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Wildflowers and space aliens April 23, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Smoky Mountains.
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Yesterday I went on a wildflower walk with an old friend. But when I think back on the experience, the subject of space aliens keeps popping into my brain. No, don’t worry, I haven’t gone around the bend. I wasn’t abducted by space aliens on the Porters Creek trail. But for some reason my friend and I got onto the conversational topic of space aliens, and once the topic was introduced, it just wouldn’t go away.

This was the first time I have ever gone up Porters Creek to look at the wildflowers and not just to pass through on my way to the great and mysterious regions of Dry Sluice manway or Lester Prong that lie beyond, as I did a few weeks ago. This was not going to be a huge hiking challenge, it was going to be a wildflower stroll. I met up with my friend Bill at 9:00, under drizzly skies, and we headed up the trail. We saw plenty of yellow trillium right at the trailhead.

Yellow trillium

We were experiencing Phase 2 of the kaleidoscopic procession of spring wildflowers in the Smokies. I have usually gone up Porters Creek during Phase 1, the phase of fringed phacelia and large-flowered white trillium. This time, the phacelia were all gone and the large white trillium were either shriveled up or had gone into their faded pinkish stage. The sparkling carpets of phacelia are truly wonderful, but I must say one advantage of this later stage is that it is more colorful.

We saw a cluster of showy orchis, a relative of the ladyslipper that I don’t see very often.

Showy orchis

We went up to the old Smoky Mountains Hiking Club cabin and looked for graffiti from old-timers in the 1930s that an acquaintance had recently spotted there, but we couldn’t find it. Bill and I were chatting about what we’d had for breakfast that morning, and I told him that on my drive over from Asheville I’d stopped at a convenience store at the Hartford exit and picked up an apple danish that turned out to be really horrible. “It tasted like it came from outer space,” I said. Bill replied, “And we all know what a danish from outer space tastes like.” For some reason, it was really funny. You had to be there.

Continuing toward the crossing of Porters Creek, we encountered a cluster of painted trillium growing right out of the top of a mossy boulder. It was beautiful.

Painted trillium

At Porters Flats, we saw that the phacelia were all gone, as we’d expected. We stopped frequently to admire the flowers, the giant trees, and the beautiful stream running fast down the valley. Unfortunately, the subject of food from outer space had gripped Bill’s imagination, so our cries of “Isn’t that beautiful!” were interspersed with random musings about the space alien menu.

We reached Fern Branch Falls.

Fern Branch Falls

The sun was starting to come out. We passed masses of phlox and foamflower that made a nice contrast to each other in both color and shape.

Phlox and foamflower

I loved the communities of geraniums, which have two big attractions, from my point of view: that shade of purple is just wonderful, and the foliage has such an intricate shape. There was such a tremendous concentration of geraniums in this particular spot that I decided this section of the trail must have absolutely the ideal conditions for these plants.

Geraniums and more geraniums

I saw one odd cluster of densely concentrated bluets.


Our conversation had progressed on to recent developments in our families, books we had read, and other good subjects. But, unfortunately, when we reached Backcountry Campsite 31, the space aliens came back. Although Bill’s pop culture IQ is generally much higher than mine, I was surprised to find out that he had never learned about the primary, well, anatomical method by which aliens obtain information about the human beings they abduct. Everyone knew that, I thought—there was a huge amount of laughter on the subject.  We broke off our conversation just in the nick of time, for a group of polite retirees walked in to the campsite with friendly greetings.

Experiences are often composed of unrelated themes that become tightly interwoven. So I present to you the whole experience rather than the usual edited one.




1. Don Casada - April 23, 2011

Nice job, Jenny. It does a body, soul and mind good to take relaxed strolls, especially during wildflower time.

I especially like the photo of the sun breaking through on the phlox, foamflower and trail (and I might note you also had some false Solomon’s seals poking their budding clusters out above them, and the leaves of Dutchman’s Breeches and/or Squirrel Corn are hosting a bunch of water beads on the lower left side of that photo. The way they bead water is almost as pretty as their blooms.

The cluster of painted trillium is both pretty and unusual to see in that number in close proximity – at least in my experience in other sections – having shied away from the popular Porters Creek in the spring. Too many people around there to suit me and the rest of us aliens.

Jenny - April 23, 2011

It was nice to see the painted trillium. Usually I haven’t seen them much below 4000 feet. It is one of the only two trilliums that you find in New England (the other is Vasey’s trillium, the one with the nodding reddish-brown blossoms).

2. TWL - April 23, 2011

This has become my favorite trail in the Park.

And I have never seen it in Spring! Except for your accounts.

I never even knew what a trillium was until I meet you.

Jenny - April 24, 2011

TWL, you just have to spend more time in the Smokies in spring!

3. brian - April 25, 2011

Thanks for the wildflower tour Jenny. Yeah, all I’ve ever done is hurry impatiently up that trail or maybe admire the big trees at best. I don’t think I’ve even been there in spring before. You should organize an expedition to search for the long lost twinflower of Charlies Bunion:


Jenny - April 26, 2011

Interesting! I would love to organize a trip around the blooming of the twinflower (and ignore weird invasives like the peacocks). I see that this group of botanists had the same confusion about the identity of the Bunion that many hikers have had.

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