ONEIDA, Tenn. — Each May, a stunning transformation takes place in Big South Fork Country.
It’s the blooming season for mountain laurel — one of the most prolific plants in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. Landscapes are transformed into spectacular shades of white, pink, and rose as tens of millions of mountain laurel blooms explode across the terrain.
There are literally millions of mountain laurel shrubs throughout the 125,000-acre national park. Mountain laurel grows best in well-drained, acidic soil, and the ridge-tops surrounding the Big South Fork River and its tributaries are perfect for this native shrub.
Mountain laurel (kalmia latifolia) isn’t often found within the deep forests of the Big South Fork backcountry. Hiking trails that traverse the BSF may travel through vast stands of upland forests that do not contain a single mountain laurel bush. As mountain laurel begins to turn up along the trail, it’s often a sign that the trail is nearing the rim of the gorge that encases the river or one of its main tributaries. The laurel grows primarily on the ridge-tops, in the mixed pine forests that have been partially deforested by pine beetle infestations. Beneath the rim of the gorge, below the cliff lines and especially along the streams, rhododendron — which, along with blueberries and cranberries, is a cousin of mountain laurel but a totally different plant — becomes more prolific while mountain laurel is seldom found.
Mountain laurel blooms range in color from white to pink, with purple streaks and bell-shaped flowers that truly make them unique. (Rhododendron, which blooms in late April and early May, produce clusters of pink flowers).
In full bloom, mountain laurel can create stunning vistas that are a true paradise for photographers. Several hiking trails in the Big South Fork traverse dense stands of the laurel, with the blooms seeming to crowd the trail from either side.
Before the first long hunters came to the Big South Fork region, the Cherokee used mountain laurel as a healing agent — rubbing crushed leaves on scrapes and scratches while also using it to treat rheumatism. Some Indian tribes also made spoons from the wood of the mountain laurel.
All parts of the plant — its fiber, leaves and flowers — are poisonous to humans and several other animal species. Pretty to look at, but not for consumption!
Among the best trails to find mountain laurel: the Leatherwood Loop (3.5 miles, Leatherwood Ford or East Rim trailheads) contains a dense and beautiful stand of laurel at the edge of the gorge on the south side of the loop; Grand Gap Loop (5.8 miles, Alfred Smith Road or via connector trails from Leatherwood Ford or Bandy Creek) contains vast stands of laurel throughout. Many other trails near the rim of the gorge contain large stands of laurel, as well.
Mountain laurel began blooming May 12-14, 2019 and will continue to bloom for the next two weeks.