Historic hops growing on Little Tennessee Riverwalk

Hops dating back to the 1800s have been found growing along the Little Tennessee River Greenway and have become the site of an educational demonstration of living history.

Historic hops growing on Little Tennessee Riverwalk

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

Hops are voluntarily growing and being nurtured along the Little Tennessee Greenway. And where they came from was mostly worked out by local historian Barbara McRae before her death in March. 

Stan Polanski, a local writer, educator, and lecturer on the topic of native plants, who was asked to assist with what has become a historic plant demonstration, shared how the project came about.

 “The inspiration came through Barbara McRae. That stand of hops [along the Little Tennessee Greenway] was first discovered by a botanist 15 years ago. It was considered very unusual and out of the natural range. In fact, it’s mysterious for a stand of hops to show up along a river in Western North Carolina, so the specimens were collected, but nothing was done to preserve or cultivate them. Then, a few years ago, Barbara came across a hand-written yeast recipe written by Timoxena Siler Sloan that dated around 1870.”

Sloan, an early settler with her family along the Little Tennessee River, is depicted in the Women’s History Trail sculpture, “Sowing the Seeds of the Future,” currently in production by famed sculptor Wesley Wofford, based in Cashiers, that will one day grace the entrance to Franklin. 

Added Polanski, “Hop yeast was used to make bread, and sometimes beer. The Sloans lived on that exact tract of land where the stand of hops was found, from the 1850s on. So Barbara determined the historical link. And it was also learned that the Cherokee used hops analgesically. So I spoke with a Cherokee tribal horticulturist and although there is not certain information, we know that the Cherokee also lived along the Little Tennessee in that exact spot. So it could have been that the Cherokee started growing hops and then the settlers continued growing them.” 

The fact that the stand of hops annually emerges voluntarily from the ground and then grows, via a vine, up to 30 feet into trees, is “significant,” said Polanski. “We have to work to keep invasive plants from taking over so the hop plants can be seen, but they are there, and in August and September they will bloom – as they have been all these years.” 

Donated split railing fencing and future educational signage will distinguish the stand of historic hops, so that visitors along the Little Tennessee Greenway – in the section just up from the Shops at Riverwalk entrance, past the butterfly garden – can view and understand how hops grow. Visitors can actually witness living history, pointed out Polanski.

“No one is sure whether these hops are entirely native, or if they were introduced from up north,” said Polanski. “The species growing is called Northeastern hops or cumulus Americanus. The year 1629 is the first record of European hops being introduced into the United States. And there is some evidence that European hops were cross-bred with American hops.” 

He said he has learned much about hops from Alan Weakley, a botanist at the University of North Carolina, the book “Flora of the Southeastern United States,” and the UNC Chapel Hill Herbarium.  

“The 2020 edition of the book includes information about native hops,” he said. “Last year, I took a specimen of these hop plants to Kathrine Mathews [biology professor and director of the herbarium] at Western Carolina University to have it identified. And then in early June, we found more of the hops’ plants just upstream from where the plants are growing that we are tending to.”

Signage at the stand of hops is expected to be erected in July and will provide visitors with information about the species, the interesting history of hops and the site and more. 

In the future, there is a possibility that someone might want to cultivate somewhere else and to a larger extent seeds from the Little Tennessee Greenway stand of hops, noted Polanski. But for now, the plants are growing to remind visitors not only of the tenacity of native plants, but that people at one time lived and thrived along the Little Tennessee River.