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Local Editorials

From Ash to Wintergreen

Driving U.S. Highway 34 through Jefferson County in Southeast Iowa, I’ve often noticed that the crossroads, or avenues, have some interesting names, like Smoketree and Varnishtree.  One of my readers suggested that I do a story on the names of the Jefferson County Avenues.  Great idea.

All of the avenues (with the exception of one) are named after trees, or bushes, or shrubs.  And they’re in alphabetical order from west to east.  Ash and Cedar Avenues are pretty common tree names.  But then there’s Dewberry Avenue.  I didn’t know what a dewberry was.  A quick dictionary check finds it to be “any trailing bramble...having blue-black fruit.”

Fir Avenue is run-of-the mill.  But Filbert Avenue could be the name of a person.  Nope.  It’s “any of several N temperate shrubs...that have edible rounded brown nuts.”

Hemlock Avenue.  We all know what hemlock is.  It’s poison.  Shakespeare made it famous in King Lear and Hamlet.  Socrates’ death was from hemlock.  “A poisonous plant...of the parsley family, having purple-spotted stems, finely divided leaves, and umbels of small white flowers, used medicinally as a powerful sedative.”

Pine Avenue.  Ho hum.

Quince Avenue.  This is not “Quincy,” as I thought, as in Quincy, IL.  (I’m notorious for bad spelling.)  It’s pronounced kwins.  It is “either of two small trees...of the rose family, bearing hard, fragrant, yellowish fruit used chiefly for making jelly or preserves.”

Spruce Avenue.  Ho hum.

Smoketree Avenue.  Now here’s a car stopper.  All kinds of images conjure up of bonfires and wood smoke.  It’s “also called chittamwood.  A tree of the cashew family...having egg-shaped leaves and large clusters of small white flowers.”

Tamarack Avenue:  What the...?  “An American larch...of the pine family, having a reddish brown bark and crowded clusters of blue green needles and yielding a useful timber.”

Tangerine Ave:  How could anyone not be happy living on Tangerine Avenue?  “An Asian citrus tree...cultivated for its small edible orange-like fruit.”

Umber Avenue:  What is an Umber?  It seems to be the only exception to the tree naming pattern.  If you thought umber was a color, you’re right.  “An earth consisting of a hydrated oxide of iron and some oxide of manganese, used in its natural state as a brown pigment (raw umber) or, after heating, as a reddish-brown pigment (burnt umber).

         Velvetleaf Avenue:  I’m surprised the avenue namers of Jefferson County would include such a flora.  Although it may be a beneficial plant to some, it is a noxious weed to most Iowa farmers.  As a kid, we called it “button weed” or “butter print,” and farmers would hire us to pull cockle burrs and butter print from their fields.  And we had to pull them, too, or they would grow back from the roots.  I’ve done my share of cussing at velvetleaf.  “Any of various plants with soft, velvety leaves...commonly known as Indian mallow, an annual, hairy cultivated in northern China for its fiber and is widely naturalized in warmer regions where it is often a weed.”   

         Varnishtree Avenue:  All kinds of images spring forward of finishing (varnishing) furniture and cleaning sticky old brushes with turpentine.  “Any of various trees yielding sap or other substances used for varnish.”

         Wintergreen Avenue:  Can’t you just taste and smell this avenue?  Maybe they do a lot of baking on Wintergreen Avenue, especially at Christmas time.  “Also called checkerberry.  A small, creeping, evergreen shrub...of the heath family...having white, nodding, bell-shaped flowers, a bright-red, berrylike fruit, and aromatic leaves that yield a volatile oil.”

         I tried somewhat hard to research the history of how and why the avenues of Jefferson County were so named.  But it was like trying to pull butter print.  So I am forced, once again, to use my little ole imagination: I’ve got it!  I’ve finally figured out why the avenue namers used “veletleaf” for a name.  They couldn’t think of any other plant that started with a “V”. 

         Well, I got one for’m.  How about Venusflytrap Avenue?  At least that would make for happy farmers.  And no flies! 

Have a good story?  Call or text Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at 319-217-0526, email him at, or visit his website at  Also, you can listen to Cut’s recordings of his columns at

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