The latest winter snow has thawed to reveal golden wisps of dormant grass blowing gently in the meadow called Cades Cove. While horses still graze on other fields nearby, much of the grasslands lay unused except by the wildest of creatures. Small mammals like rabbits and fowl such as quail can more likely find a place to hide from their predators when they have native clumps of grass like broomsedge in their natural habitat. Yet, fescue has claimed most of the land, choking out several types of native grasses. The process of returning the Cove, part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to a more natural state, is dependent on work unseen by most park visitors.
Before embarking on the famous Cades Cove loop that encircles acres of meadows and woodlands at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, I met National Park Service biologist and greenhouse manager, Cherie Cordell. She was tending to thousands of fledgling grass plugs that have been growing in the Park Service greenhouse through the winter. She was also orienting a new volunteer to help with the tedious work.
The greenhouse extends the nursery growing season for big bluestem and little bluestem native grasses, which thrive outdoors in the hot summer months. Cordell and her crew plant and tend the seeds, growing them into plugs that can be planted outdoors using a no-till method. "In the spring we plant it out using a tobacco setter out in Cades Cove." The greenhouse staff coordinates with vegetation managers to grow row after row of bluestem in the Cove. Then more seed is harvested to be spread throughout other parts of the Cove and Foothills Parkway. GSMNP has successfully restored about 20 acres to native grassland so far.