Ever since I first saw Oconee Bells (Shortia galacifolia) in a wildflower book, 20 or so years ago, I have wanted to see them up close and personal. These beautiful little flowers are on the endangered species list. Thanks to one of my wildflower enthusiast email contacts, I finally got the opportunity to see some yesterday! My friends Terri and Rod drove over to North Carolina to go to the Botanical Gardens at Asheville . Since Interstate 40 is closed between here and there due to a monstrous rockslide, we had to take Hwy. 25 over the mountains. It was an interesting route, some scenic views - the French Broad River and the Smoky Mountains, and some not so scenic - front yards being used as junk yards.
I had learned about the Oconee Bells from Larry T., a western NC fellow I've been corresponding with the past year or so. He met us at the gardens and gave us a tour. As our group was walking along the trails we enjoyed seeing Bloodroot, Spring Beauty, Sessile Trillium, and Hepatica. I jumped for joy when I finally spotted the "stars of the show" and my whole reason for making a 300+ mile round-trip --- the Oconee Bells! They were even prettier than I had imagined! They are only 3 - 4" tall and have leathery, evergreen leaves. The anthers have an interesting shape and the fringed petals are so lovely. The garden has only one patch of them, about the size of a king-size mattress. These plants were rescued from a construction site many years ago.
Further down the trail we saw Marsh Marigolds blooming in a spring seep up on a hill. These bright yellow flowers are a type of buttercup and are not related to true marigolds (which are in the Aster family). Nearby were some Skunk Cabbage plants, they bloom very early in the spring (sometimes even through the snow!), there was only one nearly dried up flower left. I'll have to go back there in February to see them in bloom next spring.
After enjoying the gardens for a couple of hours we headed to downtown Asheville. Fortunately, Rod and Terri have been there several times and were able to help me navigate. We enjoyed a cup of coffee at the Double Decker Bus cafe. What a nostalgic place to relax and chat. A quick glance at the museums and a visit to the Mast General Store didn't last long enough, the parking meter was running!
Our next stop was at the elegant Grove Park Inn overlooking Asheville. This rustic, nearly century-old lodge was a very enjoyable way to finish our day in the city. I was amazed at the huge boulders that were used in the exterior walls and the fireplace masonry. I had Terri and Rod stand in front of the fireplace to show its massive size! There was another, equally large one on the other end of the lobby! The inn was undergoing roof renovation, so there was a lot of scaffolding on the front, this view shows the back side of the inn with the cascading waterfall and gardens. In a few more weeks, the gardens will be spectacular. We enjoyed watching a flock of wild turkeys stroll across the golf course as we stood on one of the outdoor balconies!
We drove back to Knoxville by way of Cherokee, NC on Hwy. 441 over the Smokies. Terri and Rod got their first glimpse of an elk grazing in a nearby field as we passed the Oconoluftee visitor center at the entrance of the park. There was still quite a bit of snow up in the higher elevations of the park, but the roads were clear. Driving along dark, curvy Little River Road after dark is a challenging experience! Once a raccoon ran across the road in front of the car, then minutes later a bat darted out and nearly hit the windshield. :-0 Our trip ended up being 14 hours long, but we had a great time!
When I got home I had a nice surprise waiting for me. Last year I received an email from Charley Eiseman inquiring about using some of my photos for a book he and a friend (Noah Charney) were writing, called Tracks and Signs of Insects and Other Invertebrates. I told him he could, on the condition that I get one of the books in lieu of payment! I never dreamed the weird bug eggs I found on my window screen would be published in a book! There are at least 3 other of my photos in it too. What an honor it was for me to be able to contribute a small part to such a great book! :) Check it out at:
This book is excellent! It is an absolute MUST for anyone who has ever come across something strange outdoors and wondered what it was (galls, small tracks in the mud, or eggs, for instance). Now I know that those jet-black egg masses that the kids find on blades of grass during science camp are deerfly eggs! (I may smash them from now on!!!) This book is going to be a tremendous help in my outdoor nature classes. A big congratulations to Charley and Noah on their hard work and getting it published!