Journal ARS Article
Vol. 52: No. 3: Year 1998
Return to Gregory Bald
Donald W. Hyatt
Many of the mountaintops in the southern Appalachians are not heavily forested but are actually open meadows called "balds." How the balds originated is not clear; perhaps they were formed by fires started by lightening, or maybe caused by intentional clearing by Indians or settlers who wanted summer grazing pastures. But one of these clearings, Gregory Bald, is a very special place for azalea fanciers. Located on the Tennessee-North Carolina border in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park near Cades Cove, this exposed mountaintop rises to an elevation of 4,949 feet (1485m) and is home to some of the most extraordinary deciduous azaleas on earth.
For years, I had heard stories of the native azaleas that inhabited Gregory Bald, and since I have been hybridizing deciduous azaleas for many years myself, it was one place I have always wanted to visit. In studying the history of the region, I also discovered that there were Hyatts who lived in the Smokies, and there was even a Hyatt family residing in Cades Cove. Perhaps they were distant relatives. I wanted to see the azaleas, but I also imagined I would be visiting the stomping grounds of my own roots. So, when I received an invitation to join members of the Species Studies Group of the Middle Atlantic Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society on a botanical excursion to the Smokies in June of 1995, I was on my way.
It was a remarkable first trip for me, and is well chronicled by George K. McLellan and Dr. Sandra McDonald in the Spring 1996 issue of the Journal (Vol. 50, No. 2). I especially appreciated the opportunity to tag along with these knowledgeable people who knew where to go and what to see. Many members of that same group had planned a return trip in 1997, and I returned with them once again. When we arrived in late June, however, we discovered that blooming season was very late down there because of an unusually cool spring. We heard that many of the choice spots in the upper elevations including Gregory Bald were not open yet, and since blossoms at lower altitudes were excellent we decided not to make the hike. From July 9-12, George McLellan, Frank Pelurie, and I returned to the Smokies with that compelling goal to see Gregory in bloom again.
There are two primary trails up to Gregory Bald. The "easier" route starts from Parson's Branch Road along Hannah Trail, which unfortunately has been closed since 1994 because of storm damage. The more rigorous Gregory Ridge Trail originates along Forge Creek Road, several miles south of Cades Cove. One hiking book lists this trail as moderate while another calls it strenuous. In any case, the hike to the bald via Gregory Ridge is very challenging, which may explain why avid rhododendron and azalea fanciers do not visit there more often. From the parking area, the trail ascends 3,000 feet (900m) in elevation in a distance of 5.5 miles. To me, a novice hiker from flat land, it seems much longer and steeper than what is reported, but I'll trust the statistics of the professionals.
The first portion of the trail travels along Forge Creek, crossing the picturesque rushing stream several times as it winds through dense thickets of Rhododendron maximum and virgin forests of hemlock and tulip poplar. Many of the magnificent trees are 4 feet (1.2m) in diameter at the base and tower hundreds of feet above the forest floor. Some trees have been damaged by storms, losing their tops to lightning, wind or snow damage over the centuries, and others have fallen to the earth, now serving as "nurse logs" for the next generation. I was also impressed with the wealth of wildflowers in the area, especially massive beds of the dwarf Iris cristata growing along the trail. What a display that must be in early spring!
The rhododendrons had an excellent bud set during the summer of 1996, and R. maximum was in peak bloom when we made our excursion to Gregory on July 10th. Trusses of white and pale pink were everywhere, arching over the trail and framing vistas of waterfalls along the stream. The trail was strewn with delicate blossoms knocked off by recent rains. We could have spent weeks just looking at different forms of R. maximum that surrounded us, but we trudged on in anticipation of the azaleas on the mountain.
As the trail leaves the area along Forge Creek it also begins to climb steadily through drier hardwood forests sprinkled with occasional pines. I was impressed with the glossy round leaves of Galax forming a beautiful groundcover under the large stands of Kalmia. The occasional bloom stalks of spent pink ladyslippers hinted of yet another springtime spectacle.
We usually rest for a bit at the "big rock", an impressive outcropping of large boulders along the trail. I remember on my first trip asking our leader, George McLellan, "Are we there yet?" Soaked in perspiration, I had been hiking for what seemed like hours. Surely we must be close to the top. George replied, "Oh, this is just about half-way," but I was certain he was joking. Now that I have hiked this trail twice, I realize that George was right; the "big rock" is the midpoint of the hike.
As the elevation increases, the woods become moist and rich again. In the diverse forest of deciduous hardwoods, we noticed occasional plants of the native flame azalea, R. calendulaceum, blooming sporadically under the canopy. When I saw these plants on my first trip to Gregory, I can remember muttering to myself, "I can't believe I am going through such agony just to see another orange azalea." On my second trip, though, I was exuberant because I knew if azaleas were still in bloom at this level, the top of the mountain should be in peak condition.
Eventually, the trail forks, one direction joining up with the Appalachian Trail, and the path to the right leading to the bald, about 0.7 miles away. Since I jog around the block in my neighborhood every morning, a distance less than a mile doesn't seem very far. But at elevations over 4,500 feet (1350m) and facing another steep 400-foot (120m) rise to the bald, it is the final insult to a tired and weary hiker. On my first trip, I can remember thinking, "The story of rare azaleas on Gregory is probably a hoax. It's all a joke, something on the order of snipe hunts we had for first time campers in the Boy Scouts." On my second trip, though, I could barely contain my enthusiasm. I kept assuring Frank Pelurie that we were going to hit the season at peak bloom. Although Frank had missed the trip to Gregory in 1995, he had been to the top with George in the fall of 1996 to collect a few seed pods. However, he had never seen the place in bloom.
Finally, the trail levels out and opens into the grassy bald. Immediately the pain disappears as we are overcome with the beauty and fragrance of the azaleas. We had indeed hit at peak season, perhaps a week later than what we had seen before. Some of the earliest azaleas were a bit past, but there were new things in bloom we had not seen before.
On my first trip, I had a little over an hour to wander among the magnificent plants that are growing on Gregory Bald. We had a late start that day and had to add several miles to our hike because of a closed access road. Shortly after we arrived at the summit, storm clouds started gathering and a passing park ranger cautioned, "You do not want to be up on this mountain when the storm hits." During our hasty retreat that afternoon, I can still remember the vision one of the most awesome sights of nature I have ever seen. As the thunderstorm closed in on the bald, its rolling gray clouds seemed to reach down from the sky like long, curling fingers and grab the ridge. Crackling lightning and rumbles of thunder were all around as we reluctantly rushed down the trail. Holding off rain with a broken umbrella tied together with green dental floss, I was certain that I would become one of those lightning strike statistics. But I reasoned that my life was now complete since I had finally seen the mountain in its glory. Fortunately, on my second trip to Gregory the weather was settled and we were able to spend over four hours strolling among the acres of azaleas after the modest 3 1/2-hour trek to the summit.
I am still amazed at the quality and diversity of the hybrid swarm on Gregory Bald. Some of the plants are among the most beautiful hybrids I have ever seen anywhere. In over 30 years of hybridizing, I have produced little that can compare with what is growing naturally on this mountain. The overall landscape beauty of the bald also struck me since it seems to be touched by an artist's hand. At the east end of the bald, just to the right (north) of our initial entry point, there is a magnificent blush-white azalea with dark green foliage that is tucked under a gnarled oak tree. It was as though some skilled landscaper had taken great care to position this very choice plant in a perfect setting to highlight the grand entry to the garden. The large, fragrant flowers of this azalea are brushed with pale pink and have a prominent gold blotch and red stamens, hinting that R. arborescens was a likely parent.
Over the ridge at the west end of the bald near the Parson's Branch entry is another one of the show-stopper azaleas, a large flowered coral hybrid that must be 8 feet (2.4m) tall and probably 15 feet (4.5m) across. I once again remarked that someone had to select this special plant, covered in bloom, and then place it at just this strategic spot to let travelers know that they had arrived on Gregory. In the middle of the bald along the path is another one of these show-stopper azaleas, an enormous plant covered with rose-pink flowers, each sporting a bright gold blotch.
Cameras in hand, we roamed from side to side, looking for familiar friends from our previous trip, and discovering new clones that we had not seen before. Trying to decide which were the "best of the best" on the mountain is like judging the most challenging flower show imaginable. There are thousands of entries, and each one is unique and excellent in its own right. Every shade that I have ever seen in a deciduous azalea is up on Gregory. Colors range from white, to pale pink and rose pink, to cherry, deep red, fuchsia, and almost purple. Other color blends run from cream to pale salmon and shrimp pink, to coral, orange, gold, and clearest yellow. Some plants have prominent blotches in yellow or gold, while others are uniform in color. Remembering images of Exbury and Rothschild Supreme azaleas I had admired in catalogs as a child, I joked with George, "Someone ordered these plants from Wayside Gardens and planted them up on top of this mountain. Look around the base. There must be labels somewhere!"
We took many rolls of slides and made notes on plants that we felt should be listed as our "top ten" on Gregory, but our list continued to grow. Maybe we could select the best three of each color form instead. One of our favorites included a plant we call 'Gregory Christmas Red'*, possibly an excellent form of R. cumberlandense (formerly R. bakeri) with its holiday-festive color scheme of bright red flowers and glossy deep green leaves. It is also one of the larger plants on the bald and is located on the south side near the edge of the encroaching scrub forest. In that general area is an azalea we call 'Gregory Goldilocks'*, a brilliant gold that is brushed with orange, one of the most striking shades imaginable and so heavily flowering that it nearly hides the foliage. Adjacent to 'Gregory Goldilocks' is probably the best of the deep pinks with a gold blotch, an azalea I refer to as 'Gregory Cover Girl'* since it was featured on the cover of the spring 1996 Journal. There are several nice yellows nearby, but as we noticed on our first trip, many of the yellows were in past peak condition. Many of the yellow flowered azaleas seem to bloom ahead of the rest on Gregory, although we found some new selections that were just opening up this time.
We were also glad we could locate our 'Gregory Upright Pink'*, a plant we had noticed on our previous trip. It probably will not make our final top-ten list, but it is very distinctive with small, fragrant pink flowers and unusual, small blue-green leaves. George thought it might be a hybrid of R. arborescens and R. viscosum. A new find for us this year near the east entry will surely rank among out best. It is a pale rose pink with soft yellow blotch and has striking flower buds striped with white. The color is very clear, and the open flowers are paler pink in the center of each petal and a bit darker toward the edge. Near the southwest side of the bald, we discovered a large-flowered fuchsia with gold blotch, and it had gorgeous glossy green foliage. The flowers on this clone were almost 2 inches (5cm) across and the color was incredibly vivid. This clone will probably make my top-ten list too.
The park service has been trying to reclaim Gregory and several other balds, because encroaching scrub and trees are threatening the existence of these areas. We were amazed with the amount of clearing that they had done in only two years, and impressed with the plants that had begun to flower better now that they had more sun. Also, the improved view of Cades Cove from the top is breathtaking and reminded me of the opening to the motion picture "Sound of Music," where Julie Andrews sings the title song in a meadow surrounded by mountains. My hiking companions laughed at me as I sang a few bars of the refrain. Naturally I was missing the orchestra accompaniment, but then Julie Andrews didn't have azaleas.
All is not perfect on Gregory, though. One concern I had this time was the presence of deer, nearly tame and apparently accustomed to the public. I could practically pet them as they chewed away on grass, wildflowers, and, yes, azaleas. Having seen what deer have done in many Eastern gardens, I was concerned that in future years they might devastate the horticultural treasures on the bald. My feeble shouts at the deer to stop eating certain azaleas went unheeded; they looked at me with no concern. I do hope that the deer population won't be frequenting the mountaintop in winter, which is when they seem to do most of their damage in our area.
We came across the other hazard on Gregory as the three of us were strolling aimlessly among these glorious azaleas. Suddenly, Frank Pelurie shouted and fell to the ground, trying to scramble away from where he had been standing. I assumed he had probably stepped in a yellow-jacket's nest, since that is the typical safety hazard gardeners encounter in my northern Virginia suburb. Frank had not encountered ground bees but had almost stepped on a rattlesnake coiled up in a small brush pile. The snake was huge, about the diameter of a baseball bat, a very large baseball bat. As I was wandering in this Garden of Eden, I had never even considered the existence of serpents, but I guess the two go hand in hand. Our blissful day was suddenly threatened; we realized that a rattlesnake bite this far from civilization could be fatal to anyone of us. Immediately, my random wanderings changed to very cautious and deliberate steps. No longer gazing at the scenery as I eyed azaleas in the distance, I spent most of my time looking at the ground, trying to decide where I would put my next footstep. Only after establishing safe footing could I glance up at the surroundings. We didn't disturb the snake as it sunned itself in the brush pile, but I imagined its relatives lurking everywhere on the bald and all along the trail during the 3 1/2-hour descent down the mountain.
As we were getting ready to leave the bald, George noticed a large R. maximum growing among encroaching trees and azaleas on the south side of the bald. The park service had not cleared this area yet. The rhododendron plant was old, with multiple split and broken trunks and seemed to be having difficulty surviving the brutal winters on the ridge. We estimated that this rhododendron could easily be a hundred years old, but what was it doing on top of this mountain, all alone? There were no R. maximum plants or seedlings anywhere nearby, and we had not seen R. maximum growing naturally since we left Forge Creek, several thousand feet below.
Suddenly, I realized that this plant was probably subtle proof that bounty on the Gregory Bald was not a natural occurrence but the handiwork of some former resident of Cades Cove who used Gregory Bald for summer pasture. Rhododendron maximum does not grow naturally at 5,000 feet (1500m) in the Smokies, and old and struggling rhododendrons must have been planted there by some admiring plantsman a century before. At this point, I also realized that many of the original azaleas, perhaps those larger and more distinctive clones growing at strategic spots on the bald, might have been planted there too. I kidded George that the person responsible for this landscape miracle on the mountain must have been one of the Hyatts from Cades Cove, an azalea fanatic from my family tree from whom I was a probably a direct descendent. It made sense now; my addiction is genetic.
The people who settled Cades Cove in 1821, and whose relatives lived there until they were forced to leave when the area became part of the national park in 1936, were farmers. They appreciated the land and certainly must have appreciated the native wildflowers and magnificent deciduous azaleas that grow in the region. I no longer believe that the convergence of native azalea species on top of Gregory Bald happened by accident. I am convinced that Gregory Bald is comparable to an abandoned garden; special plants were collected from around the region and planted on the mountaintop to adorn this scenic location. In other areas of the Smokies, I have seen R. calendulaceum and R. arborescens growing side by side with little evidence of hybridization probably because of some genetic problems and chromosome number differences. But here on Gregory, R. arborescens, R. calendulaceum, R. viscosum, and R. cumberlandense are all hybridizing furiously in a 10- to 20-acre field on top of a mountain. In order for these plants to come together in such a confined space they had some help, and the R. maximum that someone planted there is a remnant of that effort, a plant that was not happy and did not naturalize.
My return to Gregory Bald has made me realize several things. First, we need to identify and preserve the best forms of the very unique azaleas that inhabit the bald. The park service had been doing an excellent job in restoring the bald, but what can be done to preserve and distribute some of the finer forms that are growing there? We must not lose these treasures. Second, we should continue to look for subtle clues as to the origins of the azaleas that made their way to this mountain. Historians should try to collect old photographs of the bald and botanists could try to determine the age and map the location of these original plants. I have met people who hiked to Gregory more than 50 years ago to see the blooms; what was it like then? I am certain that there are many others who know every plant on that mountain by heart. We need to share and publish that information before it too gets lost in time. Third, I realize that I will have to go back to Gregory again and again. People who have experienced Gregory Bald when the azaleas are in bloom seem compelled to return. As George and I were on our way down the mountain this time, we spoke briefly with two elderly gentlemen who were walking slowly up the trail. With cane in one hand and cell phone in pocket for emergency assistance, they confided that they had to see the azaleas one more time. And so it will be with me, for it is in my blood. If the azaleas are in bloom and I can find someone to join me on the grueling hike, I'll be returning to Gregory Bald as often as I possibly can.
Don Hyatt is a member and past-president of the Potomac Valley Chapter.