There are many reasons guests choose to come to Dollywood: the world-class rollercoasters, the fabulous shows, the delicious food, but there must be a few of you out there that come to see what the Dollywood landscaping team has been up to.
I recently had the privilege of walking through Wildwood Grove with Alisdair Macleod, Dollywood and Dollywood’s Splash Country’s Landscaping Supervisor. I heard when Wildwood Grove opened that the landscaping alone cost one million dollars! I have been anxious since then to take a guided tour and hear more about this unique area. It was fun to tour with Alisdair and hear his enthusiasm and passion for this part the park.
Alisdair noted that the original vision for the landscaping design has been reevaluated and reorganized. He said that some unforeseen challenges had to be overcome – for example, there were some beds that they hadn’t realized would stay so wet from the sidewalks being washed down every evening. Now, there are plants in those beds that are more suitable for those places.
Another portion they tweaked was the use of native plants and trees. Wildwood Grove is now 99% native foliage, and they are working now on Craftsman’s Valley to be a similar percentage. They also tried to group more of the plants together, the way they might appear in the wild, instead of two or three plants here and there.
I think the best way to tell you about the information I learned is just to take you on a walking tour of Wildwood Grove the way I did with Alisdair! As you walk through the entrance of Wildwood Grove, turn around and look back on the right side. There you will see a gorgeous orange wild flame azalea – part of the rhododendron family. Bend over without touching the plant and get a whiff of the wonderful aroma.
On the left side as you walk, you will see the fothergilla plant. These are also generously scattered throughout Wildwood Grove. Their white flowers bloom in early spring and attract butterflies – very appropriate for Dollywood! Also in this area, you will see Virginia flag iris, which will bloom in May, and wild geranium – an early spring bloomer with lavender flowers.
On the right side, up by the dining area for Till and Harvest Food Hall, they are vining native wisteria on wires. In the bed in front of the restaurant are rhododendrons (which will have purple blooms in May) and purple cone asters.
Look back to the left – there is a dry river bed made of stone. This was an area they adapted after they saw the water that was draining there. The rock catches the water and drains it off, and they have planted mountain mint, which is filling in all around the rocks. Mint has a good root system to help with erosion, and you will likely smell its sweet aroma as you pass – particularly in the warm summer months.
In the middle of the walkway is what Alisdair called the only “formalized plantings” in Wildwood Grove. This oval bed has evergreen holly surrounding larger trees in the middle and will have colorful annuals at each end of the bed.
In front of the Great Tree Swing ride, you will find itea – these still have seed pods on them now, but in June and July will bloom with white flowers, then will have rusty red leaves in the fall. I was fascinated with how they purposefully use plants that are beautiful year around – choosing plants with beautiful colors for the fall, and even plants that have a nice shape even if they lose their leaves in the winter.
On the right, up a small hill, you will see an example of another change they have made: they are using more pine straw to help keep soil acid levels lower. Coming around to the waterfall, this hillside will soon be covered with beautiful orange and yellow wildflowers, including black-eyed Susans. Look down and you will see blue eye grass, also prevalent throughout Wildwood Grove, which is evergreen and has rich purple blooms throughout the summer. Alisdair said this is a very hearty plant that can withstand the crowds at Dollywood.
At the waterfall itself, they have recently planted—and pampered these finicky specimens—sourwood trees, which have great pink to orange fall color. Alisdair noted here that Dollywood is committed to very sound horticulture practices, and they have a great team taking care of all of the landscaping. What you also see at the waterfall typifies their philosophy of taking what they see in the wild and putting it in the “correct position” at the park. On the right, the rocks form an outflow drain for excess water. There is mint planted around that area, with goldenrod in the bed above the rocks and winterberry holly below. This holly is deciduous (not evergreen) and will have red berries in the winter. Also, around the waterfall, there are clumps of sedge grasses, which are naturally found in rock outcroppings.
Alisdair said he subscribed to one of famed horticulturist Frederick Law Olmstead’s tenets for designing gardens. Alisdair, and Olmstead (who designed Central Park in New York City, among other gardens), believed it was fun to “happen upon” a “surprise” – in a corner, say, or when you walk around a bend in the sidewalk. This is seen as you get in line for Black Bear Trail. As you walk around the corner to get in line, on the left you will see a large bed planted with more flame azalea bushes. A fun surprise not expected maybe by those getting in line there. And, on the walkway leading up to the queue for the ride are small maple trees in square planters. This was another change that they realized needed to be made after the oak trees that were originally there were getting too much rain.
As you exit the ride, look on the right side and there are a couple of clethra bushes that are currently still brown but are great summer bloomers and also attract hummingbirds. Beside the nearby covered sitting area are gorgeous pink flowers on the end of a long stalk. These are Piedmont rhododendrons and have a delicious aroma. A warning here that the stems are brittle, so if you want to sniff, don’t touch, just lean over and smell! As you walk toward the large Wildwood Tree, look on the left side and find a yellow flame azalea.
Beside Mad Mockingbird there is a ground cover called creeping St. John’s wort. This will bloom yellow in July and August, and also can be enjoyed by the riders of the Dragonflier. The bushes planted along the fence in front of the Mad Mockingbird are called blueberry muffin vibernum. These leaves will get much larger and they also bear a blue fruit until December.
Here, you will see another dry stream bed and native plants, including a dogwood tree, which were planted when they realized this bed stayed wet much of the time. There also are river oats planted here that will grow long tassels that will blow in the wind in the fall. Swamp azaleas are also in this area—they have small white flowers that bloom in June and July and have a spicy fragrance.
Back by the Dragonflier, there is another oval raised bed. The tree in the middle is a willow oak. One of the fastest growing species of oaks, it is expected to have a 30-foot spread, which will help cover that large open area with shade.
Closer to the ride queue, Alisdair showed me the service berry bush. The white blooms are almost gone, but next it will bear a fruit, then in the fall will have pink to red foliage. Even in the winter with no leaves, this tree has a beautiful shape and is very hearty.
As you leave this area, on the left side before you get to Hidden Hollow, look to the right of the fence painted with dragonflies. Here, Alisdair said this “big tangle” of branches are a type of sumac – albeit one that isn’t toxic or itchy! It will stay low-growing and has lovely three-point leaves which turn oxblood red in the fall after the first frost.
Whew! There’s a brief tour of only some of the beautiful plants and trees you will find in Wildwood Grove. Come explore an aspect of Dollywood that you’ve maybe never thought too much about, yet one that has very intentionally been thought-out and planned. With 100—120 different species and cultivars of plants in Wildwood Grove alone, there is always something new to discover at Dollywood!