Story and images by Tom Harrington
Many wildflowers in the Great Smoky Mountains have very unique fragrances that can be helpful in identifying them. As an example, let’s examine dog-hobble and witch-hobble. These plants are technically shrubs, but their gorgeous blooms are worth searching for around this time of year.
Dog-hobble grows from five to seven feet tall, and from April to June it sports white blooms hanging in clusters below the stem. The fragrance from the blooms reminds me of the cooking flavoring called vanilla extract. This plant is found on many trails in the park such as Little River Trail and Ace Gap Trail. Also, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a great location to enjoy this wildflower.
Legend has it the plant derived its name from the pre-park days when men would use dogs to hunt bear. The bears would seek to elude the hunters and their dogs by running through thickets of dog-hobble. Being much stronger than their pursuers, bears were able to easily make their way through the thickets while dogs would be slowed down or stopped.
Most of the witch-hobble that I have found has been located in the higher elevations such as along the Appalachian Trail, Alum Cave Bluff Trail, and Fork Ridge Trail. This shrub may be from three to twelve feet tall and has white blooms from April to June. An additional enjoyable feature of the witch-hobble is its colorful orange, yellow, red, and burgundy foliage in the autumn.
For those that enjoy being a little mischievous, you can occasionally persuade your hiking companion to take a sniff of the witch-hobble bloom. The best way that I can describe it is that the bloom’s fragrance resembles what I would think your favorite college football players’ socks would smell like after four quarters of football on a hot September afternoon. It has been said that some of the residents of the Smoky Mountains were a little superstitious and would hang witch-hobble blooms on their porches to keep the witches away. Maybe we should look into this come Halloween.
We are indeed most fortunate to have so many varieties of wildflowers to enjoy each year in the paradise known as Great Smoky Mountains National Park. May we continue to take advantage of the opportunities that await us on the trails and roadways of our park.
Tom Harrington is an Army veteran and retired insurance agent who has spent his life in Knox County, TN. He is an avid hiker and has volunteered for GSMNP since 2000.