First, a little matter about harvesting native plants: It is illegal to remove any native plant from a national forest, so don’t do it. I also would not remove plants from a public area without express permission.

There is a school of thought that says not to harvest from the wild, period. I tend to depart here. I feel that if you are digging seedlings from your own property, or property of a friend from whom you have received permission, it’s fine, especially if the area you’re harvesting from is about to be plowed under, mowed down, or disrupted in any fashion. I have harvested from private-owned property for years and plan to continue. Obey the law. Use common sense.

One of my favorite trees is the often taken-for-granted cedar tree, growing in fence lines and fields, sprouting up in flowerbeds and rock walls, often so crowded and deprived that there’s nothing attractive about it. Farmers come to despise the plant because it can reclaim a fallow pasture in a flash. But the lowly, fragrant cedar was the only Christmas tree I ever saw in Mamaw’s house. I love the cedar for its tenacity and ability to thrive under adverse conditions.

I dig every little sprout I find and put it in a container until I find just the right spot (match plant to the site). When a cedar, a member of the juniper family, is given adequate space and just a tiny bit of TLC, it thrives and becomes one of the prettiest evergreens one could possibly ask for. They make a great screen hedge. Birds love to nest in them or seek shelter in them from inclement weather. Cedars can live for a long, long time without any attention, and their bark is quite interesting. It can be cut to the ground and it’ll grow right back. Most farmers would let you have all the little cedars you could haul, for free!

Another one that grows prolifically in our back yard is the ‘Simmon tree, a.k.a.: Persimmon. Most of the year you won’t even notice it but come October it begins to fairly quake under the weight of its fat, yellow-green fruit. This diverse tree is most forgiving in its site needs, thriving from an elevation of 3500 feet all the way down to the low coastline.

Its sweet fruit has been enjoyed for centuries, fresh as well as baked into some of the most flavorful dishes. Don’t make the mistake of trying to bite into one that isn’t completely ripe. Your mouth will draw up in a strange, dry pucker, caused by the same tannin that makes an acorn bitter. A fellow by the name of Capt. John Smith introduced this fruit – called “putchamins” by the Powhatan Indians — to England in the early 1600’s.

Oaks, another one of my favorites, is a species with numerous varieties. They are prolific in East Tennessee and make up a lot of the old-growth deciduous groves in the forests. It quietly emerges from a tiny acorn, hidden under a moist blanket of leaves, slowly making its way toward sunlight, and at the end of one human lifetime it has just reached youthful maturity. It will grow for many, many years if undisturbed.

The oak stands tall and silent, telling none of its secrets. Legends from the Old World abound regarding this species, layering on legend and myth, making them more than just trees. One could say the oak was considered sacred. In Greece the oaks belonged to Zeus. It was said that his priestess sat beneath the mighty trees, listening to the instructions the gods sent thru the cooing of the doves overhead. In Britain, the Druids, a name derived from a Welsh word meaning “oak seer,” prophesied with the help of twigs from the oak, which they considered the earthly home of the gods.

Not only oaks but all other trees, to one degree or another have housed spirits and divinities and have been used as broom handles, cauldron sticks, and magical wands for witches. Divining rods, dousing wands, even the gavel on a judge’s desk, have wielded power over humanity thru the centuries. Concoctions from leaves, roots, and bark have poisoned and purified, seduced and smothered since the beginning. They have served as the effigies bowed to, the wood that burns to warm us, frames for family pictures and gallows of death.

Sycamores, tulip poplars, redbuds, dogwoods, several fruit-bearing species, not to mention the wonderful evergreens — we’re fortunate here in East Tennessee to have a great variety of trees. While we enjoy the beauty and shade, let’s also remember all the things they do to improve our earth and make our lives possible.

Sherrie Ottinger, a.k.a. “The TN Dirtgirl,” is a regenerative Earth thinker, teacher, columnist, author and speaker. Her passion is all things “dirt.” She may be reached at with comments or questions.

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