The 62nd Annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will be April 25 – 28. I was curious if this unseasonably warm, early spring was going to have any impact on the pilgrimage so I talked with an old friend about it. Patricia Cox is a botanical specialist with the Tennessee Valley Authority. She was a botany professor at the University of Tennessee, and she is one of the organizers of the Wildflower Pilgrimage. Cox has led hikes at the pilgrimage since 1992.
Cox said that some of the regular pilgrimage crowd pleasers might be gone or nearly gone this year. She said that fringed phacelia was already in bloom in the park in late March and that “…more than likely those large displays around the Chimney’s picnic area will be gone.” But there could be a new pilgrimage poster child crowned.
“I’ve seen lots of photos of Lady’s slippers this week on Facebook, so they will be out for sure next week,” she said. “We haven’t seen yellow Lady’s slippers in flower for the past several years because we were too early. So, while we may not see some of the usual things, I’m excited about seeing the unusual.”
In keeping with tradition, this year’s pilgrimage offers numerous new programs. They include “Traditional Cherokee Plants” with wildcrafter Ila Hatter. Learn how the forests of the Smokies provided for the Cherokee. There will be a reception for Cindy Carlson, “Featured Wildflower Artist.” And if you want to find out what’s going on in the Smokies, Bob Miller, the park’s public affairs officer, will present the “State of the Park” report on Thursday night. You can also learn about “Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains” with botanist and author Tim Spira.
And of course, the pilgrimage is all about getting outside and there will be new hikes also. Check out the “Birds and Blooms on Alum Cave Trail” with park forestry technician Troy Evans or join the Queen of Ferns, herself as Cox leads an all-day fern hike along Deep Creek Trail – expect to see more than 20 species of ferns.
There are more than 130 programs scheduled for this year’s pilgrimage, many directed towards children. The variety, as usual, is endless – bats, bugs, bears and bugs; ferns, forests, fungi and photography; ecology, elk and environmental education – there is surely something for everyone.
And, as always the main feature – wildflowers. There are more than 1,600 flowering plants in the park. So while some of the old pilgrimage blooms may be MIA, there will be no shortage of colorful wildflowers, and this year’s kick start to the bloom schedule will likely mean new and/or different species will be in flower.
Cox is not worried, she said, “As long as Mother Nature doesn’t hit us with tornados, hail or heavy rain, we’ll be good. There’s always something in flower in the Smokies. It will be a remarkable week, as usual.”
To learn more about this year’s pilgrimage visit their website at http://www.springwildflowerpilgrimage.org/ or you can call the W.L. Mills Conference Center at 800.568.4748.