The Tennessee Native Plant Society is holding its annual meeting in Newport, TN, a short drive from the park. The weekend gathering always features a Saturday field trip, and board members Susan Sweetser and Todd Crabtree have chosen Big Creek Trail. It is a wide, smooth, easy-graded trail able to accommodate numerous people of varying physical abilities. Two miles up is Mouse Creek Falls, our lunch destination. Plant enthusiasts move at a glacial pace, gawking at any photosynthesizing organism and virtually everything else as well. Speed and botanizing just don’t go together.
Over 40 people carpool to Big Creek Campground, one of the largest groups we’ve had. My bestest hiking buddy, Mary, joins us. Last March, Mary and I and another TNPS member here today, Michelle Haynes, hiked Big Creek as part of a practice run for the A.T. thru-hike Mary, Clarence and I accomplished last May. Mary has hiked this trail on numerous occasions and thinks she may have found the path leading to the rock house noted in the Smokies trails guide. We missed it in March, and I’d love to find it.
Our slow saunter to the falls is interrupted time and again by the desire to examine, photograph, and generally exclaim over colorful wildflowers, ripening fruit, basking butterflies, and predaceous spiders. Interesting plants are fall-fruiting Common Grapefern, Pale Jewelweed with its spring-loaded fruit pods, Buffalo Nut bearing clusters of pear-shaped fruit, Downy Lobelia’s blue-flowered racemes, and Walking Fern sporting tiny plantlets at the long, arching tips of its narrow leaf blades.
We are attracted to the sparse-rayed flowers of Yellow Crownbeard (Verbesina occidentalis), oblong fruits on Green Violet, little pea pods of Hog Peanut, drooping blossoms of Tall Rattlesnake Root, long-petioled leaves on False Nettle, and appropriately named Pink Turtlehead.
Mature fruit clusters of Cucumber Magnolia litter the ground. Each chamber of the honeycombed brown pod holds one bright scarlet seed attached with a white fibrous thread. We entertain ourselves like awestruck school kids, grabbing a seed and slowly stretching the thread until the fibers pull apart.
Collectively, TNPS members have spent thousands of hours in the field looking at plants. Imagine the thrill of finding a plant that none of us has ever seen in the wild before. Allen Sweetser is the first to spot it rambling down slope. Allegheny Vine or Climbing Fumitory (Adlumia fungosa) is a rare plant in Tennessee (Threatened) and considered imperiled within the state. A biennial in the Bleeding Heart Family, it produces a basal cluster of pinnately compound leaves the first year and grows a long stem climbing with the aid of prehensile foliage to flower in year two. The flowers look like Squirrel Corn with a pinkish cast, hanging in panicles from the leaf axils. It is quite eye-catching for its delicate, ferny appearance eliciting many oohs and aahs.
Early fall is a good time for insect watching. Butterflies are flitting about, including a Red Admiral catching a few rays of sunshine. The frequent boulders and rock slabs lining the right side of the trail are spotted with the flared, conical webs of Lampshade spiders (Hypochilus sp.) These webs face outward allowing us to peer inside and see the flattened, splayed spiders patiently waiting for their next meal. They are fairly large, situated against the rock with legs slightly arched surrounded by the woven cup of their web, sized to encircle the resting spider. Their coloration and markings blend so well with the rocks beneath them, the casual eye might not even notice them lurking in perfect stillness.
After lunch, we stumble upon a park resident that sparks tremendous admiration and cautious respect. A Timber Rattlesnake moves slowly and gracefully through the leaf litter, perches his head on a small branch, and coils just enough to show us his 12 rattles. Not very big around and a yard or so in length, he is as beautiful and shiny as a new penny. We speculate that he has just recently shed his skin. His coloration is dark with bands of deep bronze and black separated by scattered tan scales. Calm and cool, his triangular head and fierce vertical pupils nonetheless warn us to admire from afar, please. We are happy to oblige.
Walking back, I notice a slight path to the side of a very large boulder. Mary had told me of such a place that she thought might lead to the rock house. I wait here for her. It’s the path she had seen. There is only one way to find out if she is right. We scramble up the steep hillside on all fours along with Allen and Dennis (another TNPS member). Running into a large boulder, we turn right but find nothing. I double back and take a left at the boulder. Just around the corner is one of the most impressively massive monoliths I’ve seen in the park. Smooth-sided and flat-planed, it appears precisely crafted by a master mason. Imagine taking two large boulders from Stonehenge and setting them together at right angles topped by a huge rock cap studded with two smaller flat boulders for decoration. Wow. Mary and Allen, providing scale for my photos, are dwarfed in its shadow.
Before our return to Newport, we make a quick stop outside the park along a stretch of the Pigeon River to view a small population of Pirate Bush or Sapsuck (Buckleya distichophylla), the parasitic shrub named for Samuel Buckley who studied the mountains’ flora and measured some high peaks in the mid-nineteenth century. I mentioned Buckley and the plant named for him in my blog post on Day Five of the AT hike across Clingman’s Dome. Today’s side excursion presents an exciting opportunity to see a plant unknown to me until unrelated research brought it to my attention mere weeks earlier.
The opposite leaves of Pirate Bush are arranged on short branchlets giving the illusion of compound foliage. The leaves at the base of the branchlet are smaller than those at the tip. Like hollies, Pirate Bush is dioecious — staminate (male) flowers on one shrub and pistillate (female) flowers on another. Fruit is oblong, firm, and fleshy often with persistent bracts at the blossom end. The shrub is usually found with Eastern Hemlock, but it is not believed to be an exclusive association.
This is a healthy little group of plants. Some individuals are loaded with ellipsoidal yellow-green fruit. Others are not. We assume the latter are males. Not far down the river bank is a patch of Kudzu (cue dark and evil-sounding music). Pirate Bush is a state-listed rare plant (Threatened), and this population will need to be monitored closely to insure it does not fall victim to the all-encompassing death grip of “the vine that ate the South.”