On the Sunday following my hikes, helping Ken McFarland prepare for the 60th Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage consumes my days and evenings. All thoughts of the trails disappear as Ken’s friends Carol and Dave Mongold and I work on registration boards, leader packets, and history posters. Native plants are groomed and their pots washed for the display at the convention center. Once these preparations are complete, the Pilgrimage itself begins as people from near and far come to enjoy walks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park led by experts on plants, insects, mammals, fungi, salamanders, history, medicinal uses, and nature sketching. I am fortunate enough to be a wildflower walk leader. My son, Sam, a junior in college at UT, joins me for the weekend and got his first taste of the Smokies. Now he loves it, too!
On Ash Hopper Branch, the manway across Little River Road from Sugarlands Visitors Center, we find Alternate-leaved Dogwood, Vasey’s Trillium in flower, Pennywort, Umbrella Magnolia among many others, including Spring Avens (Geum vernum), a new plant for me, identified with the help of a Pilgrim! The Pawpaws are in flower on the Quiet Walkway, and Cucumber Gap has lots of young Yellowwood trees. By the end of that week, there are few Fringed Phacelias left on Porters Creek, and the Large White Trilliums are well past their prime and fading fast. To make up for that deficit, the now famous “Painted Trillium Rock” has about 30 plants in fresh flower studding the mossy surface and looks spectacular. Only three of them were visible on my hike the week prior, and I feared some plants had been taken from the rock. Those fears are alleviated at the sight of all those flowers and the additional 12-15 plants not yet mature enough to flower. However, one hiker is spotted coming down the trail with two picked Painted Trilliums in her hand. Thankfully, several other hikers spotted the plants and quickly and emphatically enlightened the perpetrator regarding her criminal actions. Not only is this clearly illegal in a national park, but picking a trillium removes the entire plant, leaves and all. The leaves are essential to recharge the roots for next year’s plant, and the flower is the source for future generations.
It is a shame that a few people think their wants are more important than the enjoyment of millions of park visitors. Sometime in 2008, a selfish jerk dug and removed two yellow ladies slippers from Ash Hopper. These plants were side by side on a small embankment perfectly situated for close visual inspection, a camera and tripod, or an artist’s sketch. They were likely the most photographed and admired orchids in the park…..until that day in 2008 when they were stolen. At the Pilgrimage in 2009 and this year, I meet several eager photographers on that trail with tripods on their shoulders and the same inquiry on their lips, “Are the yellow ladies slippers in flower yet?” The look of disappointment and even anger on their faces when told the plants are gone is also uniform. This is why I will not reveal in this blog some plants I see on the trails. Most people value the park and its precious resources, but it only takes one creep to ruin it for everyone.