What Makes the Smoky Mountains Smoky Blue?

The Great Blue Smokey Mountains Demystified.

The Mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina are gloriously enveloped in a smoky haze that has over time given the region its picturesque and magical characteristic. The Great Smoky Mountains indeed never fails to leave its visitors dumbfounded as it has over and again “wowed” anyone who dared to visit.

With greatness certainly abound a lot of questions and the Smokey Mountains have had their share of those. One of the questions on the minds of most visitors to the site is, “why the smoke?” David Stewart intelligently puts forward an answer in his book, The Chemistry of Essential Oils.

In his own words, “The Great Smoky Mountains got their name – not from smoke, but from essential oils.” He further states “The haze is not smoke. Neither is it fog. It is a cloud of essential oil molecules emitted by the trees to blanket the forest and reduce evaporation to preserve moisture.”

The name, Great Smokey Mountain, and the nearby Blue Ridge Mountain was coined by early European settlers who settled in the land of the Cherokees in the early 1800s. The Cherokees are prone to giving names that are quite descriptive in nature, and for over a thousand years the land was known to the Cherokee Indians as Shaconage (Sha-Kon-O-Hey) which means “Land of the blue smoke.” They considered it a sacred place, and hence the Early European settlers simply found an English translation for the Cherokee version.

The trees, which are mainly conifers, emit hydrocarbons (terpenes) in form of essential oils and these oils when released are suspended in the atmosphere by water vapor. When light pass through this moisture, the shorter light rays are bent (refracted) towards the end of the spectrum giving rise to a bluish tint to the vapor and the resulting magnificent haze with a blue smoky tinge that shrouds the mountains.

Have no fear when visiting the mountains as the vegetation surrounding it has a great store of a-pinene, most common terpene found in the plant world. A-pinene is a natural insecticide, and since most bacteria, fungi, and viruses cannot survive in the presence of essential oils that are high in terpenes, the trees and plants cover themselves in a mixture of deadly natural insecticide and insect repellant. Although, there are insects in the Smokies, the Hans-Walter Heldt, and Birgit Piechulla book, Plant Biochemistry reports that “Monoterpenes occur as scents in flowers to lure insects, but they are also contained in plants as insect repellent. Monoterpenes a-pinene and b-pinene are major constituents of the resin of conifers. They are toxic for many insects and thus act as a protection against herbivores.”

A-pinene is also a good memory enhancer as it exhibits activity as an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, aiding memory. It is especially very good for asthmatic patients as it relaxes the bronchial muscle causing a dilation of the bronchial tubes.The next time you pay a visit to the Smokies, be rest assured that you’d leave with an improved memory to better reminisce about your visit and of course, you’d breathe better . You also might learn a thing or two about life as the Smokies cheerfully give and protect while still managing to keep themselves out of harm’s way.