Every spring, petal pushers head to the Great Smoky Mountains to let their knowledge bloom

By Margery Guest
July 17, 2013

On its way from Maine to Georgia, the Appalachian Trail passes through 14 states. The most demanding stretch, and possibly the most beautiful, is the 70 miles in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. The Smokies have more flowering plants than any other North American national park—at least 1,500 kinds, including a few varieties that exist nowhere else in the world.

I wouldn't know any of this if I hadn't taken part in the Great Smoky Mountains Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. The three-day extravaganza (organized by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Gatlinburg Garden Club, the University of Tennessee Botany Department, the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society, and the Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association) has been held the last weekend of April for the past 47 years. It draws between 900 and 1,200 "pilgrims," who sign up for any of the 90 wildflower hikes. They're labeled Easy, Moderate, and Strenuous, but my husband and I added Killer for the steepest ones.

The pilgrimage begins with a sign-up madhouse at an auditorium outside of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It's the way college registration used to be before computers, when you ran from table to table in the field house. Almost 200 people wait in a line that's "as long as a well rope," according to one Southerner. You may register as either a driver or a rider to the various outings, but since the organizers try to limit the number of cars, you'll probably wind up riding with other pilgrims.

We choose mostly Moderate hikes featuring birds and wildflowers, and a bat walk held at dusk. Since you can reasonably do only about six guided walks during the weekend, we have to pass on many that sound good, including the "spider foray."

At 8:45 a.m. we show up for our first jaunt, the Noah "Bud" Ogle Wildflower Walk (in 1879, Bud and his wife, Lucinda, built the house that stands near the head of this particular trail). Our leader, Roger Walkingstick Elder, is an expert in edible plants. About 30, with straight dark hair, he tells me he's half Cherokee. When I ask about the other half he shrugs and says, "English, I guess."

The first thing Elder points out is something called stonecrop. It's a type of sedum with puffy leaves that mark it as a succulent. Although all plants in the park are protected, Elder tells us he has special permission to pick a few for us to sample. The sedum tastes good, like lettuce. He then points to something called heart's-a-busting. "It's used as a medicinal plant for old people," he says, chuckling. Evidently it acts as a laxative, and is marketed as Yahoo. Next we find some squawroot, or squaw corn—only three inches tall, it looks like a miniature ear of corn. Elder tells us that bears eat it after hibernation as their own form of Yahoo.

Elder also offers tips on cooking with wild edibles. He shows us toothwort, which tastes like horseradish, and pronounces it "choice" on a sandwich. Then there's galax, whose leaves were used by settlers to make grease, and sweet white violets, which contain more vitamin C than oranges. Finally, he shares his idea of a great trail meal: "Tuna, cheese, and boiled nettle leaves."

It's quickly noon, and we grab a sandwich in town—no toothwort or nettles for us—and drive to our Kanati Fork walk, a Moderate climb in North Carolina. The habitat changes as we go up, and we see new wildflowers—including false Solomon's seal, partridgeberry, wood betony, witch hazel, and dwarf ginseng. Someone catches a red-cheeked salamander from under a rock in the creek, and we take turns examining it through a lens.

It is on this outing that we first hear about the Doctrine of Signatures. In the 1500's, a prevailing theory held that God had stamped upon every plant its "signature," or intended use. All man needed to do was decode God's markings. For example, toothwort's underground stems look like little teeth, so it was used to treat toothaches (despite the fact that it didn't work).

Our four-mile hike along Deep Creek Trail starts at eight the next morning. The leader is George Ramseur, a retired professor of botany at Sewanee who comes to life upon seeing a scruffy plant with large leaves. "Rugel's ragwort!" he announces. It grows only in the park. The hillsides are dotted with a tiny white flower—fringed phacelia—and three varieties of trillium: a small magenta one called wake-robin; a yellow version with mottled leaves; and sweet white, an adorable, small, white species with a purplish-black dot in the center and yellow anthers.

On our afternoon outing, the Cove Hardwood Wildflower Walk, we are a large group so we have two leaders. One of them, Rick Phillippe, who manages the herbarium at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, points out "the saddest tree in the forest," a huge, decomposing American chestnut trunk. He asks us if we know what accounts for its present state. One pilgrim does: airborne chestnut blight has made this species almost extinct around here.

On our way to the bat walk we notice cars stopped and people with binoculars. Bigger animals, it seems, are on the agenda: a black bear with three cubs is 30 feet away. The sow seems oblivious to us, the cars, and her cubs. But the cubs behave the way they do on Wild Kingdom, jumping on one another's backs and scampering up trees.

On Saturday morning we take the two-mile fern walk alongside the Little River above Elkmont, where Patricia Cox, a doctor of botany, blinds us with science. We're given a handout illustrating the different types of fronds, the configuration of their veins, and how they reproduce, but we're free to absorb as little as we choose. We smell hay-scented ferns, note the telltale tapered ends of the New York variety, and admire the maidenhair's jet-black stems. Farther along we see rattlesnake fern, fancy fern, and fragile fern. I've walked the woods of Michigan for more than 30 years, but I'd never gone beyond calling a fern a fern. Next year I plan to be on a first-name basis with every fern in the forest.

MARGERY GUEST is a columnist based in Grand Rapids.

Get Walking!
The 1998 Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage will be held April 23-25. It costs $8 per day. Registration is required: write Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 107 Park Headquarters Rd., Gatlinburg, TN 37738; or call 423/436-1200.

Wake Up and Smell the Flowers
Just east of Gatlinburg, the Buckhorn Inn (2140 Tudor Mountain Rd.; 423/436-4668, fax 423/436-5009; doubles from $130, including breakfast) has a deceptive appearance. From the front, the 1938 inn looks like a cottage, but around back there's a huge flagstone terrace with stately columns.
All six guest rooms are large and comfortable, if not luxurious. Who needs telephones or TV's when there's a fire in the great room, books on the shelves, and rocking chairs on the porch?
But the best thing about the inn is dinner. Every night except Sunday, chef Bob Neisler creates a fabulous four-course meal (dinner for two $60). The osso buco was as good as any I've ever had.