It was early August and I was high in Smokies, hiking to the roof of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, when I came first across a dazzling patch of bright yellow flowers, and then around the corner a pocket of blood-red flowers.
Even though they were past their prime and on the wane, the wildflowers were still electrifying, standing out brightly against the forest's dense, dark-green understory. The first flower patch perhaps featured wide-leaved sunflowers or Cut-leaf coneflowers, bobbing in the wind on their long, slendor stalks, enjoying their last hurrah, while the red petals around the corner surely had to be Crimson Monarda, aka bee-balm.
Sometimes it's so easy to take wildflowers for granted, as just another daub or two of red, blue, yellow, orange or white in the parks. But there are purists who search the landscapes for wildflowers as feverishly as birders focus in the forest canopies for flashes of color in flight.
With spring well under way in eastern parts of the country, it's not too early to begin looking for the first pastel brushstrokes in Great Smoky, Shenandoah National Park, or along the Blue Ridge Parkway. With that in mind, here's a quick primer on those parks and their wildflowers.
Along the parkway the spring flower season basically runs from April well into May. Not surprisingly, it brings heavy traffic to the parkway, which winds 469 wonderful miles through the rumpled and forested Appalachian Range from Shenandoah to the Smokies.
This is the time when dogwoods, redbuds, mountain laurel, serviceberrys, flame azaleas, rhododendrons, and many other blooming shrubs and flowers are at their scenic best. Blooming vegetation of one sort or another is evident throughout the summer.
Of course, different species bloom at different intervals, and a 1,000-foot difference in elevation is equal to about a week’s difference in flowering. And don't worry if you can't schedule a spring trip to the parkway to search for flowers, as something is blooming throughout not just the summer months but through October, too.
Traveler tips, no extra charge: Craggy Gardens (mile 364, about 17 miles northeast of Asheville, North Carolina) is a great place to visit, especially in mid-June when the Catawba rhododendrons are at their peak. Traveling on weekdays helps to avoid the heavy traffic during the spring flower season on the parkway.
With more than 1,600 species of flowering plants, some refer to Great Smoky as "Wildflower National Park." It's not really surprising, as you often can find color in various corners of the park as long as snow isn't covering the ground.
This colorful feast is a major reason why many visitors return to the park year after year. Already Spicebush likely has bloomed, and spring-beauties and bloodroot can't be far behind. Azaleas, rhododendrons, dogwoods, and laurels are just a few of the many tree, shrub, and flower species that contribute to seasonal displays that are especially pretty from mid-April to about mid-July.
Again, since plants species do not all flower at the same time, seasonality is an important consideration. Spring ephemeral wildflowers, for example, bloom on the deciduous forest floor only from about mid-April to mid-May. This brief period of growth is “sandwiched in” between the onset of spring warmth and the time when trees leaf-out and shade the forest floor.
Mid-June to mid-July, a favorite time for many visitors, brings gorgeous displays of azaleas, rhododendron, and mountain laurel. Shrubs of the heath family also flower at this time on the high-elevation heath balds (aka ‘grassy balds”).
Once summer ebbs, though, the show goes on, although perhaps not quite as impressively. Flowering dogwoods are on display in September, and witch-hazel presents its yellow flowers in October. While the hardwood trees begin to show their oranges, yellows and reds through October and into November, it wouldn't be unusual to find asters still in bloom in November.
Traveler tip: The park's 59th annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage is scheduled for April 22-26 this year. Registration is already under way, and runs until April 13. This five-day event features "a variety of wildflower, fauna, and natural history walks, motorcades, photographic tours, art classes, and indoor seminars. Most programs are outdoors in the national park, while indoor offerings are held in various venues throughout Gatlinburg, Tennessee. For more details and to sign up, check out this website. If you don't have time for the pilgrimage, surf over to this site and you'll find a handy list of wildflower walks in the park.
Though not quite as overflowing with wildflowers as Great Smoky, Shenandoah has a more-than-respectable 862 wildflower species for you to look for. Indeed, right about now you should be able to find bloodroot and hepatica unfurling their colors, and violets and large-flowered trillium won't be far behind, according to the park's botanists.
The best places to search for spring wildflowers in Shenandoah would be along the lower reaches of South River, Hughes River, Rose River, and Mill Prong. As the summer wears on, the colors move uphill, making the Skyline Drive and Big Meadows areas good bets to spot a variety of flowers.
And while Great Smoky's wildflower pilgrimage is slated for late April, in Shenandoah the Wildflower Weekend arrives May 9-10 this year. During this weekend you'll be able to attend a workshop on the symbiotic relationship between flowering plants and insects, take a hike in search of Jack-in-the-Pulpit and blue cohosh, and take to the Appalachian Trail with a ranger to look for wild geraniums and wood anemones.
For a complete rundown on the weekend, head over to this site.
Now, keep in mind that it's illegal to collect plants in the national parks, so if you go in search of wildflowers, be sure to pack your camera and lots of flashcards.