Story and images by Tom Harrington
If we were to take a vote on which wildflower is the most popular in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, my guess is that the flame azalea would certainly be in the top three.
The flame azaleas start to bloom in the lower elevations in late April. Higher elevations, including Andrews Bald and Gregory Bald, see blooms in late June and early July. The shrub can grow up to 10 feet tall; however, one specimen was recorded to reach 18 feet! Some past residents of the Smokies called the shrub “wild honeysuckle.”
In the lower elevations I have almost only found orange and yellow blooms. One exception was a plant with white blooms along Little Bottoms Trail. On Gregory Bald you may see pink, red, peach, lavender, white, orange, and yellow flowers. In fact, some of the blooms seem to be a mixture of different colors. It is said that most of the azaleas have no fragrance, but some of the white and pink blooms on Gregory Bald have a strong, pleasant scent.
This year it shall be challenging to reach Gregory Bald because Forge Creek Road is closed for construction, making Gregory Ridge Trail inaccessible from that area. The best—and possibly only—way to reach Gregory Bald in a day hike will be to go to the Twenty Mile area and hike to the bald by way of Long Hungry Ridge Trail. Luckily, we also have the option to head to Andrews Bald to enjoy a smaller display of flame azaleas.
The pinxter flower is what I would call a first cousin of the flame azalea. Pinxter plants are not seen as commonly as the flame azaleas, and the pinxter blooms are pink. I have found them along the western end of the Foothills Parkway and on Cherokee Orchard Road.
In the event you are not a hiker, you may find the flame azalea blooming along Laurel Creek Road and about 0.1 mile into the Cades Cove Loop Road. Years ago I found a flame azalea in a local nursery and planted it on my property. It is now about seven feet tall. Some of you might enjoy planting one of these beautiful shrubs near your own homes.
Hopefully you will give yourself a treat and get out to find flame azaleas in bloom. Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now you will likely regret the things that you did not do more than the things that you did. Throw off the bowline. Sail away from the safe harbor. Explore, discover, and dream.”