Sunday, September 23, 2012

In Search of Gentian

I never thought I’d go hiking in search of a single plant, but in August I did just that. After I published the story of my hike to Gregory Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains, my friend Jane asked me if I would hike with her in the Smokies to find Gentiana linearis (narrow-leaf gentian). The hike and the plants we saw along the way – many of which also make their home here in Georgia – make for a colorful tale.  The first color is blue since that is the plant that sparked the trip.

Gentiana linearis
The narrow-leaf gentian is not found in Georgia, although many of its relatives are. It is found in Tennessee, where the plant is listed as threatened, and further north. Many of the Gentiana species share the "closed" look of this flower. Bumblebees pollinate this flower by prying open the top of it and going inside. If you are interested in gentians, I recommend the book "Gentians of the Eastern United States" by Jim Drake. Jim helped me id several other gentians that we found on the trip.

Eurybia divaricata
Along the way to find the gentian, we hiked up the Rainbow Falls trail to LeConte Lodge where we planned to spend the night. There were four of us: Jane, me, my husband and my daughter (only two of us were interested in the plants). The blooming plants along this trail were best described as asters and goldenrods. The white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) was an early and constant companion and was eventually joined by the very similar looking whorled wood aster (Oclemena acuminata) as we climbed higher. 

The low elevation goldenrod was the shade tolerant Solidago caesia but we saw several other species along the way which I have not yet positively identified. Yellow is such a cheerful sight.

Solidago caesia
Unknown large-flowered Solidago

At lunchtime we found a nice area with green headed coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata var. humilis) and white snakeroot (Ageratina - the species was unclear) near the stream.

We climbed higher and higher, enjoying the change in the plants as we went. We found unusual plants like mountain fetterbush (Pieris floribunda), Appaplachian bunchflower (Veratrum parviflorum), Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora), and large-leaved hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides). This was a new viburnum for me on my unofficial life list of native viburnums. Throughout the hike (both days) we also saw a lot of Viburnum nudum var. cassinoides which is a very happy resident in my garden. The difference between the two viburnums in terms of berries and leaves is remarkable. The berries on both will turn from red/pink to blue in time.

Viburnum lantanoides on the left; on the right is Viburnum nudum var. cassinoides with a beautiful view

Chelone lyonii

As we closed in on our destination, we found pink turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) in the moist areas along the trail. In a rocky outcropping, we found a population of sand myrtle (Leiophyllum buxifolium) with other heath plants (Ericaceae family). The outcropping had great views from the side of the mountain.

I've always loved turtlehead - the white form (C. glabra) grows in Georgia. Do you see how the flower looks like a turtle with his mouth open?

Well, this story is longer than I thought it would be. I will close here with a picture of the wonderful sunset on Mount LeConte. Part 2 of this story will be "Gentian Found" and will show what we found on the mountain and on our trip back down the next day along a different trail.

Sunset from Mount LeConte


  1. What a lot of wonderful wildflowers you came across on your walk. Some of them that you mentioned I was familiar with but others I just learned about in a plant conservation course I attending on timely!

  2. Lovely selection of wildflowers..& beautiful sunset. Thanks for letting us join you on your walk!

  3. That sounds like a great trip! I'm jealous!