The Smokies: Wildflower National Park

gatlinburg  aerial
October 1, 2013

Blooming White Trillium and Bishop's Cap

Spring is in the air again, awakening nature from its winter slumber with its warmth. There is no better place to witness this yearly celebration of life than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As the Appalachian mountainsides change from unsightly brown to brilliant hues of green, dogwoods bloom, black bears and other animals emerge from hibernation and streams bustle with renewed vigor. But there is something else that makes the Smokies truly special this time of year: the wildflowers. In fact, the park is home to more flowering plants than any other North American national park with over 1,500 species represented.

As the winter cold fades and days become longer, spring ephemerals emerge from February to April and are only around for a short two-month span during which they flower and fruit. These remarkable wildflowers have adapted to life among dense forest vegetation by taking advantage of sparse leaf cover in early winter and late spring, affording them plentiful sunlight. The fallen leaves from prior autumn provide the flowers with rich soil for optimal growth. Spring ephemerals bloom from mid- to late April at lower elevations and several weeks later at high altitudes, and include such beautiful wildflowers as the trillium, dwarf crested iris, lady slipper orchid, phlox, phacelia, bleeding heart, columbine, fire pink, jack-in-the-pulpit, little brown jugs, violets and many others.

Trillium simile

There are ten species of trillium in the park, each distinctly different from the next. The most commonly encountered variety is common white trillium, or Trillium grandiflorum (captured along with delicate stalks of flowering bishop’s cap in the first image). This iconic snowy white flower may be found along roadsides, such as on the drive to Cades Cove along Laurel Creek Road. The jeweled wakerobin species, or Trillium simile (second photograph) is less common. Yellow trillium (Trillium lucteum) is a lemon-scented species that looks unlike the others but is ubiquitous throughout the Smokies. The blue-to-violet sepals of the dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata, third image) are marked with a central yellow-white striped band. Pink to lavender flowers of creeping phlox, Phlox stolonifera (photographed among the white heartleaved foamflowers in the last image), are common but nevertheless a joy to see as they tend to grow in bunches.

Dwarf crested iris

Starting in April of 1951, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has celebrated the arrival of these beautiful wildflowers with the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage based in Gatlinburg. This week-long event offers wonderful wildflower and natural history walks, motorcades, photographic tours, art classes, and indoor seminars. If you wish to discover the wildflowers on your own, there are many hikes and walks to choose from during your stay in Gatlinburg. Among my favorites is the 2.2 mile trail to School House Gap from a parking spot along Laurel Creek Road on the way to Cades Cove. Given ample time, White Oak Sink (the unmarked but well-tread trail to which branches off halfway to School House Gap) is typically home to a multitude of flowering blue and creeping phlox as well as trillium. Beginning at the Chimneys picnic area, the 3/4 mile cove hardwood self-guiding nature trail is also worth exploring, as well as the first two miles of the Little River Trail. As conditions vary slightly from year to year, the park rangers are a great source of information on the most up-to-date wildflower locations.

As you can see, there is no better time to visit the Smokies than in early spring! I hope that you get to experience the “Wildflower National Park” for yourself if not this year, then the next. I look forward to sharing more information about the area in the posts to come! If you have not yet done so, please be sure to subscribe to or bookmark this blog.

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