Through spring and summer, we have been enjoying the vivid display of color of our common flowers, many of which are native to this area. As their blooms fade with fall, it is interesting to look at flowers not from the view of a botanist, but as a historian. There are several early accounts that describe the flora of the Golden Triangle.
Several early accounts of Northeast Mississippi have survived. In the spring of 1708, Capt. Thomas Nairne of Charles Town, Carolina, traveled to the Chickasaw villages in the Black Prairie at present-day Tupelo. Nairne wrote that (when he) “… arrived within 20 miles of the Chickasaw, and we had done with sand, stones and pines, the country being pleasant open forest of oak, chestnuts and hickerey so intermixt with savannas (prairies) as if it was a made landscape.”
He also described the thickets of plums and peaches in the Chickasaw villages and that on the old fields there were “strawberries innumerable.”
One of the most detailed early accounts of the region was by British civil engineer Bernard Romans. In 1771 he traveled along the west side of the Tombigbee River and published a description of the landscapes he had observed. He found what he called “a very curious plant” of the marigold family that was “a fine crimson color.” In addition, he mentioned, without describing, a Bignonia fraxini which was probably a trumpet flower. Romans told of a free Black man living near Pensacola who “in his own way is a curious herbalist” and discovered a starry aniseed. There was also the wild strawberry, which he found in abundance. Principally, though, he recorded the types of trees that he saw and the quality of the soil.
In the mid-1770s naturalist William Bartram traveled through central and south Alabama. His trek began in March 1773. Over the next four years he journeyed across Georgia, through Florida, and across present-day Mississippi and Alabama to the Mississippi River, and as far north as the Cherokee Nation in present-day Tennessee.
As Bartram traveled across the American Southeast, he collected specimens and made drawings of the fauna and flora that he encountered. During his journey, he described 358 plants and trees. He collected many specimens, which he sent to London. Others he made drawings of and sent them to England. Today the Natural History division of the British Museum has 247 botanical specimens collected by Bartram during his travels.
Along the Alabama, or possibly the Tombigbee River, the Oak Leaf Hydrangea caught his eye. He published a drawing of it and wrote an almost three-quarter page description. It was described as “a very singular and beautiful shrub.” Specimens of the plant were later carried to England where they were to be grown in the “protection of a greenhouse.”
In 1791, Bartram published a book of his travels and included descriptions and drawings of many plants and animals. Of the 358 plants described by him, I recognized several that are still common in Mississippi. Among those local flowers he described in the 1770s are the Primrose, Oak Leaf Hydrangea, Celestial Lily, Climbing Aster, Flaming Azalea, St John’s Wort, Hooded Pitcher Plant, Lupine, several Rhododendrons, Mountain Camellia, Purple Milkweed, Spider Lilly, Savannah Pink, Sebastian Bush, Pawpaw, Spider Flower, Yucca and Yaupon Holly.
In the early 1790s the British poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth each obtained a copy of Bartram’s Travels and became interested in the new country of America. Coleridge pulled many images from the book which he incorporated into his masterpieces, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” Wordsworth used Bartram’s botanical descriptions in his poem “Ruth,” which told of “a youth from Georgia.” Many of the images in “Kubla Khan” and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” are based on places in Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. Who would have ever thought that Kubla Khan’s sacred river “five miles meandering with a mazy motion” was probably the Alabama but may have been one of Florida’s rivers or the Tombigbee?
My favorite early description was contained in a letter written on April 20,1822, by William Goodell, who was traveling from Columbus to the Choctaw Indian mission at Mayhew. His route out of Columbus followed what is now known as the Old West Point Road. Mayhew was at that time on a ridge overlooking Tibbee Creek between present-day West Point and Starkville. Goodell quoted a missionary, Dr. Worcester, as saying of Mayhew, “This is the loveliest spot my eyes ever saw.” The letter continued with Goodell’s own description, “Flowers of red, purple, yellow and indeed of every hue, are scattered, by a bountiful God, in rich profusion, and in all the beauty and innocence of Eden, on each side of the path; and their fragrance is, as if the very incense of heaven were there offered. You can stand in almost any place, and count flowers of ten or twelve different hues.”
In the spring, summer and early fall, east Mississippi and west Alabama still come alive with verbena, butterfly weed, primrose, passion flowers, buttercup, Queen Ann’s lace and other wildflowers of every hue. Within the undeveloped wooded areas east of the Tombigbee River wild Oak Leaf Hydrangea can also still be found. And then there is the wild strawberry which drew Nairne’s attention in 1708 and Roman’s attention in 1771. It is now considered as no more than a nuisance by most people.
Rufus Ward is a local historian.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]