Floral delight: Native plants expert leads Parkway tour in search of rare species
“When we get out, we’re going to walk across the street and I’m going to show you the most sacred spot,” Larry Mellichamp said as he began his botanical tour of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The spot in question wasn’t a gravesite or a cultural landmark or even one of the many breathtaking overlooks spread along the Parkway’s 469-foot length. Rather, it was a seemingly dead end — a face of rock bordering the north side of the road, slick with water seeping from within, partly shrouded by flourishing vegetation.
It was the vegetation that, for Mellichamp, earned the spot a place among the sacred. This place was a shrine, he said, to three of the most unique plants in the region — mountain fetterbush, Buckley's St. John’s wort and pink shell azalea — and it was the only place Mellichamp knew of where it was possible to touch all three at once.
“The only place” was a phrase that came up often during the ensuing hours, and if anyone should be qualified to use it, it’s Mellichamp. Now retired, Mellichamp was a professor in the biology department of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte for more than 40 years. His specialty is botany — specifically, the botany of native plants. He’s brought many classes to the Parkway over the years, and he’s been coming to the Cullowhee Native Plants Conference at Western Carolina University for 33 of its 36 years of existence, nearly always as a presenter or organizer.
In fact, the native plants conference was what had brought him to the Blue Ridge Parkway this particular Friday morning, with nearly 20 conference attendees in tow to experience the field trip he was leading to explore the Parkway’s bogs, seeps and rare plants. The five-day conference offers a diversity of field trips, speakers and workshops, with all topics surrounding various aspects of native plants. More than 300 people attended the 2019 conference, about average for recent years.
Pink turtlehead. Holly Kays photo
After the Fetterbush Overlook — which, coincidentally, shared a name with one of the three rare plants Mellichamp had brought the group there to see — the two vans rattled along to a place that’s a popular stop for many Parkway visitors, the Black Balsam Trailhead. From that parking lot, hikers can connect to countless trails that offer opportunity for high-reward day hikes as well as challenging multi-day excursions.
But, while Black Balsam is a favorite place for Mellichamp as well, it’s been years since he ventured further than the first half-mile or so of the Ivestor Gap Trail. Mellichamp has a hard time walking too quickly when every foot of trail offers new and fascinating botanical experiences — “floral delight,” as he calls it.
“This is just a fabulous natural shrub array,” he said, pointing out the fire cherry that produces bright red, fingernail-sized cherries in the fall, the Catawba rhododendron that’s differentiated from the more common Rhododendron maximum by its lack of sheaths on the bud and its white underleaf, and the Carolina rhododendron, whose range is constrained mostly to the high-elevation areas of North Carolina.
“Everything’s kind of suppressed and dwarfed and fitted together into a giant rock garden,” he continued.
If you were to strip away all the shrubs and plants from the hill that rises from the right side of the trail, he said, you’d eventually be left with a pile of large boulders. It’s a great habitat for wildflowers and shrubs, but yellow birch is the only tree species that seems to do that well there, able to grow directly on the boulders.
Every step resulted in something new to point out. Club mosses, whose oil-rich spores were once used to make fireworks; mountain ash, which in a few months will produce eye-catching red fruits; pink turtleheads, attractive rosy flowers fittingly shaped like a turtle’s head; and the little club spurred bog orchid, a green flower that is one of a small number of orchids native to Western North Carolina.
Sundew, a native carnivorous plant. Holly Kays photo
Wet rocks bordering the right side of the trail proved to be perfect habitat for sundew, a native carnivorous plant whose leaves are shaped something like the sun, round centers with skinny “rays” sticking out around them. Those “rays” are coated with a sticky substance designed to snare small insects like flies and ants, which the plant can digest to supplement the scant nutrients it’s otherwise able to harvest from its hardscrabble habitat on the rocks.
Eventually, we reached our destination, the botanical landmark that had motivated this hour-long drive from WCU — the southernmost cranberry bog in eastern North America.
It would be easy to miss if you didn’t know what to look for, just a mass of crawling vines, tiny green leaves mostly covering a low, large rock rising up along the trailside. There were still some flowers left, tiny and intricate, four-pronged pink stars with long, pink-red noses sticking out from the center. Fruits were growing, but still green, the taste full-on sour without yet a hint of sweetness.
The class seemed more than satisfied with the day’s findings, but not Mellichamp. There was still one member of the Ivestor Gap family we hadn’t yet visited — the adder’s mouth orchid. Another of the exclusive group of native orchids, the adder’s mouth is small, its bloom an under-the-radar green.
“This orchid is here,” said Mellichamp, poking through the underbrush with his trekking pole. “I’m going to find it. Just one more minute.”
It was a refrain he kept repeating throughout the return walk to the van, as he pledged to do just one more search, then just one more. But to no avail.
“Mother Nature often thwarts your best efforts,” he shrugged, “even if you know it’s there.”
Nevertheless, the folks along for the field trip — most of whom don’t live in the mountains — were satisfied with the list of rare plant sightings they’d managed to log.
“It’s such an interesting extreme ecosystem that you might not even notice or think about if you were on that trail, it you hadn’t had it pointed out,” said Maegan Luckett, horticulturist for the H.L. Blomquist Garden of Native Plants within Duke University’s Sarah P. Duke Gardens.
Larry Mellichamp (center) discusses the native plants present along the Ivestor Gap Trail. Holly Kays photo
This was Luckett’s first Cullowhee Native Plants Conference, and she expects it won’t be her last.
“I have heard from others that it’s kind of like Lay’s potato chips,” she said. “You don’t eat just one. People keep coming back to this conference, and I can definitely see why.”
Retired military veteran Jeff Prather said he and his wife were recently debating whether this is their 18th, 19th or 20th time attending the conference, but it’s safe to say that they’ve come every year for quite a number of years. Prather lives in Chapel Hill and is active in the N.C. Native Plant Society, but he’s not a “plant nerd,” he said.
“The conference is really for everybody, and it just makes me appreciate that there are people like Larry (Mellichamp) that are working to preserve and educate, because I will never know a fraction (of the plant species),” he said. “I would be happy to be able to differentiate 10 or 12. But how can you take one of these hikes and not appreciate nature?”
Mellichamp certainly knows more than just a fraction of the diverse plant community that thrives along the Parkway in North Carolina. In fact, he guesses there’s probably only a handful of plants out there that he doesn’t know. But when it comes to the walks he leads and the classes he teaches, instilling appreciation is his main goal.
“I’m hoping that they’ll see plants as just, more friends,” he said. “That they’ll pay more attention to them and come to see them and read about them and appreciate them more and realize that there’s more than just a tiny number of wildflowers, that there’s a vast number of plants up here — and anywhere, really. It’s all about just learning more about your world around you.”