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Red Hot Horny Heads

A small school of yellowfin shiners with their horny head host–Todd Elliott photo

A swarm of bright red fish! That’s what I was seeing in this clear piedmont creek one sunny April afternoon. (I know I should call them a school since they were fish, but these were so tightly congregated–thirty-some, two-inch fish swimming madly in a cluster about a foot in diameter–they seemed more like a swarm.) They had yellow heads and fins,but their bodies were a brilliant red. These were male yellowfin shiners in a mating aggregation. Rather than a swarm or a school, this aggregation might properly be called a “lek”. A lek is a biological term for an assemblage of males congregating to attract females for mating. (The closest human equivalent we might have is a fraternity party or dudes on the street corner.)

These beautiful fish were hovering over a neat pile of small (1-inch) rocks. The rock pile was about a foot in diameter at the tail end of the pool.

I sat down on the creek bank and watched with binoculars, and before long, as they got used to my presence, I began to see different fish in the pool. There were several species engaged in a constant flurry of activity–chasing, feeding, and courtship. It seemed like there were fish with at least four different color patterns present. It was hard to know how many species because in some species of fish, including these yellowfin shiners, males and females have different patterns. The male yellowfins are bright red for only a few weeks during the spawning season.

Then two slightly larger (4 inch) fish moved into the center of the aggregation of yellow fins. At first I thought they might be feeding on the eggs that had been deposited by the yellowfins until I saw one of the fish swim to the edge of the rock pile, pick up a stone in its mouth, carry it to the center of the pile, and drop it. A four-inch fish carrying a rock that was practically an inch in diameter! It seemed like only one of the pair was the rock carrier. (It’s a guy thing.) I saw it transport at least a dozen rocks. This fish was tan-colored with a blue-grayish head with lumps on it. This was most likely a bluehead chub, one of the creek chubs locally known as “knotty-heads” or “horny-heads.” In spring the males develop these “nuptial tubercles” on the head. I had thought that these hardened growths were used to root or move stones around in the stream bed to create these stone nests. But my observations showed me that they simply pick the stones up with their mouths. Apparently, the male’s nuptial tubercles are used in courtship and mating. (The better to nuzzle you with, my dear!) So horny-heads is a perfect name for them. So once again we learn the appropriateness and wisdom of folk names. Nuptial tubercles–what a concept! I might be able to use a few of them sometime myself…

My later reading indicates that as many as 30 species of fish use these rock piles constructed by the chubs for laying their eggs. Apparently, this pile of similar sized rocks offers good aerated water circulation for the developing eggs as well as protection from silt and predators. A large male chub may carry over 7,000 stones, each as large as his head, as far as 25 yards to his nest site.It’s interesting to think of the lowly chub as an “ecosystem engineer” or a “keystone” species with a number of other species depending on the chubs to create optimal breeding sites. There are several species of chubs in different parts of the country that build these nests. So, keep your eyes on the creeks this spring. You might find yourself engaged in some very fishy, sexy, aggregations!

For more information: Brandon Peoples and William Roston have excellent videos of the activity around a bluehead chub’s nest. Check out their site Within Our Waters!

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Colorado Characters: Cannon, Katrina, and the Aspen Powder Sunscreen

We spent some time this Fall with our friend Cannon who was staying in a cabin in the edge of the Rockies outside of Durango. For a number of years Cannon was a nomadic goat herder. He roamed the wilds with a herd of goats living off wild greens and fruits, goat’s milk, and occasionally goat meat. They also hunted, fished, and did crafts. He makes fine willow baskets, and other crafts, studies African drumming, and has some great stories, like the night he jumped out of bed naked to deal with a mountain lion that was dragging off one of their prize mother goats. (They saved the goat!) Then there was the wolves…but that’s another story. He hosts some amazing primal skills gatherings and wilderness immersion experiences. Check ‘em out! :

He set up a workshop with Katrina Blair who is a local wild food woman. The cabin was at 9000 feet .The aspen trees were bare and the temperatures were in the 20s at night. image1(Though it warmed up nicely during the days.) I was thinking, “How is this weed woman going to do a plant workshop?” It seemed like most of plants had died off for the winter! She arrived wearing a big smile and a broad-brimmed straw hat. She took us around and we picked little handfuls of various greens– a few dandelion leaves here, little bit of dock there, some native chickweed, a rocky mountain water leaf Hydrophylum fendler?, heartleaf bittercress Cardamine cordifolia, a few nettles and pine needles. We came back up to the cabin where she had a bicycle powered blender set up. She poured water into the blender with the greens and started peddling away, then she strained out the pulp and poured it into glasses. We all savored a delicious green drink. I was impressed.

Katrina is well known for her beautiful book entitled, The Wild Wisdom of Weeds (2014 Chelsey Green) that focuses on thirteen edible and medicinal plants, like clover, image3dandelion, knotweed, mallow, purslane thistle, amaranth and lambsquarter, that can be found pretty much all over the world. It’s chock full of recipes, stories, and a sweet earthy philosophy.
She is locally famous for her annual solo walkabout where she hikes through the high mountain back country, some 80 miles, from Durango to Telluride. She carries little or no food. She drinks “wild water” from creeks, and lives off of wild greens, berries, mushrooms, and alpine bistort seeds. She usually strides into Telluride in time for their famous mushroom festival with a backpack full of wild foods for the classes that she teaches at the event.

Katrina told us that the powdery substance on the south side of an aspen tree trunk, when applied to the skin, can serve as a sunscreen. Apparently that’s what it does for the tree.

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The Mysterious Aspen Grove

We spent some time in late October with our friend Cannon, who was staying in a cabin at 9000 feet in the edge of the Rocky Mountains outside of Durango, Colorado. It was the beginning of winter there. Temperatures were in the 20’s (F) at night (though it warmed up nicely during the days). The aspens on the mountainsides surrounding us were all bare, except for one bright yellow grove on the mountain above.


Could it be they were growing in a wet spot? Was this bright yellow patch in an area protected from the wind? We had to check it out. This required an expedition, and it was a steep ascent through thickets and scree, but we finally made it up to the grove to investigate. This grove was not in a moist depression. It shared the same exposure and moisture as the rest of the mountainside. We realized this was a clone. All the trees in this grove were probably sprouts from the same tree, all connected by common roots. And this particular grove (clone) had a unique genetic ability to hold onto its leaves which made it “stand out in the crowd.”


This brings me back to the old question of what is the largest living organism. For many years people agreed it’s the blue whale– until someone pointed out that a giant sequoia tree is a living organism, and it’s bigger than a whale. And that’s where the debate stood until somebody else claimed that the largest living thing might actually be an aspen tree. You may wonder how an aspen tree, whose trunk rarely gets to be more than two feet in diameter, could be larger than a giant sequoia tree.
It turns out that an aspen tree puts out root sprouts, and those sprouts eventually become full grown trees which in turn put out many more sprouts and they all become a grove or an entire forest that’s one clone. The classic example is the Pando aspen clone in Utah which encompasses 106 acres and is made up of 40,000 individual trunks– all part of the same “tree”. And there are probably other larger clones yet to be discovered.

Then there’s the famous humongous fungus– but that’s another story… and you can read about it in Todd Elliott’s soon to be released new book Mushrooms of the Southeast.

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The Pipevine Swallowtail – A Distasteful Beauty

Hi friends, I hope you’re enjoying the butterflies this summer. Have you seen any of these distasteful beauties?
It was a sunny April afternoon. I was exploring an open woods of oak, hickory, and ironwood near the Broad River in the piedmont of North Carolina. A large velvety black butterfly with flashing metallic blue hind wings caught my eye. It was flitting along near the ground. There were no flowers in bloom in the area but this butterfly was flying up to every young green shoot–honeysuckle, aster, grass, tree seedlings, etc. It wasn’t landing on these plants; rather it flew from one plant to another, spending a second or two at each sprout as if it was checking it out. The butterfly sailed right by taller plants and bushes, pausing only at delicate shoots between about two and four inches in height. This butterfly was on a quest for a rare herb.


This was a gravid female pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor) ready to lay her eggs. These butterflies are so named because their larvae feed only on various species of pipevines. She was searching for Aristolochia serpentaria, the traditional medicinal plant known as Virginia snakeroot. As an adult butterfly she can sip the nectar of many different flowers, but her young can only feed on members of the Aristolochiaceae family, and in this region Virginia snakeroot was her only choice. I watched her start hovering excitedly around one particular delicate sprout with three, light green, unfurling leaves. No doubt she was receiving chemical/olfactory confirmation. “Yes! Finally, I’ve found it!” her rapidly fluttering wings seemed to say. While her wings kept her airborne, her legs reached out and grasped the plant. The tip of her abdomen briefly touched the stem and there she placed a glistening golden egg that was hardly bigger than a poppy seed. Within a few seconds she was on her way again, continuing her plant-by-plant search for the next snakeroot. I followed her (at a respectful distance) for the next half hour or so as she continued her thorough survey of the forest floor. We may have covered as much as a hundred yards, and she may have inspected as many as a thousand plants as she zigzagged back and forth along the ground. In that entire time she found only that one Virginia snakeroot shoot. She eventually flew up into the canopy and I lost sight of her. This was the first time I had a butterfly as an herb hunting guide!

Although there were obviously enough snakeroots in the area to support at least a small population of these swallowtails, this confirmed to me something I had suspected — that even though Virginia snakeroot has a wide range, (from Florida and Texas north to Missouri, Illinois and southern New England), it is rarely abundant. It is an understated, diminutive herb. Any specimen over a foot tall and having more than ten leaves is considered large. Even in areas of ideal habitat where the plant is relatively common, I never see it growing thickly in beds or patches — just an occasional solitary plant here and there. Even the pipevine swallowtail I followed who had dozens of eggs to deposit seemed to instinctively understand the plant’s limited growth habit. She only placed one egg on that plant. A single plant like this could barely support even one caterpillar. Less than a hundred miles from here, up in the higher mountains on the huge Dutchman’s pipevine009pipe vine, (Aristolochia macrophylla), I have seen where the same kind of butterfly had laid more than a dozen eggs on one leaf.

The Dutchman’s pipe is as robust and lush as its cousin the snakeroot is sparse. A mature Dutchman’s pipe vine has hundreds of heart-shaped leaves measuring almost a foot across. The vines can be seen festooning the tree tops in rich Appalachian mountainsides as far north as Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The females deposit the eggs in clusters on the stems and undersides of tender young leaves. When the tiny caterpillars first hatch, they often line up side by side in a group and feed communally for the first week or two. As they get older and larger they tend to spread out and go their separate ways.

CRW_6575,I didn’t know what I was seeing the first time I laid eyes on a large pipevine swallowtail caterpillar. It was like a weird, purplish sea slug with rubbery tentacles sticking out on all sides and two rows of yellow-orange spots running down its back. It was calmly munching on a large tender Dutchman’s pipe leaf. When I poked it, a pair of slimy yellow horns oozed out from behind its head and I noticed a strange bitter odor. In a few seconds the “horns” were pulled back into the head and they disappeared. These horns are actually a gland called an osmaterium and the odor serves as a repellant to parasitic wasps and other predators.

The caterpillars shed their outer skin several times as they grow. When a caterpillar is ready to pupate, it usually crawls some distance onto a tree trunk or branch. There it spins a silken pad for its hind end (the cremaster), a silken sling around its middle, and sheds its skin for the last time as a larva and it becomes a greyish-tan speckled chrysalis.pipevine pupa,, When the pupation is complete, the chrysalis splits along the back and a soft, soggy adult butterfly emerges. Within an hour or two its wings expand and harden and it flies off in search of nectar and a mate.  Depending on the climate, there may be several generations a year, and in subtropical areas the butterflies sometimes overwinter as adults. The adult swallowtails have a pungent, penetrating odor and disagreeable taste which is believed to come from chemical compounds in the pipevine. This is similar to the monarch butterflies that derive their protective chemistry from compounds in the milkweeds that their larvae feed upon. In much the same way that the viceroy butterfly may have evolved as a mimic of the monarch, it is believed that other butterflies such as the red spotted purple, the female Diana, and the dark phase of the female tiger swallowtail (which are about the same size as the pipevine swallowtail with dark forewings and blue on their hind wings) may have evolved as mimics of the pipevine swallowtail. They all may gain a survival advantage by resembling their foul-tasting cousins.

The yellow and black striped tiger swallowtail is one of the most common and familiar butterflies in the East. I was surprised to learn that some females are almost all black with blue on the hind wings. These dark females have a selective survival advantage in areas where there is also a population of pipevine swallowtails. Since they resemble the distasteful pipevine swallowtails they are less likely to get preyed upon than their yellow “sisters”. But even though the dark swallowtail females have the survival advantage and are more likely to reproduce successfully, the males still mate more frequently with the yellow females. So even among the butterflies it seems that gentlemen prefer blondes and perhaps blondes have more fun.

Even Darwin investigated the question of whether blondes have more fun!

These three tiger swallowtails and more than a dozen pipevine swallowtails are imbibing sodium rich moisture from a patch of earth (probably moistened by urine). These are all males acquiring a nuptial gift to pass on to the females during mating. Along with his sperm, he also fortifies her with a mineral supplement.
These three tiger swallowtails and more than a dozen pipevine swallowtails are imbibing sodium rich moisture from a patch of earth (probably moistened by urine). These are all males acquiring a nuptial gift to pass on to the females during mating. Along with his sperm, he also fortifies her with a mineral supplement.


Feel free to check out the products page of my website for various books and recordings

If you want more butterfly-ology you might enjoy the chapter in my Swarm Tree book entitled “Another Roadside Attraction –The Passionate Quest of the Butterfly Hitchhikers” about the times I picked up hitchhikers carrying butterfly nets. You learn about the time one of them brought a bag of hickory horned devil caterpillars to a burlesque show (and other encounters with wildlife!)
Swarm Tree: Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life

160 pages Softcover $18.00
160 pages Softcover $18.00

Following tracks, messing with bees, chasing butterflies, stalking deer, tickling trout, and picking up pawpaws—and hitchhikers. This lively collection by celebrated storyteller Doug Elliott will delight readers with its blend of natural history and heartfelt, hilarious takes on life. Whether tracking skunks, philosophizing over dung beetles, negotiating with the police, or reading divine script on the back of a trout, Elliott brings a sense of wonder and humor to every story. His broad scientific and cultural knowledge of the Appalachians and beyond is a treasure. Join him on this down to earth spiritual journey as he probes creation, asks the deeper questions, and reveals fascinating details of the great narrative of life that connect us all. Dive deeply into the richness of the natural world; climb high into the tree of life, and return–with amazing tales, humorous insights, and surprising truths that explore and illuminate, and celebrate the confluence of nature, humanity and spirit.
I didn’t think I was going to produce another CD album, but when I heard the recording of this live performance at the National Storytelling Festival it was such a hoot I just had to put it out.
Ancient Tales, Traditional Lore, Lively Tunes, and a Modern Mythic Adventure

of Ginseng
SALE $15.00

Doug Elliott visits Appalachian storyteller Ray Hicks, who is famous for his tales about the mythical folk hero Jack. Along with Jack’s exploits, Ray tells a few of his own hair-raising adventures, like when he was followed by a panther. He also recounts colorful folklore about the love life of ‘possums, bloodsucking owls, and tips for successful ‘seng hunting.
Driving home with his head full of wild tales, Elliott embarks on a true modern-day mythic journey where he catches a trout by hand; harvests wild apples, ginseng, and mushrooms; ponders Greek myths, Biblical verses, and the fungal web of life; meets three strangers; and finds himself living out his own folktale.
You’ll hear a poem by William Butler Yeats, quotes from the Roman poet Ovid, and a risqué herbal ballad by the great botanist Jim Duke. You’ll find out what happens when Artemis (aka Diana) gets caught skinny dipping and when Atalanta loses a foot race, as well as what happens when Jack leaves home to sell a cow and comes back with a rock. In this live recording of a standing ovation performance at the National Storytelling Festival, Elliott is accompanied by guitarist Keith Ward and his son Todd Elliott on fiddle.
Feel free to order the new CD and check out the products page of my website for the Summer Sale on my DVD.
An Evening with Doug Elliott DVD
Stories, Songs, and Lore Celebrating the Natural World

cover-eveningElliott performs a lively concert of tales, tunes, traditional lore, wild stories, and fact stranger than fiction–flavored with regional dialects, harmonica riffs, and belly laughs. One moment he is singing about catfish, the next he’s extolling the virtues of dandelions, or bursting forth with crow calls. He also demonstrates basketry, ponders the “nature” in human nature, tells wild snake tales, and jams and jives with his fiddler son, Todd.
Normally $25 — NOW only $15

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Chinquapin Eyes

It’s been a good mast year here in the Southern Appalachians. That means the oaks, hickories, and walnuts have been very productive. (Though in some areas the nuts are getting roasted by the wildfires!) (For an enlightening perspective on the fires check out Clint Calhoun’s recent blog:
One of the most interesting native nuts is the chinquapin, Castanea pumila, (sometimes spelled “chinkapin”). This shrubby miniature chestnut produces prickly burs with delicious, tiny, dark brown nuts no bigger than a filbert. They can be peeled and eaten raw, boiled, or baked.
The name, “chinquapin” is a corruption of “chechinquamin,” the name Captain John Smith recorded in his history of Virginia. Smith noted that, “they esteeme (it) a great daintie” and that they were dried and stored as part of the community’s regular store of provisions. “Of their Chesnuts and Chechinquamins (they) boyled them (to) make both broath and bread for their chiefe men at their greatest feasts.” Some translate the name to mean “prick” or “jab” and “eye” with the suffix “min” which is the Algonquian root referring to “food” or “grain”, as in the words, “persimmon”, “asimin” (pawpaw), and “menomin” (wild rice).

This 16th century engraving by Theodore De Bry depicts natives with some of their traditional foods. It looks like this romantic couple is enjoying a tray of chinquapins.
This 16th century engraving by Theodore De Bry depicts natives with some of their traditional foods. It looks like this romantic couple is enjoying a tray of chinquapins.

The chinquapin is found from Pennsylvania through most of the southeast and west to east Texas There’s an endangered midwestern Ozark chinquapin (C. ozarkensis) which, like our eastern chinquapin is threatened by the same blight that took down the American chestnut.
There are two other genera of nut bearing trees known as chinquapins. Chrysolepis is a small genus endemic to the western United States. The genus Castanopsis is indigenous to Asia. There is also the chinquapin oak which is so named because its leaves resemble those of the chinquapin.
babyTwenty-some years ago when we had a little boy with big brown eyes crawling around the house, occasionally a neighbor would remark, “Well look at the chinquapin eyes on that boy!” I am amazed and delighted to be around country folks who are so familiar with this somewhat rare nut that it has become an adjective in their vocabulary.
Click here for a recording of a medley of two old fiddle tunes: Chinquapin Hunting and Rock the Cradle Joe performed by Walt Michael and Company.

Feel free to check out the products page of my website for the Holiday Sale!

Special Bonus:
With every order we will include a free copy of the 64 page book,
cover-crawdads-bookCrawdads, Doodlebugs and Creasy Greens 
Songs, Stories, and Lore Celebrating the Natural World
Discover how to catch crawdads, puree pawpaws, gobble greenbriers, noodle catfish, tickle trout, cook squirrel brains, twist a critter out of its hole, and predict the weather with a persimmon seed. Learn how to greet a doodlebug, and find out which rabbit’s foot is actually the lucky one. Hear tales about Queen Elizabeth when she was courted by a frog, Copper John Higgins when he swallowed a lizard, and Davy Crockett when he tried to grin a squirrel out of a tree. The book features two dozen favorite old time, and contemporary songs, more than 90 original illustrations and a plethora of stories and lore. ($5 value –free with any order!)
cover-boundBound for Carolina CD
A Musical Journey Celebrating the Plants, Animals and People of the Southeast
An All Music Recording featuring the original tune, Big Black Snake
From Oh Susanna to Old Joe Clark, from the crawdad hole to the railroad yard, Elliott wails on his harp and sings a collection of blues, contemporary, traditional, and old-time songs celebrating country life, the natural world, and especially the people, the plants, the critters, and the rich environment and culture of southeastern North America. Elliott is accompanied by fiddles, guitars, banjos, mandolins, bass, drums, buckets, bottles, rattlesnake rattles, frog croaks and even a few blue yodels. This all-music recording features seven newly recorded songs as well as 14 favorites from previous albums. Special guests on this project include, Phil and Gay Johnson, Billy Jonas, Wayne Erbsen, and Todd Elliott.
Featured tunes:
Oh Susanna • Froggie Went a’ Courting • Big Black Snake • Rattlesnaking Papa • Old Joe Clark • Strawberry Picking • Dandelions • Creasy Greens • Root Blues • Crawdad Hole • Mole in the Ground • Bullfrogs on Your Mind • Bulldog on the Bank • Cluck Ol’ Hen • Who Broke the Lock • Ain’t No Bugs on Me • Sail On Honeybee • Bile them Cabbage • Left Hind Leg of a Rabbit • West Virginia • All Around the Water Tank
Normally $15 — NOW only $10
cover-eveningAn Evening with Doug Elliott DVD
Stories, Songs, and Lore Celebrating the Natural World
Elliott performs a lively concert of tales, tunes, traditional lore, wild stories, and fact stranger than fiction–flavored with regional dialects, harmonica riffs, and belly laughs. One moment he is singing about catfish, the next he’s extolling the virtues of dandelions, or bursting forth with crow calls. He also demonstrates basketry, ponders the “nature” in human nature, tells wild snake tales, and jams and jives with his fiddler son, Todd.
Normally $20 — NOW only $15