Don Casada photo
A serpentine avenue of asphalt winds its way along hundreds of miles of ridge lines forming a world of natural wonder. The Blue Ridge Parkway offers a bounty of blessings, and perhaps nothing quite matches the breathtaking beauty of the Parkway’s wildflowers.
Their offerings come in many forms—from a tiny batch of bluets perched atop a water-soaked rock to acres resplendent with flame azaleas, from a mountainside turned magenta by blooming rhododendrons to roadsides dotted with bright red Indian paintbrushes. To wander through this world is to be filled with wonder.
The Parkway encompasses many ecosystems and forest zones. As well-known area naturalist George Ellison notes, “the Parkway is a virtual Godsend for nature enthusiasts, affording grassy and heath balds, seepage slopes, periglacial boulder fields, upland bogs, and beech flats along with pine-oak-hickory, southeastern hardwood, cove hardwood, northern hardwood, and spruce-fir woodlands.”
Although I am a son of the Smokies whose love of nature traces back to my earliest point of memory, my wildflower epiphany came in high school half a century ago thanks to the gentle prodding of a pedagogical genius: Clifford Frizzell, a biology teacher at Swain County High School who annually assigned his classes a spring semester project which focused on the botanical wonders of the North Carolina high country. The essence of the project was to get outside into the greening-up woods of spring, locate and identify plants by their blooms or leaves, delineate them by their common and scientific names, and (for extra credit) describe any usefulness they might have to humans medicinally, as foodstuffs, or in other ways.
This exercise in learning took place in an outdoor classroom set squarely in the most ecologically diverse region in the northern hemisphere. The natural world has always lured me as inexorably as sourwood blooms draw honeybees, and Mr. Frizzell’s assignment was a learning experience that provided pleasure beyond measure. The setting for those few weeks of basic botanical research and exploration was the southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway (at U. S. Highway 441, a few miles outside of the town of Cherokee, N.C.). It opened my eyes, in a poignant and enduring fashion, to the diversity and loveliness of wildflowers to be found in the southern Appalachians not only in the spring season but also throughout much of the year.
Botanists from early visitors such as Andre Michaux and William Bartram have been entranced by the region’s wildflowers. That derives from the wealth and diversity of blooms found here. Ellison, who knows the Parkway intimately, calls it a “wonderland of natural areas” which is “truly a world without end.” Rose Houk, a nationally known natural historian whose books would fill a substantial shelf, remarks on the “instant solace these verdant forests and high mountains can bring to a soul strung taut with the day-to-day concerns of living.”
There is no finer time for the wildflower wayfarer to find soul-soothing balm to which Houk refers than during the months of spring and early summer. At this season wildflowers are at their showiest, with a great profusion of blooms adorning both the forest floor and understory. It begins as winter ends with the welcome sight of witch hazel and pussy willow abloom. These are harbingers of a moveable feast of flowers. With each passing week, changing elevations bring new colors and varieties. March means dwarf irises and dandelions, spring beauties and sarvis, buttercups and bird’s foot violets, but this month is a mere warm-up for the glories to come. In April, May, and early June, verges and valleys along the Parkway burst into nature’s bounty of blooms at their finest.
The visitor interested in wildflowers can, thanks to the topographical nature of the Parkway and the many microclimates it provides, find any given species blooming over a time span of two months or more. As a general rule of thumb, every 1,000 feet of elevation change makes a difference of two weeks in bloom time. One peculiarity of the Parkway is that, because of lower elevation, flowers in the northern region of the Parkway (Virginia) tend to bloom earlier than those at the southern end.
The good news is that wherever you travel along the Parkway in the springtime, there are blooming wildflower species by the scores. This may involve scenic vistas where white splotches of understory trees such as sarvis and dogwood bring welcome color to a landscape still somewhat gray and grim from the lean, mean days of winter, or it may mean the radiance of redbuds amidst the soft greens of newly emerged leaves, or the spectacular, fire-like splendor which makes the flame azalea’s name so appropriate.
While there are places where progressing along the Parkway seems like a drive through an endless floral display, out-the-window viewing should mix and mingle with adventures afoot because the finest way to enjoy the wildflowers of the Blue Ridge is through close-up study provided by hiking. Hundreds of maintained trails, virtually all of which follow the tops of step ridges or the bottoms of deep valleys in the traditional pattern of foot travel, beckon along the Parkway. The truly fit and adventurous may also want to venture off trail, but this requires a solid knowledge of the geography along with helpful accessories such as detailed topo maps and a compass or GPS unit. For most, sticking to trails is the way to go.
You will likely ramble among patches of Mayapples with their shiny green, umbrella-like leaves or find several species of trilliums rubbing shoulders with other dainty delights such as bloodroot, foam flower, and Indian paintbrush. In some places Solomon’s seal and the aptly named dog hobble may be so thick and luxuriant as to almost hide the trail, while the delicate white of wood and rue anemone, wild strawberry, lily of the valley, trailing arbutus, stonecrop, and Dutchman’s breeches greet the eye like an endless array of miniature bridal processions. Cinquefoil and trout lilies provide pleasing phases of yellow, nicely offset by the delicate violet-pink of hepatica, wild geranium, showy orchis, and spring beauty.
The white settlers who eked out hardscrabble livelihoods in yesteryear named the two last-mentioned plants as they did so many more, invariably with simple, yet striking facility. “Showy” and “beauty” are bywords of a Blue Ridge spring and its wealth of wildflowers. Sample and savor the loveliness of these wildflowers along the Parkway, for in doing so you will render any vestiges of winter’s cabin fever little more than a fleeting memory.
Some tips for enjoying wildflowers
1. Carry a small magnifying glass (one with a handle of the type often used by stamp collectors is ideal). With its assistance you can gain a fuller appreciation of a flower’s delicacy and enjoy features not readily noticeable with the naked eye.
2. Obtain a good wildflower guidebook and take it with you. With its assistance you’ll be able to identify species new and unfamiliar to you.
3. A camera will enable you to preserve beauty for repeated enjoyment. Use a lens with a short focal length and experiment with the flash, especially in understory environments. Use a tripod to steady your shot. Most modern digital cameras, even the inexpensive ones, have a flower photography setting.
4. Protect and respect wildflowers. It is illegal to pick or dig them up along the Parkway. Also, pay attention to where you step so you don’t ruin the very flowers so many come to see.
5. Bring along a detailed guidebook with the trails you plan to visit.
6. Keep a journal or diary of your wildflower observations, making notes on locations, dates, stages of blooms, and the like.
A Naturalist’s Blue Ridge Parkway by David T. Catlin (Univ. of Tenn. Press, 1984)
Blue Ridge Nature Journal: Reflections on the Appalachian Mountains in Essays and Art by George and Elizabeth Ellison (Natural History Press, 2006)
Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians by Scott Weidensaul (Fulcrum Press, 1994)
Wildflowers of the Blue Ridge Parkway by J. Anthony Alderman (UNC Press, 1997)
Wildflowers of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains by Leonard M. Adkins (Menasha Ridge Press, 2005)
Wildflowers of the Southern Mountains by Richard M. Smith (Univ. of Tenn. Press, 1998)