Stunning Spring Ephemerals in Great Smoky Mountains

Upper left – Carolina Spring Beauty, photo by Sharon Samford; lower left – Sharp-lobed Hepatica, photo by Sharon Samford; right – Trout Lilly, photo by author

Earlier this month, I spent a glorious week with the Virginia Native Plant Society in Great Smoky Mountains National Park gaping at what may be the most stunning display of spring wildflowers the temperate zones of planet Earth offers up!  Walking carefully laid out trails along river cove forests, hardwood cove forests and limestone sinkholes, the diversity of the flowers and their numbers, size and robustness astounded the professional botanists among us right alongside the dazzled amateurs.

Our first morning we walked the Cove Hardwood Trail in the Chimney’s picnic area. The cove contained large examples of Yellow Buckeye and Carolina Silverbell trees just beginning to bud out with a literal carpet at their feet of Sharp-lobed Hepatica!  In Virginia, in the Dutch Creek area (see April 1st post) near the base of Naked Mountain, wildflower admirers consider ourselves lucky when we see thirty Round-lobed Hepatica blooming in one area. This first walk in the Smoky Mountain National Park was a display encompassing literally acres of hepatica blooms!  Also blooming were hundreds of Catesby’s Trillium as well as beautiful examples of White Trillium (grandiflorum), Trout Lilly, Lettuceleaf Saxifrage (Saxifraga micranthidifolia), thousands of Carolina Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana), Walking Fern, and Wild Ginger.

The next day we visited the Tapocca Trail, a little known walk that is in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness adjacent to the North Carolina side of the park. We were led on this walk by Dan Pittillo, retired curator of the herbarium at Western Carolina University.  Here the diversity of both the tree and herb species was outstanding.  Blooming along a trail that ran 100 feet above and along Calderwood Lake, created when the Little Tennessee River was dammed up in the 1920’s, we saw dozens of five different trilliums in bloom:  Red (Trillium erectum), Yellow (Trillium luteum), White (Trillium grandiflorum), Sweet White (Trillium simile), Sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum). We also saw many clusters of pretty white Canada Violets, Purple Phacelia (Phacelia bipinnitifida), a few examples of blooming Yellow Mandarin (Disporum lanuginosum), drifts of blooming Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) and drifts of False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum).  We also saw many examples of Carey’s Saxifrage and Slender Toothwort (Cardamine diphylla).

Triple Trilliums: Red (Trillium erectum), Yellow (Trillium luteum), Sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum); photo by Sharon Samford.

After that spectacular, diverse display Prof. Pittillo next took us to the big tree section of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness area. This national treasure has an interesting history. Early in the twentieth century, as loggers began to rapidly cull the big, old growth trees in the Smoky Mountains and in the areas nearby along the Slickrock Creek watershed, their operations were stopped cold in 1922 with the completion of the Calderwood dam and the resulting flooding of the logging railroad. This prevented a sizable old growth area from destruction. A decade later, the Veterans of Foreign Wars sought to establish a forest memorial to Joyce Kilmer, a poet and journalist who had been killed in WW I.  After considering millions of acres of forest across the U.S., the Forest Service chose an undisturbed 3,800-acre area of old growth trees along the Little Santeetlah Creek in the Slickrock Creek watershed and established the reserve in 1936.  It was this area that we visited. The tree species were very large, sometimes six feet in diameter and 100 feet tall, and diverse. We saw, along a three mile walk, hemlock, yellow buckeye, red and white oaks, basswood, beech, silverbell, poplar and sycamore.

Here is Kilmer’s poem that inspired the dedication of the reserve in his memory:


I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

Prof. Pittillo standing between two giant poplars in the Joyce Kilmer Reserve

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Joyce Kilmer

You can read more about the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness area here.

Blooming Fringed Phacelia; photo by author. Click on the photo to enlarge the scene and feel immersed in the fairyland!

The next day we hiked three miles along Porter’s Creek Trail to visit a fairyland.  But first we had to cross a troll-like bridge over a raging creek. The bridge, dubbed “the bridge of death” by some in our group, was only 15 inches wide, had just one leaned out railing to grasp, and took a little turn to the left halfway across.  The test of nerves only made the fairyland visit more rewarding.  On the other side of the bridge were several acres of blooming Fringed Phacelia – millions of little lacy white blooms forming a soft carpet under mature trees hungrily reaching for the sunlight before their tall hosts leafed out and cast them into shade.  The bees and butterflies were everywhere.

Fringed Phacelia and bee; photo by Sharon Samford.

The next day of trail walks took us along Middle Prong Trail next to a beautiful, white water river and a logged over area that is in the middle stages of growing back to maturity. Along this trail, we saw Fraser’s Sedge (Cymophyllus fraserianus) in bloom and a patch of 40 or 50 Puttyroot leaves! That will be a spectacular orchid display in a couple of months.  I have never encountered more than two or three wrinkled Puttyroot leaves together on Naked Mountain, or anywhere else in rich woods

On the final day we visited the Siegrists, a couple who are miniaturist artists that live next to the Smoky Mountain National Park. We visited their studio in their home and saw their amazingly intricate artwork done in opaque watercolors with brushes that are thinned to a width of three hairs.  We also toured their thriving native plant garden.

They led us on a walk down a trail in the park that is not yet formally marked on park service maps. The trail led to a series of limestone sinkholes and surrounding valley floor covered with a thick matt of Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata).  The phlox was not yet in full bloom, but was starting its show in many sunny spots flanked by thousands of shiny new May Apples. Here and there among the phlox were white Shooting Stars. They were just as robust as those on Naked Mountain, although not numerous.  Botanists have estimated that at least 10,000 pink Shooting Stars bloom in the barrens on Naked Mountain.  That show will begin very soon.

It was hard to finish this trip to the Smoky Mountains, my first, and leave behind the beauty of the most diverse, stunning display of spring ephemerals I will probably ever see.  I hope you will get a chance to experience a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains in April. In the meantime, visit Sharon Samford’s website here for more fabulous photos of our trip.