When it's springtime in the Smokies the wildflowers put on a show that makes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park the most spectacular segment of nature in the eastern half of America. At this time of the year these old mountains are clothed with a floral display so varied and so lavish that only those with hearts of stone could fail to be exhilarated by their special call of spring, a call that makes a grown man want to romp in flowers like the bear cubs born into this mountain idyl.
Next week individuals dedicated to the study and enjoyment of wildflowers will journey to the park from all over the rest of the country to participate in the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, the seventh time that this unusual type of floral festival has been held. Park rules forbid romps with bears, but the pilgrims will enjoy the big flower show in many other ways. For four days beginning April 24, the visitors will prowl this mountain wonderland in groups, each group under the guidance of a park naturalist or some other expert on the flora of the region.
Their activities will carry on into the night, for when not viewing flowers they will be talking about them. In the evenings they gather at wildflower clinics, where members of the park staff and botany professors will answer questions regarding plant identifications and such and the pilgrims will linger to talk flowers.
About a thousand wildflower enthusiasts are expected for the pilgrimage, but they will be only a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of visitors, ranging from honeymooners to horticulturists, who will greet spring in the Smokies.
With Gatlinburg, Tenn. just north of the park boundary, as their rendezvous point, the pilgrims spread out in search of favored flower-hunting grounds in the 507,159 acres which comprise the national park and which include parts of both North Carolina and Tennessee. Here they find themselves in a preserved part of that mighty forest which once extended unbroken from southern Canada to northern Florida. Of the total park area 150,000 acres are in virgin forest, the largest such tract in the East.
Over years of study botanists have recorded more than 1,300 native species of flowering plants in the park. Included are 130 species of native trees, more than are found on the entire continent of Europe.
Pilgrimage leaders take their groups to the richest-flowering areas of the park. This is sometimes a difficult choice, for the Smokies put on their flower show in a profligate fashion. On sparsely wooded slopes white carpets of the fringed phacelia extend for acres. Cliffs overhanging mountain streams are festooned with red curtains of wild columbine. It is common for flower lovers to welcome the spring violets in their local woods. In the Smokies springtime finds more than 30 species of violets in bloom.
In the Smokies spring also arrives vertically. The first trees and flowers start blooming along streams and in coves at the foot of the mountains. Gradually the bloom spreads up the mountainsides until it reaches the peaks over 6,000 feet high. Early in the season it is springtime down in the valley, but the mountaintops still have a wintry aspect with patches of the last snows still lingering beneath the trees.
This altitude of the southern Appalachians is one of the reasons for the great plant variety. In driving the highway leading through the park and on up to Clingmans Dome, which has an altitude of 6,643 feet, the visitor passes through the same vegetation zones as he would on a trip from Georgia to Canada.
What does one do on a wildflower pilgrimage? What makes it different from any other wildflower study? These questions were answered for me when I joined up once and went along on a number of these wildflower safaris. Flower watchers, on the whole, turned out to be even more ecstatic than bird watchers. There were many types, of course, and their ages varied greatly, but all had the same enthusiasm.
There was no charge for any part of the pilgrimage program, but on arrival the pilgrims were required to register and sign up on a first-come-first-served basis for those events in which the participants were limited. A typical day's program in the Smokies starts with a morning bird walk because flower watchers often dabble in bird watching and vice versa. The bird walk I attended started at 7:30 a.m. at the park headquarters and was led by Arthur Stupka, Chief Park Naturalist, who knows the flora and fauna of the Smokies as few men do. He has been tramping those trails for 22 years.
Forty pilgrims turned up at that crisp hour, and the naturalist moved toward some birdy shrubbery with his flock close behind him, like a hen with an unusually large brood of chicks. Soon they were all plying binoculars as Stupka kept up a running comment, "We're looking at that double tulip tree and in the very top of it is a cow-bird. In the distance I hear a Louisiana water thrush. A black-throated blue warbler sings just opposite us. Are you all familiar with the pine siskin? They live in the North, but they frequently winter with us and sometimes nest. There goes a goldfinch."
The bird walk took about an hour and went off smoothly except it was plain that some of the flower people were pretty weak on birds.
"They tell me that's a red-eyed vireo," one woman said, "and I can't even see the vireo much less the eye."
The bird walk was just a warmup for the more strenuous flower hunting during the rest of the day. Some were half-day trips, and some took all day. Some involved a journey by car and then a walk of up to seven miles. There were Wildflower Motorcades in which a ranger led a line of cars through the park, stopping at rich spots near the road. Others were photographic tours during which the pilgrims, decorated with cameras and light meters, trained their photographic gear on many a flower which hitherto had blushed unseen.
Some elected the Ferns and Mosses Walk. Others joined Botanical Motorcades up to Clingmans Dome, studying the floral zones and tree distribution. There are record-size specimens of 19 species of trees growing in this national park.
As a starter I signed up for a modest three-mile walk along the Huskey Gap Trail. As the group moved slowly up the steep path our leaders paused to point out some flower and tell something about it. Others in the group kept up a running comment. At one point two women bent over an odd-looking frond projecting from the ground.
"It looks fierce, doesn't it?" one said.
"Reptilian," said the other.
One woman explained that although some species of trillium grow singly or in pairs the big, white ones grow in large patches.
"They enjoy the company of their fellow trillium," she explained. Incidentally, you can find seven species of trillium growing in the park.
One of the best walks was along the Porter's Creek Gap Trail. After a drive of 10 miles we left the cars and hiked into an area which contains some of the largest virgin forest in the park. Henry Lix, park naturalist, walked at the head of the long file of pilgrims. There was the real feeling of the primeval forest. The hikers followed a trail winding upward through huge hemlocks, tulip trees, basswoods and yellow buckeyes. Shafts of light came down through their towering tops to make spotlights on the ground cover. At one spot Porter's Creek tumbled down the mountainside in a series of cascades. There was a long pause here while the pilgrims went to work with their cameras.
The next day during a motorcade to Clingmans Dome, Stupka gathered his flock around one of the garbage cans beside the road. He explained that they had had considerable trouble with their garbage cans. Frequently skunks would climb into them looking for scraps and then couldn't climb out again. When the collecting crew came along a man would grab the can and toss a skunk into the truck, usually getting sprayed as a result. Finally, the problem was solved by fastening a rough board inside each can. Now, if a skunk jumps in he can climb out again.
It was on this trip that we saw our first spring bears along the highway. If there is one thing that causes more excitement than spring flowers in the park it is a bear. Bears learn to mooch grub from visitors and have considerable success despite all warnings and regulations of the Park Service. Visitors also get bowled over when they are foolish enough to get between a mother bear and her cubs. Bears bring headaches to the park staff, yet they comprise one of the park's biggest attractions. Even adults have been known to cry when they didn't get to see a bear on their visit to the Smokies.
Although the wildflower pilgrims will depart after four days of flower study, their places will be filled by other thousands who visit the park all year long. The Smokies put on a series of shows. There will be another big influx to Gatlinburg in June and July when the rhododendrons are in bloom. Here, again, these old mountains are lavish in their displays, for the park has 16,000 acres covered with rhododendron and laurel. If put into one patch that would mean 25 square miles covered with these flowering plants. And that is some wildflower garden.
Early birders: Wildflower enthusiasts turn to bird watching on morning walk led by preserve naturalist around the National Park headquarters
The Smoky blue: Through haze of early summer, Mt. Mingus appears in the background as hikers ascend the winding trail to Mt. LeConte in June
Spring carpet: Fringed phacelia covers a bank beside a park road. One of the common spring flowers, it sometimes spreads over several acres
Great Smoky wonderland: Through the leafy stillness of the greatest virgin forest in the East a young couple strolls past big silverbell tree. Ground cover is mostly mountain ferns and richweed
Flowery trail: Park Naturalist Vernon Gilbert Jr. leads hikers through thickets of June-blooming rhododendron found at elevations above 3,500 feet
Shadowed rest: Hikers on way up Mt. LeConte pause beneath Alum Cave Bluffs. They still have two and a half miles to go to reach the summit
Traffic hazard: Yearling black bears mooch for grub along main highway in the park. Rules prohibit feeding them, but the bears don't know the rules
Mountain sunset: The warm glow of a mountain sunset rewards two climbers at Cliff Top after 6,500-foot climb. Perch of metamorphosed shale is one of three main peaks of Mt. LeConte
Into the cathedral hush of an awakening wilderness Park Naturalist Henry W. Lix annually leads the wildflower pilgrims who came to see the unforgettable advent of spring in the Great Smokies (opposite page). What they see is shown in the eight pages of color photographs which follow—the loveliness which each year draws hundreds of thousands, from honeymooners to horticulturists, to this most heavily visited of all our national parks: the breathless miracle of spring.