“In this Park, we shall conserve these trees, the pine, the red-bud, the dogwood, the azalea…for the happiness of the American people.” - President Franklin D. Roosevelt, from his speech dedicating Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Anyone who has ever accomplished the arduous feat of hiking to the top of Gregory Bald in early summer knows that the myriad azalea shrubs there, when in bloom, present an “Eighth Wonder of the World” type of experience. The abundance of gorgeous flowers, their crazy variations in color, and the mountain top setting all combine to create a sense of wild awe.
Yet, if we also understand that the Gregory Bald azaleas represent one of the more fascinating natural science experiments on our planet, then our appreciation for the place can only grow.
From science class we may remember Charles Darwin and his discovery of the very, very slow process of evolution; how natural selection influences species to change over time and gain a competitive edge in their struggle for survival. From our field trips and walks in the woods, we have learned what a red maple tree looks like in comparison to a sugar maple.
In a sense, Gregory Bald throws both of these assumptions right out the window.
On Gregory Bald, botanists can’t accurately distinguish between flame azalea and Cumberland azalea because the two species have hybridized so thoroughly. Smooth azalea is also all mixed up with Cumberland. Species change is not a plodding process here, it’s a sprint. As Rose Houk so eloquently described it in her story in Smokies Life Magazine Vol. 3, #1 (issue out of print):
“... [the azaleas] freely interbreed and create what’s known as a hybrid ‘swarm.’ Essential to the process are the bees, moths, and butterflies that land on the flowers and nuzzle in for nectar. In doing so, they end up dusted with pollen which they obligingly tote from one plant to another. The insects’ pollination services foster the famed hybridization of azaleas on Gregory Bald.”
Many scientists, like the pollinating insects described above, have succumbed to the allure of Gregory Bald. Their observations and genetic tests have produced reams of reports, mostly involving diploids and tetraploids and the like. One of the more intriguing (and comprehensible) results of their studies is a better understanding of the concept that a red maple tree is not simply a red maple tree; it is a species that has evolved over time and is still changing into something new and better. What we call a “red maple” or a flame azalea is just one generalized snapshot of a certain group of organisms as they exist at this fleeting moment.
The peak of azalea bloom on Gregory Bald generally occurs between June 10 and June 25. Access to the bald is only by trail. Because Parson Branch Road remains closed due to hazardous trees, the only trails to the summit are Gregory Ridge, Wolf Ridge, or Long Hungry Ridge. The shortest route, Gregory Ridge Trail, is a strenuous 5.7 miles one-way.