You can come up with countless natural spectacles that embody in their own special way the wild splendor of the Great Smoky Mountains, from waterfalls at peak flow to sunset vistas of endless ridges. Without question one of the most beloved expressions of this amazing range’s spirit is the spring-through-fall wildflower show, one of the finest anywhere in the world.
With the onset of spring fast approaching and the very first blooms unfolding from the Smoky Mountain forest floor before you know it, we thought we’d introduce you to a few of the dazzling vernal wildflowers you can see in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park—and direct you to some of the best trails for taking in the show!
The Botanical Bounty of the Great Smoky Mountains
It’s no exaggeration to say that the Great Smoky Mountains harbor one of the richest forest-scapes in the world. Indeed, the temperate forests of the Great Smokies and the rest of the Southern Appalachians are some of the most diverse anywhere, really rivaled only by some of China’s. There are more species of flowering plants in Great Smoky Mountains National Park—north of 1,500—than any other U.S. national park.
Why all of this superlative botanical diversity? Well, part of it is the generally mild and impressively wet climate of the Great Smokies and the significant habitat diversity resulting from the range’s great topographic relief and ruggedness. Then there’s the southerly position of the Southern Appalachians in North America: The glaciers of the Pleistocene ice ages didn’t reach this far south, and plants were able to “retreat” down the spine of the Appalachians from the frigid front to find refuge here. From the almost subtropical lushness of the Smokies’ cove hardwood forests to the spruce-fir stands on the mountaintops—not all that different from the boreal forests of Canada—you’ve got a tremendous ecological spectrum here with an interesting mix of wide-ranging plants and no small number of “endemics”: species found nowhere else.
Some Commonly Seen Spring Wildflowers in the Great Smoky Mountains
From late March into early May, a flush of spring ephemeral wildflowers liven up the groundcover under the Smokies’ hardwood canopies before they’ve leafed out, taking advantage of all that sunlight. These blooms track upslope as the season proceeds, giving you a broad window to enjoy those species with a wide elevational range.
They include the little white or pink blossoms of spring beauties, the bigger and showier blooms of various trilliums, and the lovely white pedals and golden stamens of bloodroot.
Then there are the feathery white plumes tipping the droopy fronds of false Solomon’s-seal, the daintier white flower spikes of foamflower, and the little white bells hugging the stems of bishop’s caps.
A striking early wildflower that can cluster in great numbers is trout-lily, which brandishes an ornate yellow flower and mottled green leaves suggestive of a trout’s pattern. Another showy spring wildflower common in the lower and middle elevations of the Great Smokies is columbine, with its hanging red-and-yellow blooms.
Two similar-looking and colorfully named flowers that overlap in their spring emergence are Dutchman’s breeches and squirrel corn, which both have white, lobed blooms and intricate foliage. Another eye-catching snowy-hued flower is the fringed phalecia, which tends to grow higher up the mountain forests.
Widespread and arresting, the jack-in-the-pulpit has a large striped, folded-over sheath called a spathe that forms the “pulpit.”
From violets to wild strawberries to bleeding hearts, there are many other spring blooms that erupt from the duff in the Great Smokies. The variety and profusion can be almost mindboggling, and it definitely pays to bring a wildflower field guide along on your moseys! Check out the National Park Service’s site for specifics on blooming patterns for different flower species.
Good Trails to See & Photograph Spring Wildflowers in the Great Smoky Mountains
Many of the lower and mid-elevation trails of the Great Smoky Mountains will deliver an outstanding wildflower show in the springtime, with higher routes coming alive in late spring and early summer; it’s really hard to go wrong! But here are six particularly productive paths to tread this time of year:
- Little River Trail
- Kanata Fork Trail
- Cove Hardwoods Nature Trail
- Porters Creek Trail
- Chestnut Top Trail
- Lead Cove Trail/Spence Field
Blooms vary from year to year in their exact timing and intensity, but an April or May visit to the park should yield some memorable walk-throughs of the Great Smokies’ spring wildflower gardens!
Want even more wildflowers? Check out the park’s annual Smoky Mountain Wildflower Pilgrimage from May 8-16, 2021!