Wild Plants and Historic Archaeology

A wolf tree flanked by a blooming stand of privet, probably where the house once stood, with daffodils in the foreground.

As an archaeologist for the U.S. Forest Service, I get to do both prehistoric and historic archaeology. Historic archaeology isn’t something that was really covered in much of my undergraduate and graduate work and, while much of the theory and methods used in prehistoric are equally valid in historic work, there are also some differences. For one, I often find myself trying to describe, record, and even interpret sites when there’s no there there! Historic documents and maps might describe details like a 1 1/2 wood-frame house with a barn, two sheds, and an outhouse, but none of these structures remain because TVA dismantaled and removed them in the 1960s or even the 1930s!

So what’s an archaeologist with a camera, pencil, paper, and keen observation skills to do?

Read the landscape. And, at least in western Kentucky and Tennessee, that includes understanding a little about the plant life.

In a past article, I wrote about the “wolf tree,” which isn’t a species but a type of tree from just about any species. I’ll let you refer back to that article through this link, but essentially a wolf tree is a tree that began its life perhaps as a shade tree in a yard or edge of a farm-field. Then time goes by, the forest takes over the yard or fields, and the 100+ year old tree is left in the middle of the woods with all these horizontal branches, spreading out like crazy—”doing its own thing”—while it’s siblings and children of the same species around it have branches that are more vertical-reaching, looking for the sun.

Like I said, have a look at the other article for the wolf tree. Now, on to some other plants on the historic landscape!

Privet (Ligustrum)

Deciduous or evergreen shrubs that sometimes form small trees. Originally native to Europe, north Africa, and Asia, they were introduced to North America to serve as ornamental hedges and foliage. Because it can out-compete native vegetation, privet is often found near old homesites. I’ve actually found the former locations of homesites that were otherwise completely removed from the landscape by spotting the privet from a distance since it’s often a dense mass of underbrush that quickly takes over the former location of a building once it’s been removed. Within the privet, other signs of the former building might be found such as foundation stones or footings, bricks from a chimney, broken ceramics, metal piping.

Daffodils in the foreground with a set of concrete steps between two oak “wolf trees.” The house that once stood here is long gone. But the culturally impacted plantlife remains.

Anecdotally, I would say it corresponds more likely to 20th century homesites from the 1950s and 1960s more so than earlier sites. This may be related to its popularity increase post World War II in the UK, which spread stateside. In the featured image above, you can see the bright, light-green blooms of privet along with a wolf tree (oak) and daffodils.

Daffodil (Narcissus)

A predominantly spring perennial with six-petaled flowers that are often yellow or white (sometimes both). Native to meadows and woods in southern Europe to north Africa, the flower is also technically considered invasive in Tennessee and Kentucky, but it’s prevalent throughout North America. No doubt Narcissi bulbs were being imported from England and the Netherlands during the 1800s and by the millions by the beginning of the 20th century.

Daffodil bulbs persist. They poke up through the snow in January, bloom as early as February, and continue to show thick, green leaf-stalks throughout the spring and summer, making it very easy to locate historic structure sites even when all above-ground evidence has long been removed. I’ve even found long “rivers” of daffodils that follow former driveways, outline the placements of structures in nearly box-like fashion, and point the way to a variety of features and artifacts that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Yucca (Yucca filamentosa)

Yucca near an old home site with daffodils.

Also known as “Beargrass” or “Adam’s needle.” Yuccas thrive across the Southwest yet can be found sparingly elsewhere in United States. Yuccas have stiff, sharp pointed and fibrous leaves that persist all year long; spread from former plantings; and produce creamy white flowers in June.”

“Native Americans found many uses for the yucca plant. From the leaf fibers, they made baskets, sandals, ropes, and mats. They utilized the fruit as food and to make drinks. They even ate the flowers from the yucca, which were either boiled or eaten raw. From the stems and roots of the yucca they made soap. When cooked in an earth oven, the root takes on a very sweet, delicious flavor and his high in carbohydrates that get converted to sugars by cooking. Today yucca plants are used as decorative yard foliage and as bordering plants.”

When I come across yucca in Western Kentucky and Tennessee, it’s almost always associated with old home sites that can be dated to the 1930s or before. One hypothesis that seems to have favor is that the fibers from yucca are so useful and the plant is so easy to grow in the soils year-round that it would be silly not to have them. The fibers apparently hold up well in smokehouses during the smoking process and each leaf comes complete with its own needle and attached fiber if you cut then strip it right (hence the name “Adam’s needle”).

Periwinkle (Vinca minor)

The small purple and even a couple white flowers of periwinkle near a very old cemetery.

A short, evergreen vine that typically covers the ground and is native to central Europe from Portugal to the Netherlands. So it’s presence in Tennessee and Kentucky is officially invasive. The color periwinkle is named for the small, lavender-blue flowers of this plant. It favors shady, humus rich soil and has few if any insect pests.

Where there’s vinca, there’s a either a cemetery or a former homesite. This is because the plant provides wonderful ground cover, preventing erosion with minimal effort. There’s no need to mow. Just transplant and watch it do its thing in a few short years. Cemeteries seem to always get the most care from the older generations, perhaps because closer to that day when a cemetery will be necessary. But maintaining a cemetery, even just a family plot, can often mean mowing grass in hard-to-get-to places. Vinca solves that problem by out-competing grasses, providing low ground cover, and even pretty flowers in the spring.

It’s no wonder why it can be found on a great many cemeteries and it’s not uncommon at sites of historic homes as well.

Muscadine grapes (Vitis rotundifolia)

Native to the southeast, but used culturally to make wines and jellies.

These vines aren’t always associated just with homesites, but if you find other indicators they can help narrow down the search for the remnants of old structures or the former locations of outbuildings.

 

A thick muscadine grape vine emerging from a bed of periwinkle.

 



About Carl Feagans 369 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

1 Comment

  1. My personal biggest experience with plants and historical archeology was back in the ’70’s while wandering around in the woods between New Britain, Plainville and Southington (all CT). While I had known that the area was once open farmland (though the soil was horrible) and there were spots where apple trees & gardens clearly had been the biggest thing was a line of rotted huge old tree stumps through the woods. Following along them KI realized that this must have been either a border or windbreak for the old farms that had been there.

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