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“Would it be feasible to promote some sort of a spring flower jubilee?”

It was that simple question, posed 60 years ago, that birthed an event that now attracts people from all over the country and the world to the Great Smoky Mountains every year for the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, being held this year April 21 through 25.

The question was asked in January 1951 by Bart Leiper, general manager of Gatlinburg’s Chamber of Commerce, to Samuel Meyer, who headed what was then the botany department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Since then, UT Knoxville has been inextricably linked to the pilgrimage. In 1951, UT Knoxville botanists Fred Norris and Royal Shanks worked with Arthur Stupka from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to organize the first pilgrimage. Ten leaders with links to UT Knoxville led the inaugural tours. Today, all the leaders still have UT Knoxville roots, as do many of the pilgrims.

“From the beginning, the botany and, now, the ecology and evolutionary biology departments, have been an integral part in directing this event to its current 152 programs over five days with 115 leaders,” said Ken McFarland, lecturer in UT Knoxville’s ecology and evolutionary biology department and chairman of the pilgrimage organizing committee. “Over the past 59 years, many of the hike leaders have been UT Knoxville faculty and their graduate students, and the graduate students of these graduate students.”

McFarland says leaders keep coming back year after year because they love doing it and they have such a good time.

One of those leaders is Gene Wofford, a professor in UT Knoxville’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology, who views the pilgrimage as not just a fun event but a duty of the university.

“I have always enjoyed it since my first pilgrimage in 1963 as an undergraduate student,” Wofford said. “I enjoy learning from others and visiting with fellow biologists. I also consider it to be a significant opportunity for the general public and a responsibility of UT Knoxville to provide high-quality outreach in addition to teaching and research.”

Indeed, the founders’ initial intention was to promote the incredible diversity of the spring flora in the region in a fun way, but education became an integral component due to the vast amount of knowledge shared by UT Knoxville leaders on everything from wildflowers to spiders to wild hogs to bats.

This year, one of those leaders will be UT Interim President Jan Simek, whose talk, “Prehistoric Art in Tennessee,” will explore how prehistoric people in this area decorated their landscape with religious symbols both above and below the ground. Simek will speak at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 23, at the W.L. Mills Conference Center in Gatlinburg.

Along with outdoor programs and tours, the W.L. Mills Conference Center — the event’s registration site in Gatlinburg — will feature art exhibitions, merchants and related activities. Tickets are $75 per person for two or more days. Single-day tickets are available for $40. Student tickets are $10 and must be verified with a student ID.

Online registration is now open at

The Wildflower Pilgrimage is a joint venture of the UT Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, the City of Gatlinburg Department of Tourism, the Friends of the Smoky Mountains National Park, the Gatlinburg Garden Club, the Great Smoky Mountains Association, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society.

For more information, call (865) 436-7318, Ext. 222, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. or visit Lodging information is also available on the site.