Gather the Galax
by Jeannie Chambers
Galax comes from the Greek word Gala, which means milk, and refers to the white-as-milk dainty flowers that bloom into an eight to 15-inch spire in late May through early summer.
Other names are Beetleweed and Wandflower. This ground cover plant is native to the Southeast, and grows from New York to northern Alabama, but thrives in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. One leaf grows per stem, and although varying in size, the average width is about 3-4 inches. The leaf color ranges from a light-green with new growth in the spring to a deep, purplish-red in the fall and winter.
I’ve seen the leaves used instead of parsley to make an impressive meat tray, but probably the most used form of the leaves is by the floral industry.
Perfect for floral design, the glossy-green, heart-shaped leaf is much sought after because the cut stems last for weeks, and although each stem is relatively inexpensive, the actual cost to our ecosystem is much greater. Along the Blue Ridge Parkway as well as private lands, poaching Galax is as prevalent as stealing Ginseng roots, and even though there are fines, the poachers are willing to take the chance. Not all the plants are stolen, as the US Forest Service allows harvesting of certain plants (including Galax and Ginseng) with the use of a permit.
Collecting a few hundred stems doesn’t sound like much of a problem, but according to an article found in the Smoky Mountain News, the US Fish & Wildlife Services estimated as many as three billion Galax leaves are harvested from the Southern Appalachian Mountains each year. Although these plants spread using rhizomes, they aren’t considered aggressive, and the demand has reached a point beyond sustainability.
Maybe if harvesters collected a few stems per plant instead of disrupting, and sometimes taking, the whole plant out of the ground, leaving the roots exposed, the decline wouldn’t be so bad. Galax leaves are shipped all over the world.
These are some of the most magical plants in our forests. Galax is the only genus of the species Galax urceolata. They grow here for a reason, and perhaps the best way to enjoy the beauty of the Galax leaf is by talking a walk and looking down.