One of the most striking plants to grace the forest floor in the Southern Appalachian Mountains is Galax (Galax urceolata). Preferring a cool climate, galax boasts glossy, heart-shaped leaves which spread via rhizomes, often forming large populations. The 8 to 15 inch white flower stem emerges from late May to June. In the fall, the leaves take on a deep bronze-red hue.
Historically, the collection of galax for use in the floral industry has played an important economic role in the mountains supplementing many family incomes. More recently, over collecting and uprooting the plants by pulling the leaves has resulted in many populations being threatened.
Along the Blue Ridge Parkway and in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, picking galax is illegal; in some national forests, during specific times of the year and with a restricted permit, galax can still be collected. Of interest are the efforts of researchers at North Carolina State University who hope to find a viable method to grow galax commercially. If they are successful, this would provide a great economic boost and reduce the pressure on wild populations.
Some wildlife species also use this beautiful plant as a food source. White-tailed deer forage on galax, often heavily during years of poor acorn production. Traditionally, Native Americans used parts of the plant to treat kidney ailments.
Below are photographs from the North Carolina Archives, taken in 1939 of galax being gathered and packaged in Banner Elk, North Carolina.