My feet are soaking wet despite waterproof boots. The grasses I travel through are far taller than the mid-height of my boots, allowing moisture to wick down through my socks and onto my feet. It’s just after sunrise on the temperate balds of the Roan Highlands and I’m on the hunt for the rare and endangered Gray’s Lily. Dew wet grasses paint my legs with beads of moisture as I creep around looking for red tamale-shaped buds. I’ve seen a fair number of Gray’s Lilies along the Appalachian Trail at Engine Gap and Jane’s Bald, but I’m after a specific memory—a cluster that I captured poorly about five years ago on the saddle of Grassy Ridge Bald. Five years ago I was relatively unaware of the rarity of these wildflowers, let alone the importance of the temperate balds which provide their essential habitat. In 2010 I stumbled upon a beautiful display of Gray’s Lilies complete with a circular spider web connected to nearby vegetation; the photograph I made–imperfect as it was–would later be published by the national publication Smoky Mountain Living (April/May 2011, Volume 11, Issue #2).
I returned year after year hoping to find the same setup but either was too early or too late, or found the bloom destroyed by some sort of disease. This year, however, the bloom seemed to be healthy and abundant. Thus, I found myself atop the saddle of Grassy Ridge, eyes scanning the tops of abundant green grasses and blackberry briars, searching and waiting to light upon that memory of the past.
The Roan Highlands, a series of temperate grassy mountain balds along the Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee state borders, are home to the Gray’s Lily. Of only three states where this wildflower can be found (Southwestern Virginia, Eastern Tennessee, and Western North Carolina), the Roan Highlands are the “largest extant natural population of the species” (Ingram, 2013), making the Roan balds an incredibly important resource for the ongoing health and survival of the Gray’s Lily. Gray’s Lilies have been assigned a Global Heritage Ranking of G3, meaning that they are “globally vulnerable to extirpation or extinction.” Federally, the Gray’s Lily is a species of concern in the United States. Tennessee labels the Gray’s Lily as endangered, Virginia as very rare and imperiled, and North Carolina as a special concern; threatened. Perhaps of greater importance, though, is their habit, the temperate grassy mountain balds of the Roan Highlands. This ecosystem is a G1 biome, the rarest possible ecosystem ranking: critically imperiled. Apparently, the grassy balds are shrinking considerably, becoming overrun by woody brush species, especially Canada blackberry briars. The National Park Service has mowed back the balds in the past, although the practice itself can have harmful impacts on the Gray’s Lilies which need a combination of cover from the grasses, as well as abundant access to sunlight. Instead, recent conservation programs such as the Baatany Project, introduces a herd of goats to the grassy balds annually in late June. As browers and not grazers, the goats feed on woody brush and leave the grasses making them a good fit for a natural maintenance program on the grassy mountain balds of the Roan Highlands. The 2015 Baatany program begins in just a few days on June 24, 2015. For a video and more information on the Baatany Project: http://www.baatany.org.
Gray’s Lilies grow in high elevation southern Appalachian Mountains. The wildflowers display red and orange coloring with dark spots on the interior. Gray’s Lilies generally bloom in late June and early July, preferring open, highly lit areas that are relatively protected. The primary pollinators of Gray’s Lilies are Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, of which I was lucky enough to witness while sitting by a cluster of these flowers one evening. Too fast for my camera, it was magic nonetheless to see the approach and quick retreat of the hummingbird. Gray’s Lilies are named after Asa Gray, the father of American Botany, who discovered this wildflower in 1840; they can go by a number of other aliases as well, including Bell Lily, Roan Lily, and Roan Mountain Lily. Seeds are typically dropped from the parent and thus, without the aid of very strong winds, Gray’s Lilies can be found in fairly tight clusters. If you find one, scan the area and you’re likely to see a few more. It’s not uncommon for folks to walk right past these little guys as the grand scale of scenery along the Appalachian Trail in the Roan Highlands is highly distracting!
I never found that elusive grouping of Gray’s Lilies on the saddle of Grassy Ridge that I photographed in 2010. It appeared that I was still a week or so early at this location, with only a few green bulbs showing amidst the Canada blackberries. The morning was beautiful though, and I couldn’t imagine a better place to be.
I love to hear feedback! Your comments and constructive criticisms are welcome and encouraged! Thanks, folks. Prints will be available shortly from Fine Art America.