TN banner

TDEC logo
Department of Environment and Conservation


irisplt.jpg (15819 bytes)

Iris License Plate Fund Grows On Tennessee State Parks
By John Froeschauer

On a trip along any stretch of Tennessee's highways, a driver today may easily find out the passions, interests or education of his or her fellow motorists by simply observing license tags: square dancing, Smoky Mountains, walking horses, Auburn University, the list goes on.

From a dizzying array of cultural plates, 21,484 people so far have indicated their interest in supporting Tennessee State Parks through their choice of the "Iris Tag" depicting Tennessee's state cultivated flower.

Since being introduced in June 1993, purchases and renewals have amounted to over $1.4 million. For the first two years, receipts were earmarked for purchase of equipment and maintenance of parks. In June 1995, an amendment shifted the fund's purpose to cover the planting of trees, shrubs, and for landscape maintenance. Bureaucratic wheels turn ever slowly, but surely, and in February 1997, the Tennessee State Parks’ Program Services Section was authorized to administer the fund to all Tennessee State Parks.

Tennessee's system of parks was established in 1937 with a mission of preserving unique examples of our natural heritage. The landscape and the native flora growing thereon is the most fundamental element, and thus the use of native plants lies at the heart of the "Iris Fund" program. It might seem more appropriate for the plate to bear the native state symbol, the Passionflower, however, the imported purple iris has been a staple of Tennessee gardeners for so many years that since 1933 it has shared notoriety with the "maypop" as an official emblem.

The principal criteria of the program, the use of native species, could not be more timely, as native plants are finding their way into more and more residential and commercial designs. The movement toward natural landscaping is rooted (no pun intended) partly in function; most natives can perform better than the myriad of available exotic plants. Take the Bradford Pear tree, for example. Pretty, yes, but short-lived and weak wooded. Economics is another factor; a bed of native flowers such as Saint Johnswort or Purple Coneflower, once established, requires far less water and no pesticides. The above species, the latter popularly known by its Latin name, Echinacea, are becoming increasingly popular, along with others, for their medicinal uses.

Plato Touliatos, a Memphis nurseryman and designer, sees state park plantings as "a way for Tennesseans to discover the native botanical heritage we've been given and have largely ignored."

So what is happening in Tennessee State Parks? It was decided that it would be best to immediately focus attention on highly visible but sorely neglected areas around cabins, entrances and visitor’s centers, and to begin screening the unsightly chain link surrounding maintenance compounds.

A logical place to begin a partial review of projects is at one of the oldest parks, Cumberland Mountain State Park, where the rhododendrons originally placed around the cabins have been slowly dying out for years. Replacing them has been a source of pride for manager Andy Lyon, who learned that 193 plates have been sold in Cumberland County: "Every penny of their investment, and more, came back to their own park in their own town", he said.

At Roan Mountain, the grand showplace of rhododendrons, similar plantings have taken place around new cabins.

Speaking of mountains, the new East Tennessee park, House Mountain Natural Area, needed better definition of its hiking trail. Shrubs such as Hearts-a-Bustin', Farkleberry and Pinxterbloom Azalea were painstakingly carried in and through strategic placement, blocked switchback cutoffs while enhancing the open understory. Dead Locust trees found on site became fence railings. Marty Zenni of Sunlight Gardens near Knoxville realized the opportunity: "In a park versus a residential setting, more people see it and get landscaping ideas. They get to see how the plants work. In this way parks become learning centers; this helps our industry as well as the park."

At Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park just north of Memphis, the new visitor’s center has had its stark surfaces and corners livened thanks to a cooperative effort between the park and the Memphis Garden Club, who helped establish the park in the 1930's. Subcanopy stalwarts such as Blackgum and Sourwood trees are flanked by Stonecrop, Purple Coneflower, and Stokes Blue Aster at Meeman-Shelby. The effect, when combined with summer sunlight, is colorful and literally moving; the flowers seem to dance with hundreds of skippers, blues, and swallowtail butterflies.

"It's a unique design", said Manager Randy Smalley. "It covers just about every wildflower you'll see here". The plan, done by Plato Touliatos, was intended to represent a cross-section of the park: bluffs, ravines and Mississippi River bottom. At a small pond dug behind the building, Buttonbush shares the edge with Cardinal Flower and Arrowhead. The feature has quickly become a nursery for a half dozen species of frogs and toads.

Upstream at Reelfoot Lake State Park, Cherrybark, Water and Nuttall's Oaks are among the 15 tree species used to fill open spaces around two picnic areas and the campground. And at hilly Mousetail Landing State Park on the Tennessee River, the state's westernmost stronghold of Mountain Laurel, these and Oakleaf Hydrangea bushes are providing screening between campsites.

Middle Tennessee's South Cumberland Recreation Area’s Meadow Trail behind the Visitor’s Center is undergoing a facelift of sorts: bushhogging and burning of the dominating fescue cover will prepare the ground for seeding with prairie grasses, including Big and Little Bluestem, Indian and Grama.

"The transformation from a stand of fescue to a native grass prairie is something the park and community are anxious to see", said South Cumberland’s Manager John Christof. "We look forward to conducting a prescribed burn early next spring." An anticipated profusion of suppressed wildflowers should give the Peterson field guide a workout.

A planting in front of the museum at Old Stone Fort Archaeological Park, in addition to being attractive, serves a dual purpose; Witchhazel, Mountain Laurel and Piedmont Azaleas have closed a pesky short cut while a mosaic of Christmas Fern, Pussytoes, Columbine and Phlox are keeping erosion at bay on the tilted, cherty bank.

In contrast to the installation of plants is the task of exotic pest plant removal, which is funded through the program. Over the past century and a half, numerous species from Asia and Europe have made their way to the United States by introduction for ornamental purposes, erosion control, wildlife enhancement, or by stowing away on transport vessels. Quick growth and prolific seed production, the very reasons for their introduction, have enabled them to outcompete native species, creating monocultures and squelching biodiversity.

Kudzu, the flagship of exotic pest plants, was welcomed into the south to reclaim eroded farmlands. It got a head start at Natchez Trace State Park, established in the 1930's as a federal Agricultural Demonstration Area. Here, and in other places of massive infestation, it awaits introduction of biological controls, namely insects, now under experimentation. In the meantime, manageable patches are being nipped in the bud through chemical treatment at David Crockett Recreation Area and the Grundy Lakes unit of South Cumberland Recreation Area. In floodplain areas at Henry Horton State Park and Radnor Lake State Natural Area, invasive Privet shrubs are being removed.

Rock Island State Park has contracted with Invasive Plant Control of Nashville to remove a small area of Kudzu and the Autumn Olive, a game bird food plant that has gone out of control, especially at the campground.

J.T. Butler, manager at Rock Island, observed, "Autumn Olive was planted 20 years ago by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), putting out a plant here, a plant there. Birds ate it and it spread throughout the understory. In 18 years, I've seen it move into places I've never seen it before, places you can't just clear out with a bushhog."

TWRA has since been coming along in the movement and today uses more natives for wildlife food and cover. TWRA biologists developed the grass mix to be used at South Cumberland. Native shrubs and flowers will rebound on Rock Island's slopes and hilltops once the project is completed.

In America, the deeply ingrained desire for "instant gratification" in landscaping and resistance to "go native" is understandable: many years have been spent hybridizing both imported and native plants to fuel our demand for fast growth and brilliant colors.

Admittedly, the designs shown in these pages do not jump right out the way they would if they were filled with Hibiscus or Zinnias, and the flower bed can appear somewhat dowdy when not blooming. The natural landscape is not in full bloom all of the time. These very bright flowers have been a part of the scene for so long that the natives seem exotic. Indeed, the traditional Bearded Iris from Germany tends to overshadow our diminutive native Dwarf crested Iris, but when finally discovered, it can be just as aesthetically pleasing.

The appreciation for the more subtle beauty of nature brought to the garden will take time. Andrea Sessions of Sunlight Gardens put it this way: "The more we can teach people about natives, the more they will be accepted in landscaping. If anything, they add that much more to the list from which to choose."

Plato Touliatos stated: "I never sold a plant just because it is a native. It might have nice bark or some other appealing characteristic." For more information, see the March/April 1997 issue of The Tennessee Conservationist, page 23.

The same horticultural practice which sold us on exotic plants is working in favor of the natives at the entrance to Tims Ford State Park; use of cultivars, plants found growing in the wild and cultivated because of a showy characteristic.

Mike Berkley of Growild Nursery explained: "If we want to win the public over, we need to put some glitter on the package. We used the "Viking" Chokeberry cultivar because it has bigger, glossier red leaves and produces bigger black berries which are not only showy but are also food for the birds; there is your native alternative to (exotic) burning bush. I would want to use a more pure native, something more specific to the site if I were doing a large scale forest edge or restoration project. In a planting such as Tims Ford State Park’s, I feel more comfortable about birds dispersing the berries of a variety of Black Chokeberry than those of an exotic species."

The Tims Ford entrance island, a short time ago inhabited only by Bermuda grass and a few marigolds, now teems with Fringetree, Winterberry Holly, Sweetspire and Goldenrod. A similar scene now surrounds the park office. Using ecologically sound methods, it will be possible to present similar scenes in all areas within the next few years. As of this writing, 25 more projects are in progress or in planning stages.

Bob Rees, manager at Tims Ford, summarized what has happened there and what continuing support for this program will mean for Tennessee State Parks and for the future of landscaping across Tennessee: "Parks were intended to be picture windows of our natural history and that's exactly what these plantings are."

Tennessee motorists may obtain the Iris license plate for $25 plus the regular registration fee. To find out more, contact the Tennessee Department of Safety, Title and Registration Division, 44 Vantage Way, Suite 160, Nashville, TN. 37243-8050 or call 615-741-3101



Planting Guides Now Available In Parks


Native plant landscaping guides, one for each grand division of the state, are available free of charge at all state parks. Made possible by the Tennessee Exotic Pest Plant Council, the guides, in brochure form, list shrubs, large and small trees, vines, and contains much more information.

Many native species may be hard to find, but increasing demand will lead to their availability.

Ask your local nursery to carry and propagate them! The planting guides are sponsored in part by the Tennessee Division of Natural Heritage and the Tennessee State Parks’ Iris Fund.

The brochures are also available from the Division of Natural Heritage at 615-532-0431.

For more information on native plants see the March/April 1997 issue of The Conservationist, p. 23, or contact the following nurseries:

Growild, Inc. (Wholesale only)
7190 Hill Hughes Rd.
Fairview, TN 37062

Moore and Moore Garden Center
106 Harding Place
Nashville, TN 37205

Native Gardens, Inc.
5737 Fisher Lane
Greenback, TN 37742

Sunlight Gardens, Inc.
174 Golden Lane
Andersonville, TN 37705

Trees by Touliatos, Inc.
2020 Brooks Rd.
Memphis, TN 38116

Write for the pamphlet "Nursery Sources of Native Plants of the Southeastern United States," by Jan Midgely, 1993. Direct requests to: Wildflower, 234 Oak Tree Lane, Wilsonville, Ala. 35186.

Tennessee Exotic Pest Plant Council, Inc.
P.O. Box 40692
Nashville, TN 37204
615-385-4319 or 423-436-1707

Tennessee Native Plant Society
Department of Botany
University of Tennessee
Knoxville, TN 37996-100

  (John Froeschauer is a regional interpretive specialist with Tennessee State Parks.)

trees.gif (1523 bytes)


Updated  March 1, 1999; Send comments to Department of Environment and Conservation.

tnhome.gif (517 bytes)tdecbar.gif (197 bytes)serinx.gif (218 bytes)sear.gif (166 bytes)gestbook.gif (200 bytes)