Sanko’s Sojourns

Roan: Mountain of History, Garden of Mystery

June 25-27, 2011

It has been a solid year since the last GPC Native Garden Volunteer Field Trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway/Southern Highlands Reserve. The volunteers and staff set aside field trips to prepare for the long-anticipated visit of the British Pteridological Society and the Hardy Fern Foundation. The group visited the Garden on June 14th, the first stop on a 14-day fern foray throughout the southeastern US. The group was amazed at the diversity of our garden and especially drawn to the collection of xeric ferns, native, and ferns of the world. Preparing for this event was a lofty long-term goal, and incentivized everyone to make the garden look better for the event than it ever has. It did.

What better reward for all that work than a field trip to Roan Mountain, Tennessee? Roan was possibly named for the roan, or reddish, color the mountain takes on in the month of June when the Rhododendrons are in bloom, or possibly for the berries of the Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana) displayed in September. Others speculate that it was named for the roan horse of Daniel Boone, who was born in this area and frequently visited the mountain. Origin of the name notwithstanding, Roan is arguably the best example of a rare and spectacularly beautiful ecosystem of the southern Appalachian Mountains: the grassy bald. Akin to this natural garden are the heath balds, and the Roan Mountain massif harbors examples of both. The date for peak bloom of the Catawba Rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) varies from year to year and is difficult to pin down. While our group missed the full show by perhaps a week, no one was disappointed and our photos reveal a magnificent display.

The origin and longevity of the grassy bald is shrouded in mystery and not well understood. One theory attributes their origin to the grazing of megaherbivores: prehistoric creatures such as the Wooly Mammoth and Mastodon, followed by more recent ruminants like Bison and Elk, and then the domesticated animals of man. Grazing is used as a maintenance tool for the balds even today. Another theory places responsibility on native Americas for the original clearing of the balds for agrarian purposes. Fire has also been put forth as a factor in their formation. Certainly at lower elevations (Roan ranges from 5500 feet at Carver’s Gap to 6286 at Roan High Knob) and more protected areas, the balds would quickly revert to forest. One experimental planting of Fraser Fir trees (Abies fraseri) has shown little sign of expansion for over 75 years, and yet volunteer work parties are often present to thin Rhododendron species as they encroach on the grassy areas. The frequent grass of the bald is Mountain Oatgrass (Danthera compressa) although other grasses are also present, as well as sedges in wetter areas.

Rare plants: In addition to one of the greatest natural displays of Rhododendrons on Earth, Roan is home to several rare plants. Among these, we were fortunate to see Grays Lily (Lilium grayi), Schweinitz’s Ragwort (Packera schweinitziana), and the Green Alder (Alnus viride ssp crispa). The latter plant, while found commonly much farther north, is a rarity in the Southern Appalachians, a reminder that these high-altitude gardens are ice-age remnants of flora more common to the northeastern states and Canada. Also indicative of more northerly climes is the Spreading Avens (Geum radiatum). No less than three genera (Carex, Prenanthes, and Solidago) share the species name “roanensis” for the natural garden at the heart of their range.

Roan Mountain is steeped in both American and Botanical History. Aforementioned are the Native Americans and Daniel Boone who hunted, explored, and surely admired the beauty of the place. The French Botanist Andre Michaux was the first modern plantsman to visit Roan in 1789. One of the more common plants he named, Michaux’s Saxifrage (Saxifraga michauxii) is sprinkled around the mountain. In 1805, John Fraser visited and named the Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri). Asa Gray roamed the balds in 1840. Gray’s Lily was later named in his honor.

Rounding out the sojourn was a lunch stop and visit of the beautiful native garden of Thelma Glover in Knoxville, Tennessee. Everyone marveled at the early summer beauty of a garden emphasizing the spring ephemerals. We appreciate Thelma’s hospitality and are grateful for her opening her garden for us to enjoy. Finally, capping off the trip was a visit to Overhill Gardens in Vonore, Tennessee, truly one of the nicest and most diverse nurseries specializing in native plants that we have ever seen.

The striking scenic beauty, the explosion of bloom and color, the rarity of the flora, the echoes of history: all combined to make our sojourn to Roan a meaningful experience for the GPC Garden volunteers. We will surely strive to visit this exceptional natural garden again!

-Rick Barnes

Click the pictures below to see a larger version.

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Standing on Round Bald, Looking toward Grassy Bald.


Lilium grayi, Grays Lily in bud.

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Grays Lily


Danthonia compressa, Mountain Oatgrass
Dennstaedtia punctilobula, Hay-Scented Fern

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George and Paula examine Dryopteris carthusiana,
Spinulose Wood Fern


John, Ron, Susan, Paula, and Pat drink it in!

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Paula and Ron…


Karen, Susan, and John wade through the Oat Grass!

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Rhododendron calendulaceum


Flame Azalea Yellow form!

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Packera schweinitziana


Schweinitz’s Ragwort

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Saxifraga michauxii


Michaux’s Saxifrage Veratrum viride


Green False Hellebore

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Rhododendron Gardens

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Rhododendron catawbiense Catawba Rhododendron


Rhododendron sp.