Tennessee in Bloom

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Each spring, the annual Wildflower Pilgrimage brings nearly 1,000 nature lovers from around the country to the Great Smoky Mountains, where they can admire the mountains’ rich floral and animal populations through professionally guided walks and presentations. But this interactive experience of nature isn’t limited to the five days of the pilgrimage. UT researchers have developed an online resource that lets users identify and track their favorite plants all year round.

April 26 through May 1, the 61st annual Wildflower Pilgrimage offered hikes, indoor and outdoor programs, lectures, and other events focusing on the landscape of the Smoky Mountains region. Wildflowers, naturally, were the focus of the pilgrimage, and numerous guided walks of varying degrees of length difficulty took participants all around the park to spot the plants in bloom. But flower hikes were not the only option—there were programs and excursions devoted to topics like birds, medicinal herbs, salamanders, butterflies, and bats. All of the programs were led by experts in the field, many of whom are or have been affiliated with the University of Tennessee.

“The Wildflower Pilgrimage is a major outreach program for the university. Leaders keep coming back year after year because they love doing it and they have such a good time,” says Ken McFarland, a lecturer in the Division of Biology and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Not everyone, of course, was able to make it to the pilgrimage. But those who could not travel to the Smokies can still learn more about wildflowers, ferns, and other plants online at the UT Herbarium website–http://tenn.bio.utk.edu—which features a searchable database of more than 70,000 plants and fungi from Tennessee and around the world.

UT’s Herbarium houses nearly 600,000 physical specimens of vascular plants, bryophytes, and fungi, and for the past 15 years, Herbarium staff and graduate students have worked to create an online resource containing information about these plants. The Herbarium website currently comprises more than 8,000 images and 69,000 county distribution records for vascular plants (which include flowering plants), and more than 62,000 database records for fungi. Users can look up a plant or fungus according to its genus name, location, or common name, among other characteristics, and then see an image of the plant. For vascular plants, the entry also features a map showing the plant’s occurrence in Tennessee by county. All of the vascular plants on the site can be found in Tennessee and most of the surrounding area, and there is at least one image for every plant that lives in the state.

The online herbarium developed from a project that Eugene Wofford, curator of vascular plants in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UT Knoxville, launched about 20 years ago. With funding from UT and the Center for Field Biology, Austin Peay State University—not to mention the efforts of dozens of graduate students who have worked on the project—Wofford created a print atlas listing all of the flowering plants, ferns, and gymnosperms in Tennessee. The plants were listed by genus name and were mapped out by county, with a dot indicating the counties in which the plants had been found.

“I didn’t have a computer when we did this atlas. Later, we thought maybe we should develop a website where people could go and look at plant distribution. Then we thought, why not put images online?”

Soon things got interactive. Wofford, database and collections manager Victor Ma, and other Herbarium staff members and students started posting their images on the site, and it wasn’t long before researchers at other institutions, staff from nonprofit environmental organizations, and the public were contributing their own pictures. Now, the site has opened up a sort of dialogue between UT ecologists and the public.

“I get a lot of requests for information. ‘Here’s a picture. What is this plant?’ Or, ‘I’m pretty sure I have this on my property, but it’s not on the website.’ If people have a plant they want to identify, they’ll send it to me,” Wofford says. He adds that he usually tells would-be contributors how to preserve and send a specimen to the Herbarium for processing.

The online herbarium has had nearly 700,000 page views and is visited by people in 125 countries and territories, but most users are located in Tennessee. Wofford explains that many people log on to the site to look at the images and locations of certain plants before setting out on an excursion so they can keep an eye out for certain plants. Perhaps the strongest indicator of this is the site’s traffic pattern: page views spike in late March through April—prime wildflower viewing season.

SLIDE SHOW: Flowers of Tennessee

Many of the state’s wildflowers have long and storied histories involving Christian martyrs, 17th-century weight-loss fads, and medieval exorcisms. The slide show (above) illustrates these seven flowers with some rather interesting tales.

The name for the Passiflora incarnata, or purple passion flower, allegedly comes from early Spanish explorers, who saw its elements as a symbolic representation of the crucifixion of Christ. The 10 petals represent 10 of the apostles (minus Judas, the betrayer, and Peter, the denier); the five anthers are the wounds Christ received from the nails and the lance; the fringe is the crown of thorns; the pointed tips of the leaves are the Holy Lance; and the tendrils are the whips used in the flagellation. The purple passion flower is the state wildflower of Tennessee and typically blooms in July. Plant Guide. US Department of Agriculture. Available at: http://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_pain6.pdf. Accessed March 27, 2011. Coffey T. The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers. New York: Houghton Mifflin; 1993.

The Calamintha nepeta, or lesser calamint, has been used medicinally since the Middle Ages, when apothecaries employed it to induce sweating, relieve asthma symptoms, and cure skin ailments. Its uses in cooking, however, date back to Roman times, when it was used to sweeten meat. The blooming period for lesser calamint is late summer through frost; blossoms are initially white with a purplish tinge, but they darken to a deeper purple as the weather cools. “Less Is More.” The Cloisters Museum & Gardens, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 2010. Available at: http://blog.metmuseum.org/cloistersgardens/2010/11/17/less-is-more/#more-5806. Accessed March 20, 2011.

Calamint.” Martha Stewart Plant Encyclopedia. Available at: http://www.marthastewart.com/plant/calamintha-nepeta-berts-beauty. Accessed March 27, 2011.

Barbarea vulgaris, or garden yellow rocket, is associated with the Christian martyr legend of St. Barbara, who is believed to have lived in the early third century. Because of her conversion to Christianity, Barbara was put in prison and tortured daily; however, her wounds were miraculously healed each morning (in the end, she was beheaded by her father). Yellow rocket’s connection to Barbara varies by account: some believe it is so named because it stays green even through December 4, which is Barbara’s feast day; the association also could have to do with Barbara’s prison miracles, as yellow rocket is also believed to help heal wounds and bruises. Yellow rocket produces yellow clusters of flowers from mid-spring to early summer.

Major Barbara.” The Cloisters Museum & Gardens, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 2010. Available at: http://blog.metmuseum.org/cloistersgardens/2010/12/03/major-barbara/#more-6015. Accessed. March 23, 2011.
Coffey T.
The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers. New York: Houghton Mifflin; 1993.

Galium aparine, also known as cleavers or clabber grass, is a climbing plant that flowers in early spring through summer, producing small, white-greenish blooms. The 17th-century English author and gardener John Evelyn wrote that cleavers were believed to cause weight loss, and women of his time would eat a stew-like mixture of cleavers, mutton, and oatmeal to keep from gaining weight.1 Another popular name for Galium aparine is “clabber grass,” which could come from the plant’s milk-curdling properties (“clabber” is a type of thickened, curdled milk eaten largely in the southern United States, Scotland, and Ireland).2
1Coffey T. The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers. New York: Houghton Mifflin; 1993.
Gucker Corey L.
Galium aparine. In: Fire Effects Information System. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory; 2005. Available at: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis. Accessed March 28, 2011.

As its name implies, Fumaria officianalis has long been associated with smoke. In Roman times it was used to make the eyes tear up, as smoke would do; in the Middle Ages, exorcists burned the plant because they believed the smoke would drive out evil spirits. The flowers are pink to dark pink in color and bloom in the late spring through summer.
Coffey T.
The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers. New York: Houghton Mifflin; 1993.

Named for John the Baptist, plants from the Hypericum genus—commonly referred to collectively as St. John’s wort—are known for their spiritual connotations. St. John’s wort produces bright yellow flowers around the time of its namesake’s birthday, which is celebrated on June 24. In medieval midsummer festivals, the flowers were traditionally burned or passed through the smoke of a fire in order to ward off evil and protect the village’s people and animals. Today, St. John’s wort is sometimes used to treat depression, though the medical community is divided on its usefulness in this capacity.
Larkin D. “Midsomer Magick.” The Cloisters Museum & Gardens, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 2009. Available at: http://blog.metmuseum.org/cloistersgardens/2009/06/23/midsomer-magick/#more-2718. Accessed March 27, 2011.

The common name for Cynoglossum officinale—dog’s tongue—can refer to the shape and texture of the plant’s leaves, or to the plant’s purported power to silence dogs. According to folklore, placing the plant under (human) feet would keep a hound from barking, and a mixture of the leaves with swine grease would help heal dog bite wounds. Dog’s tongue produces reddish-purple flowers from spring through early fall.
Coffey T. The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers. New York: Houghton Mifflin; 1993.

—Meredith McGroarty