Trout lilies carpet forest floor at Wolf Creek Preserve

July 21st, 2015 by Red Hills

trout lillies by Shane Wellendorf

published in Tallahassee Democrat, 3/13/15

Even folks who live in the Sunshine State get the winter blues, especially those of us who live in the Panhandle, where we get milder versions of the seasonal changes experienced by our northern neighbors.

I found the antidote to the February blahs a couple of weeks ago when I drove up to the Wolf Creek Trout Lily Preserve between Whigham and Cairo in Grady County, Georgia. The preserve — 140 acres of hardwood forest bisected by winding Wolf Creek — is a botanist’s dream, especially when the dimpled trout lilies are blooming.

When the little yellow lilies appear, the slopes of the preserve are carpeted with gleaming gold, as if Mother Nature had flung a shower of sunny gems into the glades. There are an estimated 30 to 50 million trout lilies in the preserve, making it the largest known population of the plants in North America.

It was like walking through fairyland that mid-February day. The thin winter sunshine slanted through the trees and set the forest floor alight. The trout lilies blanket 15 acres of the preserve and every vista on the short loop trail through the heart of the bloom is enchanting.

Although I stopped repeatedly to snap pictures, photos really can’t do justice to the charming little flower with its recurved, freckled yellow petals and pendant russet stamens heavy with pollen. As the sun tracks across the sky during the day, the lilies open more fully and raise their shy faces to the light, which is why it’s best to go see them in the late morning or afternoon.

Sprinkled among the gold are the upright maroon blooms of the spotted trillium, thousands of them punctuating the carpet of lilies. The loop trail has side paths leading to Wolf Creek and there are signs noting what’s growing along the way (along with a sign saying “Do not tromp the flowers”). At the bottom of the slope, the going can get squishy, especially if Wolf Creek has recently overrun its banks, so I was glad I was wearing my sturdy, old beat-up hiking shoes.

Here’s what makes the Wolf Creek preserve even more special — the trout lilies are Appalachian natives normally found in North Georgia and parts of South Carolina. They are exceedingly rare in the coastal plain of South Georgia, and they are endangered in Florida. Some theorize that this population was established tens of thousands of years ago and when the last ice age receded, these trout lily enclaves hung on and prospered.

By the time you read these words, the trout lily bloom will have wound down. But the preserve is home to many other wonderful and rare botanical specimens — coral root orchids, southern twayblade orchids and green fly orchids, among them. The latter usually bloom between May and July. Summer road trip, anyone?

To find out more about Wolf Creek Trout Lily Preserve, visit the website at www.wolfcreektroutlilypreserve.com.

Kati Schardl is a North Florida native, avid amateur naturalist and writer. Though she grew up exploring the Red Hills region, she still finds new insights and wonders every time she steps out the door for her next adventure in the wild beauty of this remarkable piece of the planet.

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