Nature & Outdoors
Color Them Gorgeous: Spring Wildflowers Are Busting Out All Over
By Nan K. Chase
Bling! Rhymes with spring.
Nothing, but nothing, makes the heart sing—the senses take wing—like the annual display of native Appalachian wildflowers that blankets mountaintops, coves, and creek sides. They make winter worth enduring.
From pure white through a myriad of pastel shades to showy yellow, orange, and red, the spring wildflowers have many special characteristics. Their intricate shapes, their special abilities to attract pollinators, and their dependence on specific growing conditions, whether those are swampy, rocky, or deep in the forest.
Perhaps the most magical aspect of spring wildflowers is their fleeting nature. Now you see them, now they’re gone. For that reason many of our beloved wildflowers are called spring “ephemerals” for the way they bloom, or at least take shape, in the weeks when temperatures and hours of daily sunshine are rising but before the green forest canopy fully leafs out. This period lasts roughly from late March to early June, and various factors may come into play, mostly having to do with elevation.
Here’s some science: spring ephemerals need sunlight to produce stems, leaves, and flowers. In the woods, that sunlight only penetrates to ground level before the tree canopy overhead unfurls and produces dense shade. Also, the ephemerals take advantage of groundwater left from the winter before it starts flowing up, up, up to the treetops. According to some botanists, even the presence of woodland ants in early spring helps disperse the tiny seeds in rich leaf litter.
There are exceptions to every rule. One example is the ramp, a garlic relative that puts forth its leaves and edible bulblets quite early…then disappears. The flower comes out later in the year on a single stalk.
So what are these springtime marvels? Last year I made a list of the wildflowers I spied on my walks through the woods in the second week of May alone, prime time. These were mere jottings, without Latin names or other botanical nomenclature, and they include some of the flowering trees that I also consider wildflowers.
Bluets, fire pink, May apple, round-lobed liverwort, heal-all, miterwort, wild strawberry, wood vetch, violets galore, mountain silverbell, large-flowered bellwort, speckled wood lily (or Clintonia), dwarf crested iris, spring beauty, great chickweed. There’s more, much more, around this time of year: wild columbine growing on cliffs, Jack-in-the-pulpit with its hooded flower spike, the dangling paired flowers of Solomon’s-seal, jaunty Dutchman’s breeches, low-growing Canada wild ginger, Fraser magnolia and tulip poplar with their creamy blossom high overhead, and lots and lots of trilliums, an easily recognizable species.
Don’t forget that the classic High Country flowering shrub—the rhododendron—blooms near the end of the spring season and into early summer. Relatives include mountain laurel, sometimes called kalmia or even “ivy” locally, and wild azaleas count as wildflowers too. Their range is surprising: flame azaleas can tolerate hot direct sunlight, while rhododendrons require the shade of the forest. Kalmia inhabits zones in between, also offering one of the most complex blooms of all.
Following are some tools to take with you on a wildflower adventure. A pocket-size wildflower guidebook is a big help; Wildflowers of the Smokies (by Peter White) is easy to carry. And there are various cell-phone apps that can analyze a snapshot and identify the species. A pocket magnifying glass is a wonderful aid in studying the complexities of the springtime blooms.
And above all, of course, bring a sense of wonder.
Nan K. Chase looks for spring wildflowers along the New River Trail State Park, near her home in Southwest Virginia.
Where to See Wildflowers
Remember: NEVER pick wildflowers from public lands!
Blue Ridge Parkway, 469 miles of wildflower glory in Virginia and North Carolina. No admission fee. See website blueridgeparkway.org/bloom-on-parkway/ for wildflower blooming calendar and highlights.
Daniel Boone Native Gardens, 651 Horn in the West Drive, Boone, NC. Website: danielboonenativegardens.org. Guided tours available, or just wander. Admission $2 ages 16 and up. Open daily May-October.
Elk Knob State Park, 5564 Meat Camp Road, Todd, NC. A treasure chest of rare wildflowers in a pristine setting, including massed flame azaleas. Website: ncparks.gov/elk-knob-state-park for current information on guided hikes. No admission for entrance, camping charges apply.
Grandfather Mountain (Swinging Bridge & Nature Preserve). “The Remarkable Rhododendron Ramble” guided hikes take place May 28-June 5 this year, see grandfather.com. Advance admission and tour tickets must be purchased online; $9-$22 plus add-ons.
Hampton, Tennessee, area. Sometimes overlooked, this quiet region offers waterfalls along with wildflowers. For details of readily accessible areas, and trail maps, see website alltrails.com/us/Tennessee/Hampton/wild-flowers.