Cades Cove
Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Flora & Fauna
back to theCove



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The peak of wildflower season for the park is in April, but the open meadows in the cove offer unique opportunities to view wildflowers any time from spring to fall.

Mountain laurel, rhododendron, and flame azalea are the flowers most visitors come to see in the summer. Mountain laurel blooms in May, followed by rhododendron in late June and early July. While flame azalea is rather uncommon in the Cades Cove valley, people come from all over the country in late June to view the blooming azaleas on Gregory Bald. Remember, the trail frmo cades Cove to Gregory Bald climbs 3,000 feet in elevation and it takes about 7 hours to make the 12 mile round trip. To beat the crowds, start early in the day and come on a Monday or Tuesday (remember you can't get into the loop road on Saturdays and Wednesdays until 10:00 A.M.).

While mountain laurel, rhododendron and flame azalea are plants of the forest, other flowers are more common in the fields of the cove. Purple phacelia can be seen in May along the loop road edges and is often occompanied by blue-eyed grass furthur from the road. May Apple and yellow trillium are more common in shady sections of the cove in the early part of May. By June, European red clover is in enough abundance to offer a tasty dessert for the deer in the cove. Daisies, Queen Anne's lace, and, later, Black-eyed Susans offer more color toward the end of the month. Butterfly weed offers a bright orange glow in July, especially at the Elijah Oliver cabin trailhead. Remember, as beautiful as all of these flowers may be- you are NOT allowed to pick them! Some other common flowers in Cades Cove and their respective blooming dates are: sweet-joe-pye weed (July-September), yellow ragwort(May-June), hawkweed (April-July), yellow fringed orchid(July-September), and trumpet vine(August). If you're a real wildflower fan, be sure to take advantage of the Smoky Mountain Wildflower Pilgrimage offered every year in late April. For additional Pilgrimage information, for individuals or groups, write Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg, TN 37338, or call 423-436-1262.

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Most of what you see growing in the fields of Cades Cove is an exotic grass called fescue. It is an unwanted import from Europe and due to its aggressive nature, it prevents many other species of plants and grasses from growing. You will hear the word "exotic" a lot in the Smokies. Exotic plants such as fescue and witch grass dominate the cove, while exotic insects such as the balsom woolly adelgid and the soon-to-arrive gypsy moth have local botanists worried about the forests. The balsom woolly adelgid has already devastated the Fraser fir trees found in the higher elevations and the gypsy moth is due here within the next 10 years; it is expected to kill most of the oak trees in the park.

Some other common grasses and sedges in the cove are velvet grass and broom sedge. The park is currently working on ways to increase the prevalence of native grasses over exotics. Recent studies on plots in the cove where exotic grasses were killed and replaced with native grasses have shown that not only was there more plant diversity, but more species of small mammals were found there as well.

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If you were in Cades Cove 100 years ago, the most common tree would have been the American Chestnut, in some places comprising over half the forest. Today, however, there are none. They were all killed from an exotic fungus called chestnut blight, which arrived in the 1920's. The death of this tree has had huge implications for the entire park. While some mammals and birds use the remaining dead trees for dens or nests, the overall impact has been devastating for most species. The black bear, for example, depended on the chestnut as an important and reliable food source in the fall. Now that the tree is dead, bears are forced to rely on the less reliable oak tree, which in some years produces no acorns at all. Botanists across the country continue to work on hybrid species of chestnut that can survive this horrible blight.

As you drive around the loop, one of the most common trees seen in the sunny areas is the black walnut tree. This tree was planted by settlers in their front yards. From the comfort of their own front porch, these mountain people would rock in their rocking chair until a squirrel would climb the walnut tree and grab a walnut to eat. The folks on the front porch would then rise up and shoot the squirrel with their rifle and have squirrel gravy for dinner, all of this without having to leave the front yard.

Another common tree at home in the sunny meadows of Cades Cove is the wild black cherry tree. This tree is most noticed in August when its cherries are ripe. These cherries are the black bears' favorite fruit. The cherry trees in the cove are often heavily damaged by bears climbing them and breaking the branches looking for more cherries. The fact that most of these trees grow directly next to the road can be a problem in August, when bears stay in the trees for days at a time. The result is "bear jams", which can back car traffic up all the way to Townsend!

The state tree of Tennessee is the tulip poplar and it is abundant in the cove. It can grow in sun or shade and was a favorite of the early pioneers for building log cabins. It grows long and almost perfectly straight.

Pine Oak Forest

This type of forest is most commonly found on the south-facing slopes of the cove and consists of white and table mountain pine and oak trees. The pine trees are distinguished from one another by the number of needles per "cluster"- the white pine has 5 needles per cluster, while the table mountain pine has only 2. The table mountain pine has been in serious decline lately due to the absence of wildfires, which it needs for reproduction.