By Dennis McCarthy
It was a spectacularly beautiful day when a dozen cars pulled into the parking lot at Newfound Gap. At almost a mile above sea level, with the humidity below 30 percent, the temperature in the mid-60s, and the cloud cover near zero, the day seemed more like mid October than late April. Twenty-two pilgrims were headed to Charlie’s Bunion, four miles away on the Appalachian Trail—this was Trip 109 on the program for the 59th Annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Wildflower Pilgrimage
In 1951, a handful of UT botany professors, the Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park organized the first Wildflower Pilgrimage. “The Chamber of Commerce initially suggested the idea as a promotional for Gatlinburg and the Park,” said Ed Clebsch, a professor emeritus in UTK’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and one of the organizers of the Pilgrimage for almost 30 years. “But the university immediately saw the education outreach benefit of the idea.”
The Pilgrimage has been a cooperative venture ever since. “In the 1960s, the Gatlinburg Garden Club replaced the Chamber of Commerce,” Clebsch added, “and other sponsors were added in the ensuing years—Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, which provides food and housing for the leaders, the City of Gatlinburg, Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Great Smoky Mountains Association, and the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society.”
The Pilgrimage runs for five days, culminating in the fourth weekend in April. This year, about 800 people attended, from England, Canada, and 35 states. There were 155 trips and 100 leaders. Some trips lasted all day, some but a few hours. A team made up of members of UTK’s Division of Biology and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Tennessee Valley Authority selects the trips each year, UTK provides the leaders, and the other sponsors provide logistical support.
Ken McFarland, a lecturer in the Division of Biology and one of the people largely responsible for running the Wildflower Pilgrimage today, said that “most of the leaders have a UT connection—either they teach or taught at UT or they were students here at one time. The Wildflower Pilgrimage is a major outreach program for the university. Leaders keep coming back year after year because they love doing it and they have such a good time.”
Not all participants come for the wildflowers, of course. There are trips scheduled throughout the day for those interested in mosses, ferns, giant trees, aquatic life, insects, salamanders, bears, wild hogs, ecology, history, folk culture, medicinal plants, photography, sketching, and a dozen other topics. Bird trips begin at sunrise; spider walks begin after dark.
The Wildflower Pilgrimage’s Trip 109–from Newfound Gap to Charlie’s Bunion and back–is largely an ecology walk, offering participants the chance to see some of the dramatic changes that have occurred in the Great Smoky Mountains in recent years. The trail winds through what’s left of beech-birch and spruce-fir forests, with periodic vistas of many of the other forest communities that make the Smokies one of the most ecologically diverse locales in the temperate world.
The most startling feature of the landscape at Newfound Gap, apart from the intoxicating beauty of the mountains themselves, are the gray boles of dead fir trees poking out of the understory like giant matchsticks. As trip leader D.K. Smith, a professor in UT’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department, explained, “These skeletons are almost all that’s left of the Fraser fir, a Southern Appalachian endemic. The villain is the balsam wooly adelgid, an insect not much larger than a gnat. The adelgid attacks the cambium layer—the generative layer of tissue between the bark and the wood—deforming the new wood-forming cells and preventing the tree from moving water up the trunk. The diseased trees die of dehydration.”
Further along the trail, Smith pointed out stands of table mountain pine at mid-elevation on the southwest slope of Mt. LeConte. “Almost all the trees have been killed by pine bark beetles,” Smith said. The dead trees stand as sentinels, waiting for the next fire to open the buried pine cones and release the seeds to regenerate the forest.
“The last few decades have not been kind to these forests,” Smith added. “We also lost the beech trees to beech bark disease and the dogwoods to dogwood anthracnose.”
At Charlie’s Bunion, Smith noted the gray stands of hemlock that cover at least a quarter of the valley between Charlie’s Bunion and the Greenbrier Pinnacle. “Two years ago, these stands were a rich green,” Smith said. “Unless you looked at the trees closely, you wouldn’t have known they were under attack by the hemlock adelgid. The hemlock adelgid is killing much faster than the balsam wooly adelgid. These stands don’t have a chance of reproducing themselves.”
“Fifty-nine years ago, when Jack Sharp, Royal Shanks, and Fred Norris in the UT Botany Department were putting together ideas for the first Wildflower Pilgrimage, they wanted to promote the incredible diversity of the spring flora in this region,” said Smith. “Sure, there was an education component to it, but mostly they wanted to showcase the spectacular spring flora, promote the Park and the botany department, and have some fun along the way. Today, education is a much more important reason for the Pilgrimage than ever before.”
“The Park is changing and frankly we don’t know what the changes will bring,” Clebsch added. “When the chestnut blight hit the Southern Appalachians in the 1930s, it wiped out the chestnut stands, which were probably a third of the forest vegetation in the Park. Now, we’re losing other dominant trees—beech, hemlock, Fraser fir, table-mountain pine.
“The Smokies look different today than when I first saw them 70 years ago, and in another 70 years they won’t look like they do today. Insects are killing forest communities in the Park, but air pollution is a major factor, too. Air pollution weakens the trees and makes them vulnerable to attack.
“People who come to the Wildflower Pilgrimage see the impacts and learn about the causes,” Clebsch concluded. “When they go home, will what they saw here today affect what they do tomorrow? I don’t know . . . but I sure hope so.”
For additional information, visit the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage web site.