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Picking galax from the forest floor, 1939.
Photo courtesy North Carolina State Archives

Originally published: 2013-01-30 16:54:36
Last modified: 2013-01-30 16:54:36

Our Avery County: Galax – A staple of our mountain community

Michael Hardy / (

If you are wandering in the woods of Avery County on a chilly day when most plants are dead or dormant, you may stumble across a bunch of shiny, leathery, heart-shaped leaves close to the ground. With their green or burnt red foliage, they are particularly noticeable when little other color is decorating the forest. Many of the older folks in our great county can readily identify this lovely plant, but its name and history are often mysteries to younger residents or those who have come here from elsewhere. The heart-shaped leaves are those of the galax plant, and for many generations, they were a helpful source of income for mountain families. 

“Galax” comes from the Greek word “gala,” meaning “milk,” since the plant’s blooms are white, just like milk. The Cherokee supposedly used portions of the galax plant for medical purposes, including the treatment of kidney ailments and nervous conditions, and to heal cuts. A survey of several medicinal and herb books shows that galax is no longer valued for medical uses.

Today, the galax plant is really only prized for its beauty, which, historically, has also been the main source of its economic value. Beginning in the late 19th century, people began to pick and gather galax for commercial reasons. For more than a century, galax leaves have been used in the floral industry. Florists use the heart-shaped leaved as background foliage, and at times, the leaves have been sewn together to make tablecloths for weddings, and even blankets for funeral caskets. 

In the early 1900s, galax harvesters received from 15 to 25 cents per 1,000 galax leaves. Most people in the area picked galax at one time or another. “On a cold fall day,” Edgar Tufts recalled, “I once saw a woman fully a mile from her home, with an infant on her hip and a bag strapped across her shoulder into which she was gathering galax leaves to sell ...” Clayton Stamey recalled in 1998 that as a young man, he was paid $1 per load to haul a wagonload of galax from “Salem Franklin’s Store at Jonas Ridge to be loaded on Tweetsie and freighted to Johnson City.” Typically, Clayton “only made one load a day.” 

Local companies often bought the bunched galax. John Henry and Carrie Von Canon ran the Von Canon Evergreen Company in Banner Elk, and galax was one of the products they purchased from local people. There was also the Aldridge Rhododendron Nursery in Crossnore. 

Outside investors also took interest in the local galax production. Charlotte Observer, in November 1915, reprinted part of an article from the Old Fort Sentinel: “The further along we go, the more open the country becomes, and farming is found to be on a more extensive scale. Numerous hamlets are passed, each evidencing industry and prosperity – good houses, big barns, fat horses and cattle. And a schoolhouse is always found wherever there is a thickly settled neighborhood! Not all the children are in school, however, for galax leaves are abundant and the demand great, hence many young people are making $1 and $2 a day gathering these and other decorative products of the mountain forest. Vast quantities of galax leaves are shipped from Avery County to the large cities every year and thousands of dollars come back in return. One shipper cashed a $6,000 check not long ago.”

One hundred years later, galax is still harvested in the mountains of Avery County. In 2001, Avery, along with Yancey, was one of the leading producers of galax in North Carolina, and possibly in the United States. So, when you see those pretty leaves brightening up the forest, you are also seeing a glimmer that has encouraged many mountain families’ prospects.