By George Ellison with illustration by Elizabeth Ellison
Have you ever been enjoying a walk along a mountain trail when you suddenly encountered a musky unpleasant smell? I've learned to consider five likely sources: bear scat, wild boar, carrion vine, galax, or goldenrod.
Yes, if you’re walking in the higher elevations, the smell will often be emanating from a nearby stand of skunk goldenrod (Solidago glomerata).
There are 30 or so native goldenrods in the southern highlands. One of these is found only in 11 counties of North Carolina and Tennessee—including both sides of Great Smoky Mountains National Park—at elevations above 4,500 feet and no place else in the world.
The smell can’t be detected from crushed foliage or flowers. It simply forms a “cloud” of sorts around the plant. It’s probable that the plant’s decaying foliage is emitting decomposed sulfur compounds similar to those exuded by skunks.
No one is sure. I have theorized in workshops and articles that the foul odor might attract insect pollinators of some sort. Bumblebees and large flies frequent the flowers with regularity. In Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, Tim Spira, a retired Clemson University botanist, theorized that the “skunky” odor warns grazing animals the plant is “unpalatable.”
Should you care to see and smell for yourself, skunk goldenrod is easily located along the road to Clingmans Dome from August into October. Look for the rounded golden flower head and basal leaves up to 4 inches wide and 10 inches long.
George Ellison has been designated one of the 100 most influential people in the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and in 2012 he won the Wild South Roosevelt-Ashe award for Outstanding Journalism in Conservation. The book Permanent Camp is one of his many collaborations with his artist-wife Elizabeth Ellison. In 2016 the pair was named “Blue Ridge Naturalists of the Year.” Ellison’s collaboration with Janet McCue, Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography, won the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award in 2019.