The Wildflowers

Jack-in-the-Pulpit Flower | Photo by Micah McCrotty

Finding my way through the season with wildflowers as my guide

I have a dog-eared, spiral-bound book that predates me with photographs some would consider laughable nowadays. Long since pushed aside by the Google lens and phone app outdoor crowd, this 90-page piece, entitled Great Smoky Mountains Wildflowers was created by Carlos Campbell. I have referenced him in the past for his contributions to the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and relation to my good friend, his grandson, Frank Harvey.

It’s easy to tell where he spent his time in the park, and you can certainly still feel his presence in certain wildflower-covered spaces, mostly around Elkmont. There are flora quickly identified as Solomon’s Seal and its counterfeit lookalike, False Solomon’s Seal, that flank the edges of the Little River trail. Yellow Trillium and the more elusive Vasey’s Trillium pepper the landscape, but I snicker at the photo in his book of another guy taking a photo of wild geranium. It is his attire of a 50s uncle with a yellow shirt bending over for the big shot with his antiquated camera that gets me every time.

If the National Park Service numbers are to be trusted, then the Smokies is responsible for more than 1,500 flowering plant species. I’ve seen them tinker with numbers, so my skepticism is quite warranted. But, it has been a banner year for wildflowers. 

Pink Lady Slippers, once scarce, are sprouting from crevices like a cicada bloom in a 15-year cycle. Fire pink emerges in contrast to the greening forest floor as Hydrangea and Phacelia carpet former brown patches. Jack-in-the-Pulpit are found plentiful in early spring. Mountain Laurel sports her white crown all over the Smokies along with a Rhododendron bloom fit for the palace at Versailles.

But my personal favorite is the Iris, specifically the dwarf crested variety which happens to be one of our designated state flowers. These miniature beauties are versions of grander specimens found in manicured gardens throughout Knoxville.

Rounding a corner somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains, nothing is more rewarding than a greeting by this purple droopy flower. Often they are nestled in a field of lilies of the valley or rattlesnake plantain. Sometimes I confuse the lilies with ramps and am forced to pick a leaf to make certain I am wrong. The few times I have been sleeping on the ground out in the wild and found a ramp shoot to flavor my noodles is a rare treat indeed.

In the Smokies, though, few events garner as much attention as the majestic bloom of the flame azalea high atop Gregory Bald. You will earn your reward after an ascent of the Gregory Ridge trail. This climb seems endless at times, especially for those carrying a full backpack with the intent of sleeping up at the col between Gregory’s summit and Parsons Bald. Before the park was established, farmers took livestock to graze in these high pastures. I suppose the acidic taste of these bushes was not to their liking as they dominate this summit in mid-June. Although technically not a wildflower, it is the grandest of natural phenomena. 

Spiderwort bend toward my calf as I jog the usual lap at Baker Creek. They surprised me this year, showing up earlier in the spring than years past. A mild and moist spring means there could be all kinds of inverted blooms this year, popping up when we least expect them. 

Take your pick of pocket wilderness areas to get out and see the wildflowers. And if you feel so inclined, don’t forget your copy of Great Smoky Mountains Wildflowers. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a guide quite like this one, which lists the flowers in order of when they’ll arrive and where you can find them. See you out there.  

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