Gray’s Lily (lilium grayi) is an exceptionally rare Appalachian wildflower. Slender stalks with whorls of brilliant green leaves support delicate, red-orange flowers the size and shape of an overturned child’s teacup. When the wind blows, you can catch a glimpse of the flower’s speckled interiors as the blossoms nod in the breeze—tiny miracles of an intricate mountain biosphere. Gray’s Lily is only found on a handful of mountaintops across Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia. They grow where the Appalachian trail crosses the Highlands of Roan; under the Linn Cove Viaduct; high atop Grandfather Mountain, and—inexplicably and magically—twenty feet from the front door of our family’s log cabin in Newland, North Carolina.
Each year in June I am baffled and delighted by the reemergence of this lily. It is the botanical equivalent of the blue ghost firefly or the hellbender salamander; vulnerable Appalachian species that defied the odds for millennia in these ancient mountains, now threatened by a variety of factors both human and natural. How this flower manages to grow happily on our hillside is a mystery to us, but my family awaits its arrival every year with the sort of jubilant intensity typically reserved for events like March Madness.
Curious to learn more about Gray’s Lily, I called up Jesse Pope. Pope is an experienced naturalist, a neighbor, and, handily, the Executive Director of Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, a non-profit that operates a third of the 300-million-year-old mountain as a tourist attraction and education center in Linville. The biodiversity of Grandfather Mountain, called “Tanawha” by the Cherokee, is staggering; there are more tree species growing on the slopes of Grandfather than in all of Western Europe combined. “It’s amazing, when you think how lush and diverse the forests are here in the southern Appalachians,” Pope says. “It’s a remarkable and special place. The more your eyes are opened to the diversity, the more you see.”
Attracted by that biodiversity, famed nineteenth century botanist Asa Gray visited Grandfather Mountain in 1841 to search for rare and previously undocumented plant species. He did not find what he was looking for (Oconee Bells), but dutifully noted the brilliant red-orange lilies growing in clusters across the mountain. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, it was confirmed that lilium grayi was indeed a distinct species, at which point it was named in honor of Gray.
The small population of Gray’s Lily on Grandfather Mountain are fighting a silent battle for survival on multiple fronts. One of the most fearsome enemies is in fact another lily, Michaux’s Lily, named for the eighteenth-century French botanist Andre Michaux. “What you’ve got are two entirely different species of lily,” Pope says, “but where they overlap in their range you get hybridization and genetic challenges for Gray’s Lily. Gray’s are also known to hybridize with other lily species too.” Human activity on the mountain also leads to habitat fragmentation, which impacts the genetic diversity of the population and weakens it over time. The survival of Gray’s Lily depends entirely on its ability to reproduce season after season, a process that can also be negatively affected by fungus during particularly wet periods on the mountaintop.
What can visitors do to protect this rare flower? “Support your parks and stay on the trail,” Pope says. “Gray’s Lily are incredibly susceptible to foot traffic, so be respectful and don’t bushwhack. A great deal of the total population of Gray’s Lily are on public lands, so they belong to all of us. Supporting the preservation and conservation efforts of public lands is critical to the survival of this and other vulnerable species.”
As for the lilies growing on our hillside, I am pleased to report that the total population has grown from four to five this year thanks to absolutely no help whatsoever from us. My morning ritual of taking a cup of coffee up the hill and watching the sun rise through the petals is an intense and singular pleasure. If I am lucky, a hummingbird or two will zip over the ridge to have a morning drink. Gray’s are primarily pollinated by ruby-throated hummingbirds, the survival of the flower borne on the meditative thrum of their wings. In a summer already bursting with the promise of renewal, Gray’s Lily waves its tiny crimson flag across our mountaintop, a signal of nature’s silent perseverance.