Naturalists and botanists have been drawn to Roan Mountain for over 200 years

By Rozella Hardin

STAR Staff

   Spring calls for the dead of winter to wake from its deep sleep and come alive again. Throughout Tennessee, hundreds of wildflower varieties answer this call with delicate, brightly colored blooms.
   Late in March, the first spring beauties begin to dot forest floors with small blooms that quickly form thick clusters of pink and white. Bloodroot, trout lilies and trillium soon follow as do toothwort, anemone, and Dutchman's britches.
   Hundreds of varieties will cover the forest floors from mid-April through June. Lady's slippers, Jack in the pulpit, dwarf iris, mountain laurel can be found in the Northeast Tennessee woods and mountains.
   This weekend, scores of nature lovers from the region will gather at Roan Mountain State Park for the 45th annual Spring Naturalists Rally. Flowers, birds, butterflies, geology, history, medicinal and edible plants, mushrooms, salamanders, ferns, stream ecology and even astronomy will be explored during the three-day spring festival.
   These annual treks have become a tradition for many -- a chance not only to visit flora and fauna but to reunite with friends as well. "To many, the rallies in the spring and fall have become a tradition in the lives of those who love Roan Mountain," said Jennifer Bauer, director of this year's rally. "Many of them have been coming for years," she shared.
   The Roan has drawn nature lovers for years. In the 17th and 18th centuries, European explorers came through this area, mapping the land and cataloging new plant species. One of the earliest of these was John Bartram, who came through the area probably around 1699. Other scientists, explorers and settlers would soon follow.
   In 1898, John Muir wrote of the Roan, "I don't want to die without once more saluting the grand, godly, roundheaded trees of the east side of America that I first learned to love and beneath which I used to weep for joy when nobody knew me."
   It was a group of plant hunters who brought Muir to Roan Mountain and it was their plant-hunting predecessors who first gave it fame.
   According to an article in the September-October 1998 issue of The Tennessee Conservationist, the search for unknown botanical treasures in the Highlands of the Roan began over 200 years ago. The King of France, Louis XVI, send Andre Michaux to America in 1785 so that he might ship back raw materials to replenish and invigorate the war-wasted French countryside. There was a bit of national pride and even royal extravagance in the mission, too, for the king maintained the "Jardin du Roi' in Paris as a leading center of international research in botanical and agricultural sciences, but also as a showplace in need of ornaments and proof of the reach of French explorations.
   As His Majesty's botanist, Michaux associated with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. As a fearless and passionate explorer, he threw himself into the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains and consorted with Indians, rum-loving backwoodsmen, and hunters. The author of the article in The Tennessee Conservationist noted that Michaux, whether riding horseback or struggling on foot with a push cart, carried a burden of plants, roots, and seeds of importance for king or country.
   Journals kept by Michaux indicate he first visited Roan Mountain in June 1789, descending into the lowlands to spend a night at the home of Landon Carter. He would return to Roan Mountain in August 1795, noting in his journal the unusual sand myrtle and the fir trees.
   Andre Michaux was perhaps America's greatest plant hunter, but there were many others, including John Fraser, a Scot, for whom his name is commemorated by three plants growing atop the Roan or on its slopes: Fraser fir, Fraser's sedge, and Fraser's magnolia.
   Other noted celebrities of American botany, who traveled to the Roan to study its flora were Thomas Nuttall and Asa Gray, a Harvard botanist.
   Gray was revered in his time and considered the giant of American science. With a pair of botanist-companions and a rickety wagon, Gray toured the rough edges of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee in mid-summer 1840. Gray and his companions were delighted with both the flora and the climate of the Roan.
   They took note of the intensely colored variety of bluets, that would later be called the Roan Mountain bluet, and the spectacular red and black lily, that would, in 1879, be described as a new species and named Gray's Lily.
   Tourists and scientists and nature lovers year after year come to Roan Mountain to see and study the mysteries and the beauty of Roan Mountain -- from the Catawaba rhododendron, which blooms in June, to the mysterious balds, to the little "heathwort" blooms, noticed only by naturalists and wayward highlanders.
   A diversity of life is found in the fields and woods of Roan Mountain, and this weekend, a wide variety of hikes led by naturalists will once again explore the wonders of the mountain.
   "This good place, it seems, will always draw people and enthrall great scientists, and heal the homesick lovers of wild beauty," said Bauer, who herself has become a student of the Roan. She has studied both its history and its beauty.
   "The wildflowers provide show in the mountains at this time of year. They along with the butterflies and birds are nature's gifts to us," she said.
   This year's Naturalists Rally will begin with registration and dinner in the Roan Mountain Conference Center at 6:30 p.m. followed by a program at 7:30 p.m.
   Various field trips are scheduled for Saturday morning and afternoon and again on Sunday. For more information on the weekend, contact Bauer at 772-4772 or 543-6140.