Ilex coriacea or Large gallberry.
Large gallberry (Ilex coriacea)

In 1821, Lucy Pirrie is living on her plantation she calls Oakley. The plantation is located just south of St. Francisville, Louisiana. Pirrie learns about a talented artist in New Orleans whose name is John James Audubon. In exchange for art and music lessons for her daughter, Eliza, Lucy Pirrie is willing to pay Audubon $60 a month and provide room and board for him and Audubon’s assistant, Joseph Robert Mason. Audubon accepts the offer.

During the sultry days of June, Audubon and Mason make their way to Oakley. They travel by boat to Bayou Sara. The town sits on the bank of the river that goes by the same name. The booming cotton trade has launched what was a landing for flat-boats into the busiest port between Natchez, Mississippi, and New Orleans. On the bluffs above Bayou Sara is the small town of St. Francisville. Fire, the Civil War, floods, railroads and highways, and the boll weevil’s attack on cotton have since relegated Bayou Sara back to a boat landing.

It is not the rowdiness and trading activity of Bayou Sara that impresses Audubon but the walk with Mason to the Oakley plantation. “The aspect of the country was entirely new to me … and surrounded once more by numberless warblers and thrushes, I enjoyed the scene. The five miles we walked appeared short, and we arrived and met Mr. [James] Pirrie at his house.”

Pirrie’s wife, Lucy, gained ownership of the plantation through Lucy’s first marriage to Ruffin Gray. In 1796, Gray acquired the property through a land grant within the King of Spain’s Distrito de Nueva Feliciana. The Grays began building a 17-room plantation house but could not complete it before the passing of Ruffin Gray. Lucy finished the construction of the house and continued operating the plantation.

On October 21, 1805, Lucy and James had a daughter who they named Eliza. Just as birds are a distraction to Audubon, so is the antebellum social scene to Eliza. The contract between a part-time teacher and a party-minded debutante lasts only four months. When not competing for Eliza’s attention, Audubon and Mason search the swamps and bayous for birds and produce many of the most admired and precious prints in Audubon’s Birds of America.

John James Audubon draws the Tennessee warbler for his Birds of America.
The Tennessee Warbler and a “holly twig” as drawn by John James Audubon for his Birds of America.

The drawings that Audubon and Mason produce while living and working at the Oakley plantation are some of Audubon’s best. But, like many of Audubon’s works, the names of plants and birds and Audubon’s combination of plants and birds can be perplexing. This is not altogether the fault of Audubon. It is Alexander Wilson who names the Tennessee warbler. Its name represents only the fact that Alexander Wilson first sees and documents the bird in the state of Tennessee. The common name comes nowhere close to representing the kinds of habitat the bird prefers, the appearance of the bird, or that such places like Tennessee is nothing more than a quick stop along an enormous distance that the bird covers during migration. As for the plants, their names change faster than a warbler can flap its wings.

Indeed, the Tennessee warbler spends barely any time in Tennessee or just about anywhere else in the United States. Audubon sees only three Tennessee warblers in his lifetime, and none of them are in Tennessee. The first one he sees is the one that appears in Birds of America. Audubon takes its life near Bayou Sara while the bird is perching on the branch of a “holly twig.” Although, for the double elephant folio, Audubon names the plant that Mason draws a species of Prunus. The genus is known mainly for plum and cherry trees. In the octavo edition, the plant reverts back to a type of holly called Ilex laxiflora, a plant first documented by Frederick Traugott Pursh (1774-1820). The plant is known today as the Large gallberry (Ilex coriacea). Some call it Baygall Bush, Tall Inkberry Holly, Inkberry Holly, Shining Inkberry, Inkberry, or simply Gallberry. To exacerbate the difficulty of properly identifying the plant, most give Gallberry the binomial of Ilex glabra.

Audubon sees the second Tennessee warbler on another visit to Louisiana in 1829 and the third in Key West, Florida, in 1832. One aspect of either a holly tree or a Large gallberry that would appeal to a Tennessee warbler is that the trees are normally evergreen. When nesting, the Tennessee warbler seeks out the cover of other evergreens such as Canada’s balsams, tamaracks, pines, and spruces. During the winter, the Tennessee warbler lives and forages among the lush green leaves in the tropics. A much better name for the Tennessee warbler is the epithet that Wilson gave the bird. He called it peregrina. This is a Latin word for “wandering” or “exotic.”