Why do I keep returning to the Great Smoky Mountains? Early in the twentieth century, this southern Appalachian national park was home to thousands of settlers, farmers, and artisans who cut trees, built homesteads, planted corn, and raised families in near isolation. In the 1930’s, they were all evacuated, logging and mining stopped, and small industries were abandoned to give us today one of our largest and most visited national parks. At the top os these mountains, there are no trees and many speculate why. Were they cut down for logs? No, too remote. Were homesteads built here? No, the weather, soil, and remoteness didn’t compare to the richer valleys. We don’t know why some hilltops are barren of trees but we can enjoy these “bald”s, as they are called, because here grows my number one wildflower – the Flame Azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum). Is ir red? Is it yellow? Or, is it orange? Each plant harbors flowers of all three colors and vibrantly blends them into many combinations. The blossom is a trypical azalea with 3 inch blossoms and up to 4 inch protruding stamens. Did I mention – it is absolutely beautiful!
At the balds, the time window is the end of the first week in June – don’t be early as you will miss the show. Last Spring, I “calculated: that the mild winter might push the blooming period to late May. That was a mistake as they were just beginning to emerge in their promised full glory. Along with the Flame Azalea, the Purple Rhododendron blooms and wild blueberry bushes up to eight feet high. In the woods the Great Rhododendron is also emerging with a white blosson show of its own.
So the Flame Azalea deserves to be my number one wildflower but I actually missed one that claims to be the numer one also… Is it a tie? Stay tuned and I will let you decide.