The ramp or ramps are one of those regional plants that most visitors don’t get a chance to experience.  Part onion, part garlic and full of pungent flavor the ramp is one of those vegetables that you either love or hate.  This part of the wild leek family is celebrated in food and in events that are held throughout the year during the harvest season.

Classification:  Plantae – Angiosperms – Monocots – Aspasagales – Amaryllidaceae – Allioidea – Allium – Tricoccum


RampsThis variant of the wild leek has light-green leaves that tend toward purple at the base.  The bulb of the ramp is like a scallion and like the scallion the leaves and bulb leaves are all edible.  The arrival of the ramp in the spring signified that the harsh winters were over and the people looked to the ramp as a good omen.  In fact, the vitamin content helped get many of the Appalachian settlers over colds and physical problems they had due to the lack of fresh vegetables during the winter.

The name ramp or ramps may come from the Old English word Ramson.  Either way, the people that came to the mountains from their homes in Scotland and Ireland certainly were familiar with wild onions and wild garlic that they had back in their homelands.  This familiarity made the ramp a treat in the spring.


The ramp grows in the dark and moist areas of the National Park.  You will probably see ramp and figure it is a wild onion.  Outside of the GSMNP, people grow the ramp on their property to sell during the traditional harvest time in the spring.


Ramps and EggsEach year in Cosby, TN and Waynesville, NC the ramp gets its own celebration.  The festivals have a lot in common.  Art and craft shows give the people booths to browse through as they become hungry waiting for the ramps to get ready to eat.  The ramp is prepared for consumption and of course you can buy some of this aromatic edible to take with you on the way home.  Get ready to taste Ramps and Eggs – one of the best ways to eat this interesting plant.

Plants in the Smokies

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is part of the International Biosphere Project.  It houses thousands of species of plants from mosses that only grow at the top of the mountains to trees that tower over the surrounding country side.  It is easy to see why this area was made a national park, the beauty is only compounded by the flora in the mountains.

During the spring and summer, the mountains are covered with colorful flowers and flowering bushes.  Most amazingly the rhododendrons that bloom in late June and early July color the mountains white and pink from the ridges to the valleys.  During the fall, as the leaves change color, the trees become the backdrop for many pictures and photographs.  The Leaf Season in the Smokies is one of the most popular times to take a drive through the Smokies.

Old Growth Forest – You will hear the term Old Growth Forest bandied about by Park Rangers and in hiking guides all the time when you are in the Smokies.  Old Growth Forests are those forests that have remained relatively untouched by man and in the Smokies that means they were untouched by the logging industry as well.  There are quite a few trails that will take you into old growth areas of the National Park.  The variety of trees, debris on the ground and the age of the trees varies greatly in these old growth areas but they are a lot of fun to walk through and enjoy areas that have been around for potentially hundreds of years.

Hemlocks – One of the most unique evergreen trees in the National Park are the hemlock groves that dot the mountains sides.  Beautiful, tall and green from top to bottom, the stands of hemlocks have had trouble in recent years due to the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid which is killing these trees by the dozen.

Ramps – This is one of those plants that few people know about but that the people of the mountains celebrate in festivals around the area.  From Waynesville, NC to Cosby, TN, the ramp is the subject of events held annually.  This cross between garlic and wild onion is something to taste.  It grows in the dark and moist areas of the mountains around and in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Ginseng – You read that correctly, ginseng grows in the Smokies.  This is a subspecies of the Chinese variety but it does still have all the same properties – energy and memory restoration.  Ginseng has long been harvested in the areas around the park and sold to stores and processors.  The ginseng is an herb that has been used by Native American tribes and the European settlers that came later to the area.

Old Growth Forest

One of the natural wonders in the Smoky Mountains are the sections of Old Growth Forest.  Inside the 500,000+ acres of land lays 100,000 acres of old growth forest.

Old Growth Forest in the GSMNP is defined as those areas that were not harvested for lumber during the heavy times of the lumber industry before the National Park was founded.  The lumber industry before the park service came into play was clear cutting the mountains.  They were harvesting the trees as quickly as they could and leaving whole sides of the mountains bare.  This, of course, affected the ecosystem and the environment that the animals lived in.  With the lumber companies leaving, the new trees did spread and fill in those gaps that had been left behind and planting programs made sure that the trees came back as quickly as possible.  Fortunately there were still section of the forest that had been left alone by the lumber industry.

Old Growth ForestThese stands of old growth trees now tower over the trees that are next to them.  You can tell when you enter one of these areas due to the enormity of the trees and state of the forest floor around them.  Due to the fact that these areas have been left alone the ground cover is different in these areas, the canopy has an entirely different look and you can feel the age of the forest when you step into the shadows of these giant trees.

Most of the time to find these old growth areas you are going to have to hike for a while to get into the middle of these old growth areas.  One exception is the Chimney’s picnic area.  If you hike almost a mile up the Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, you will find yourself wAndering through a pristine section of old growth forest.  Towering hardwoods with their limbs intertwined to shade the floor of the forest and create a canopy that is unbelievable.  This short hike is the quickest way to get to an old growth forest section of the GSMNP.  Looking for a longer hike that might not be quite as populated:  Ramsey Cascade and the Albright Grove Loop Trail will lead you on a meandering trail through old growth sections that are as beautiful as they are hard to reach.

Next visit to the GSMNP, try to find an old growth forest in the Smokies.  Take a short hike and stand in the middle of trees that have been around for hundreds of years.  Get in the middle of the trees and lie down, looking up through the canopy to the sky.  Think of the changes that have happened around these groves of trees as they have survived through the years.  You are now a part of that old growth history, take a moment, enjoy it.


The hillsides, valleys and peaks of the Smoky Mountains are covered with color in the late spring and early summer.  As you drive across the mountains on Newfound Gap Road you will notice that the brilliant swatches of white and pink seem to be almost endless.  The main source of these colors are the vast quantities of rhododendrons that cover the landscape.

The Rhododendron in the Smoky Mountains fall to two types:  Rosebay and Catawba.  Certainly there are several forms of Azalea that fall into the same category but that is for another discussion.  The Rosebay rhododendron is the source for the whitish flashes of color that you find in the lower elevations of the park, up to about 5,000 feet.  The Catawba rhododendron is the source of the pinkish swatches of color that cover the high elevations.  Throughout most of the year, both types of rhododendrons are dark green with oily looking leaves.  Rhododendrons don’t like lots of sun and tend to be in the shady areas of the park and along the streams and creeks.  All of a sudden in late June and early July, the buds on these plants burst forth and there is color everywhere.  People flock to the Smokies at these times to take in the color and to photograph these majestic plants.

Where can you see the rhododendrons the best:

  • Roan Mountain – This is by far the best place to see lots of Catawba rhododendrons.  There is a rhododendron garden at the top of Roan Mountain that comes alive when the Catawbas are blooming.  You walk through a sea of pink that seems to stretch from one side of the horizon to the other.
  • Newfound Gap Road – As you travel along Newfound Gap Road from Sugarlands to Oconaluftee (or vice-versa) you will watch the rhododendrons change from white to pink to white as you start up the mountain and then come back down.

One thing to remember about rhododendrons is that each bush does not bloom every year.  So a clump that you were particularly taken with last year may not bloom at all this year.  Search out clumps of them in the park and take some pictures, use them as a backdrop for your family portraits or maybe even plop down and have a picnic at the side of a stream near a rhododendron in full bloom.  Let the whites and the pinks roll over you.  Get set for summer with the rhododendrons in bloom.

Hemlock Trees

The hemlock is one of the iconic trees that you see in the Smokies.  Covering the sides of the Smoky Mountains on both side of the state line, the hemlock forest are evergreens that keep their color and vibrancy throughout the year.  Unfortunately the hemlocks in the Smokies are under an invasion from the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid.

Classification:  Plantae – Pinophyta – Pinopsida – Pinales – Pinaceae – Tsuga – Caroliniania

Hemlock GroveThe hemlock is a medium to large sized tree of the evergreen species.  The needles are relatively short and the cones that they produce to pollinate the species are very small (3-4 millimeters).  The hemlock groves in the mountains thrive due to the conditions in the mountains.  The higher elevation and the moist climate are perfect for the hemlock to spread.  Larger hemlocks, because they don’t lose their leaves are the perfect shelter for small animals, both mammals and birds.

During the heyday of the lumber industry in the Smokies the hemlocks were a prized tree. The soft wood of the hemlock was used in pulping for the paper industry.  Before this point the bark of the hemlock was used in the tanning process for leather and the needles were used to brew a tea that helped with indigestion.

The hemlock ranges from the top of the mountain peaks in the Smokies to the lowest elevations.  Mostly, when you find one hemlock tree in the park you will see lots of others as they tend to form small groves.

At the time of this writing, the hemlock grove sin the Smokies are under attack by the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid.  This nonnative insect is a sap-sucking bug that keeps the tree from getting nutrients to the leaves. As the leaves die, the tree starts to take on a grey-cast.  Once the leaves die, the tree stops being able to photosynthesize the sunlight that it uses to live and the tree dies.  The national Park Service is working to save the hemlock grove and exterminate the Adelgid that is causes the harm to this magnificent trees.


Classification:  Plantae – Angiosperms – Eudictos – Asterids – Apiales – Araliaceae – Aralioideae – Panax

GinsengIt is funny the plants that they have found in the Smokies over the years.  The climate, the elevation the forest canopy and other factors have produced a biosphere that includes some very unusual plants and animals. One of the plants that’s grows in the shady areas of the National Park is Ginseng.  Ginseng.  Just like the ingredient that you see in the energy drinks in the convenience store.

Ginseng is normally found in Asia, specifically in China.  In fact China gave the name to this wonder herb.  The term Ginseng means man-root.  This is in reference to the way that the Ginseng plant looks when you pull it out of the ground.  The tuber grows in two pieces underground that looks like a man’s legs.  In Asian cultures, the root was boiled as a tea or maybe ingested whole.  In the Greek the term for the genus of the ginseng plant is Panax.  Panax means all-heal.  In other words, ginseng has been known as a heal-all herb for a long time.

In the Smokies, due to the fact that the ecosystems are very similar to the mountain regions were ginseng grows in China, it is possible that early prehistoric people that came to North America across the Bering Strait.  These plants, coming to a new area found purchase in the shady land and lush undergrowth of the mountains that the Cherokee would come to call the Smoky Mountains.  In fact the Cherokee used this herb in medicines and remedies.  And though the European settlers that came to the area and certainly knew about the herb from the Native Americans that they met, they did not embrace the Ginseng root.

Then you have the resurgence of the use of Ginseng in the 20th and 21st centuries.  With the popularization of the ginseng and guarana, Ginseng in the Southern Appalachians became a going concern.  There are certainly people that harvest Ginseng as a crop in the privately owned parts of the Smokies but remember that it is illegal to harvest any plant, including Ginseng from the National Park.  People that try to take any plant from the GSMNP.  People who break this regulation – law – are subject to imprisonment and a fine.

At some farmers markets around the area you will find Ginseng root being sold.  It is still known as a cure all, it is a home remedy though some of the effects of this plant are known and have been studied by science, little is definitely known about this strange herb that grows in the shade of the canopies in the Smoky Mountains.

Non-Native Plants in the GSMNP

Much like the non-native animals that have made their homes in the Smokies, there are many non-native plants that are now trying to thrive and in some cases take over forest lands in and around the GSMNP.  The trouble with these types of plants is that they are coming into a system that has been protected since the creation of the park.  All of a sudden there are non-native plants invading the area that are not only fighting for nutrients from the soil, water and other resources but they are changing the makeup of the lower levels of the food chain.

Princess TreeThe Princess Tree (Paulowina Tomentosa) is one of those non-native plants.  You will see this fast growing tree in many modern landscaping designs.  It is popular not only because of the beautiful flowers that it produces but also because of the fast growing nature of the tree itself.  It is possible that this plant was transported into the park on the clothes of visitors or by birds and other animals bringing seeds into the GSMNP.  Though this plant is not immediately hostile to other plants, it is a fast growing tree that is taking over areas that have traditional just been full of plants that have been in the Southern Appalachians for thousands of years.

KKudzuudzu (Pueraria Lobata) is one of the biggest non-native plants in the southern United States.  If you have driving through any part of the deep south and noticed the bright green vines growing on everything from other trees to power lines along the road, you have seen kudzu.  Kudzu has long been a problem in the south and it is inching ever northward.  It grows very quickly and covers everything that it can climb.  People laugh that you can lose a car to the kudzu but it is true that cars that sit derelict in yards can be consumed by this ever growing vine.  Though it is edible and goats have even been used to combat it in some areas, herbicide is usually used suppress kudzu.  It has not made a huge impact in the GSMNP yet but it is headed that way and needs to be kept out at all cost.

Firewood Ban
If you are camping in the Smokies, you will notice when you sign in for your camping spot that there is a firewood ban in the Smokies.  You cannot bring outside firewood into the Smokies.  You can buy firewood at the campground stores or you can use wood that has fallen naturally in the park but bringing in any outside firewood is prohibited.  This is for two reasons:  1)  Insects come in on firewood and these non-native species can wreak havoc on the environment & 2) The firewood might have seeds or spores on it that could bring in a non-native plant species that could cause problems for the ecosystem.