Porters Creek has a reputation for superb spring wildflower displays, and it is wholly deserved. The heat and sunshine of the last couple of weeks prompted a floral riot. From the fresh Yellow Trillium, Foamflower, and Crested Iris below to carpets of Fringed Phacelia and thousands of Large White Trillium above, the trail holds to its tradition in fine form. Even the drive to the trailhead is colorful thanks to all the male Tiger Swallowtail butterflies fired up by the weather and on the hunt for females! The poor roadside plants, on the other hand, are suffocating under a thick coating of gray rock dust from passing cars. Porters Creek Trail is 3.6 miles long, gently rises about 1800 feet in elevation, and is a hiker’s delight.
To recite the list of plants in flower Thursday, one must take a deep breath……Jack-in-the-pulpit, Squirrel Corn, Blue Cohosh, Wild Ginger, Two-leaved Toothwort, Robin’s Plantain, Trout Lily, Wild Geranium, Crested Iris, Bishop’s Cap, Fringed Phacelia, Solomon’s Seal, Brook Lettuce, Fraser’s Sedge, Dwarf Ginseng, several Buttercups, Rue Anemone, Foamflower, Large White Trillium, Yellow Trillium, White Erect Trillium, Painted Trillium, Wild Oats, Sweet White Violet, Long-spurred Violet, Cream Violet, Downy Yellow Violet, Canada Violet, Halberd-leaved Violet, Little Brown Jugs, Yellow Mandarin, and Wood Anemone. On the cusp of flowering are Showy Orchis, Solomon’s Plume, Woodland Stonecrop, Doll’s Eyes, Clinton’s Wood Lily, and Meadow Parsnip.
The stars for my hike are definitely Large White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), Fringed Phacelia (Phacelia fimbriata), and Long-spurred Violet (Viola rostrata). The violets and trilliums are constant companions bottom to top, and the little white annual phacelia makes a virtual carpet of snow leading up to the falls. There ware other plants too – like Fragile Fern, Fancy Fern, Appalachian Rockcap Fern, Hay-scented Fern, Silvery Glade Fern, Southern Lady Fern, and Walking Fern around the falls. A species of Wood Rush in flower and fruit demands attention along the trail sides. Another plant, with just a few tiny flowers left, and noticed more for its long and slender, drooping seedpods, is appropriately called Sicklepod (Arabis canadensis). And there is a shrub, partially parasitic, called Buffalo Nut (Pyrularia pubera) here and on all the trails I’ve done this week. As the deciduous trees begin to leaf out, the warm spring sun seems to shine right through the tender, translucent foliage giving the whole forest a soft glow.
My journey along the Smokies’ trails thus far, has shown that most trails traverse various forest types, a change in the constituent plants based on water, exposure, soil, climate, and geology. Porters Creek Trail seems very consistent to me. The bottom section is a moist, second growth forest and very rich. A smaller section, between the road bed and foot log, is more acidic, hosting Rhododendron, Indian Cucumber Root, Galax, Painted Trillium, and Partridgeberry. After you cross the foot log, however, it’s as though you’ve entered another world, a fairy land of wildflowers where everything is in profusion. It takes your breath away. This loveliness continues past Fern Branch Falls to Campsite 31 two miles away. I’d visited Porters Creek numerous times going only to the falls, so I am astounded at the rich beauty that cheers me all the way to the trail’s end. Campsite 31 would be a serene and scenic place to spend a night in the Smokies. I have a quiet lunch in a cool Hemlock grove there and could have stayed for days!
Porters Creek is full of human history too. Settled in the 1800s, it was once a small, but thriving community of family farms, a school, a hotel, stores, churches, and grist mills. Old stone walls, house foundations, and nonnative daylilies are remnants of this life. A reconstructed cantilevered barn, spring house, and cabin are near the start of the Brushy Mountain Trail. Two old mill stones were used in the cabin’s “patio.” The most touching part of this history may be seen in the Ownby cemetery (on the right just past a small foot bridge). Some adults are buried there, but most appear to be children – some were born and died on the same day, others just a few weeks old, some at age 1 or 2. This little mossy cemetery is a testament to the hard life lived in these mountains at the turn of the last century. It is still cared for and kept meticulously clean. Nearly every grave is graced with a bouquet of colorful plastic flowers even though most of the souls resting peacefully in this lovely spot have lain here 100 years or more.