Big Idea: Wildflower Pilgrimage

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Sixty-three years ago, Bart Leiper had a big idea that’s blossomed into one of the area’s most-loved spring rituals: the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in the Smokies.

Back then, Leiper, general manager of Gatlinburg’s Chamber of Commerce, wanted to develop an event that showcased the vast amount of flora and fauna in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

He wrote to Samuel Meyer, then head of the botany department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, requesting the department arrange a spring flower jubilee.

Seeing the opportunity to turn the park into a giant outdoor classroom for students, botanists, and nature-lovers alike, Meyer agreed.

Meyer recruited UT professors Fred Norris and Royal Shanks to work alongside Great Smoky Mountains National Park naturalist Art Stupka and the city of Gatlinburg to organize the first ever Wildflower Pilgrimage.

Today, the Wildflower Pilgrimage attracts more than a thousand people from thirty-five states and other countries. The four-day event features more than 140 guided walks and indoor presentations that cover the region’s rich wildflowers, fauna, ecology, and cultural and natural history. More than a hundred leaders from UT and surrounding states take part.

“This is a unique opportunity to experience the most biologically diverse area in the continental US,” said Ken McFarland, chair of the Wildflower Pilgrimage organizing committee and lecturer in the biology department.

Participants can learn about edible, medicinal, and otherwise useful plants, photograph wildflowers, and see some of the grandest wildflower displays in the Smokies.

This year’s event will be held April 23 through 27. Online registration is now open.

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