. These ghosts of the forest are bizarre relatives of the Azalea, but do not transform light into food like their kin. Instead, they fool the earnest fungi growing around the roots of beech trees into sharing their host’s energy. The skin of Indian Pipes is thin and fragile, making them easy fodder for forest creatures that relish their asparagus-like flavor. Among these creatures are humans, who know that the sap of Indian Pipes help fight infections of the eye.
Jewelweed – Soothesayer
Trail brother, let me neutralize this mood,
Cleanse you, help you understand.
These always-shifting shapes imply deceit,
Yet simply responding to the fickle tease of forest light.
Palms out-stretched bearing offerings for the birds,
But, drenched with sweat that scratches and burns.
This story isn’t ours, it’s yours,
A limitation in the binary code;
A legacy of confusion about the sun and moon.
One day, if facing forward,
You will see a story
That’s bigger than you’ve imagined.
Maple – The Weaver
Heavy bough, laden with hope,
You are ready.
Come wind, nature insists,
Carry these threads across the chasm,
Spinning needles mend the edge,
Weave together and draw tightly.
Nettle – Admiral’s Nurse
Drifting on soft summer wind, the Admiral sails home beneath the arms of Alder. Here waits the dutiful nurse Nettle, rocking the Admiral’s children in a crib of folded leaves. The nurse, an immigrant with a European accent, gently cradles the Admirals brood wearing a jacket of fine needles. Nettle must be on the defense, for there are others on this frontier that would gladly suffer the prick of a needle to steal the nurse for their own. Though loyal to the Admiral, Nettle is a devoted midwife and will help the needy through childbirth.
Oak – The Great Builder
The noble Oak, patron of building, has a long history of collaboration with humans. From the body of this mighty tree comes an enduring material that has raised innumerable houses, sailed great ships across the seas, and nurtured many gallons of fine spirits. Yet, away from the clamor of human enterprise, this gentle ruler holds a quiet court, feeding acorns to the forest creatures in fall.
Rhododendron – Forest Debutante
Debutantes gather along the mountain slope, presenting themselves to a polite society of Oak. The contestants are Rhododendron, members of the Tree Rose Society, and they offer boutonniéres of soft pink to suitors who approach the stage. Few can resist the Rhododendrons’ charm, but one must take care. The invitation to the ball is laced with poison, and a dizzying maze awaits those brave enough to wander onto the dance floor. The mountain folk know you can lose yourself in the parade of debutantes; a frustrating waltz they call, “Rhododendron Hell.”
Seaweed – Mothership
The blonde hair of Bermuda shed
Pulled and knotted from low to high tide
Restlessly churning, strands weaving into cradle-shape
Creatures in their infancy nestled inside
Push us sun and pull us moon
Draw us by magnets to the shore
Carry this life to land
Trillium – Toad Shade
Dawn, and above the scratch of waking robins a soft trumpeting rises. The Trilliums are coming, dressed in robes of mottled whip-poor-will, to announce the arrival of spring. Ants gather beneath them and wait patiently for the delicate notes to ripen and sink to the ground. Eagerly the ants collect the scattered song with such determination that they do not even notice the crash of footsteps around them. Humans, flushed with spring fever, have heard the song as well and come to kidnap the trumpeters. Pluck by pluck the Trilliums are pulled from their mounts and cooked down into a love potion. Storm clouds gather to protest and release a tear in mourning.
Umbrella Tree – Queen of Beetles
Emerging from the tangled floor of the mountain cove stands the regal Umbrella Tree, Master of Beetles. Summer is here, and suitors crawl from fog and shadow to engage their host in a dance that is older than the forest. Umbrella Tree greets its admirers with massive, malodorous flowers that glow brightly in the coveís dim light. Intoxicated by the scent, the suitors lavish their host with attention and massage its flowers until they transform into brilliant red fruits. Beneath this ancient ritual, the quiet of the cove is interrupted by the footsteps of a much newer creature: humans. They have come for the skin of Umbrella Tree, which they peel and render to make medicine for aching joints.
Venus Flytrap – Farmer Turned Hunter
Above the wet savannah storm clouds gather, casting long shadows into the cosmopolitan world of grasses below. Within this patchwork of light and dark lurk the Flytraps, a tribe of farmers turned hunters who have abandoned the infertile soil of the swamp to trap game along the high streets. The only time these cryptic hunters reveal themselves is during their spring mating rites when they raise their white flags high above the bustling grasses. Though necessary to carry on the bloodlines, this brief spell of visibility has a price. Humans have come to the savannah, and the greediest among them poach the otherwise invisible Flytraps simply to satisfy their lust for beauty.
Witch Hazel – The Conjurer
Perfection, as self-defense,
Whittles branches into thorns,
Hardens furrows into bark.
Can I escape by chasing it,
Growing one mighty trunk beyond the canopy?
Or shall I find peace beneath it,
Multi-trunked and hermit-like,
Spellcasting from an authentic voice,
Draws the fear out?
Yellowroot – Creek Scout
Yellowroot, long-legged scout of the Buttercup tribe, navigates stream’s crooked edge in search of new light. With each step this restless adventurer leaves behind a trail of rootprints through Alder’s land; from which spring its many blonde-toed children. Yellowroot’s family settles and buries a foundation into the silt to secure their muddy home from water’s torment. Yet, despite the effort, their settlement does not ward off the infirmed, for humans know that Yellowroot protects against erosion of the stream and the stomach.