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Summer Special: Wildflowers in the National Parks
Editor's note: In some parts of the National Park System wildflowers are already on display, while in others seeds are just beginning to germinate. Come late spring and into the thick of summer blooms will be showing their true colors across the system. Contributing writer Danny Bernstein has the following suggestions for where you might find some color this summer. Contributing to the article were Editor Kurt Repanshek and Contributing writer Jim Burnett.
Depending on where you live and visit, you may have enjoyed wildflowers for months or you're ready to see summer flowers. Here's a snapshot summer wildflowers I've seen the last couple of years in the National Park System.
In the Southern Appalachians, flowers have been blooming since March, but summer brings some unusual flowers.
The Gray's lily is the attraction on Roan Mountain on the Appalachian Trail. Come late June and early July, the trail up to Grassy Ridge, at 6,200 feet, is on fire with Catawba rhododendrons and azaleas. But everyone is searching for the rare Gray's lily. This delicate flower has small, funnel-shaped blooms that dangle downward. They're deep crimson outside and an orange-red inside with reddish-purple spots.
Gray's lilies are so rare that many wildflower books omit them out of concern that people would pick them after they've identified it. I've also seen Gray's Lily on the Blue Ridge Parkway, while walking the Mountains-to-Sea Trail at Lunch Rocks, accessible from Greybeard Overlook at milepost 363.4.
The Turk's-Cap lily is a tall, assertive plant. Its stalk holds many flowers, each with orange petals that curve sharply backwards like a cap. There's nothing rare about this plant, which blooms from July to August.
The last of the purple fringed orchids can be found on Lunch Rocks on the Blue Ridge Parkway. But as summer waned last year, I found my first orange-fringed orchids on a back road on a short section of the Overmountain Victory Trail in Pisgah National Forest.
To quote the flower guidebook, Flowers of the Smokies, Rugel's Ragwort might not win any beauty contest - they got that right. The plant has several yellow nodding flower heads; its stem has a few stalkless leaves. The plant would not merit a second glance except that it's quite rare, found only at high elevation in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I found it on the Boulevard Trail on the way to Mt. Le Conte in mid-August. It lives in shade, making it difficult to photograph.
Grass-of-Parnassus, another rare flower of the Southern Appalachians, can be found on the Alum Cave Trail on the way to Mt. Le Conte. This exquisite plant has white petals with thin green lines throughout. The green lines look like varicose veins, not beautiful on human legs, but outstanding on the flower.
At lower elevation, New York ironweed and Joe-Pye weed seem to last and last until autumn. So does bee balm, with its disheveled petals, which reminds me of Phyllis Diller's hair. Jewelweed is said to ease the itch of poison ivy. It's quite commonly found close to poison ivy, probably because they're both native, invasive plants.
Spiderwort signifies the start of summer flowers. But the saddest moment for me are the asters, which are the first sign of fall. And I'm usually not ready for that.
Shenandoah National Park
The park’s Mid-Atlantic location straddles growing conditions of both the Northern and Southern Appalachian Mountains, a setting that encourages so many wildflowers you'll never want for something new. Shenandoah has much of the same flowers as in the Southern Appalachians, but in different distribution.
Canadian or eastern red columbine, (Aquilegia canadensis) is common in Shenandoah. Flowers are 1-2 inches long and have yellow petals with a red spur and red sepals. They nod downward above their leaves. When the sun shines on Columbines, they look like Japanese lanterns.
Black cohosh blooms rise above the forest floor. Its roots have been used medicinally by Native Americans. Today black cohosh extracts are supposed to ease the symptoms of menopause.
In mid-summer, the banks of Skyline Drive and the Big Meadows area are great places to see summer and fall wildflowers.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Common names are deceiving. In the Alpine tundra, the Colorado columbine (Aquilegia caerulea) doesn't bear any resemblance to the one in Shenandoah. Though it's the same genus, the Rocky Mountain flower has two layers: blue outer petals and white inner petals. I saw bunches of Columbines blooming out of rock crevices at Chasm Lake and Odessa Lake in the park's Montane Zone.
The subalpine zone has low bushes and lots of flowers, including yarrow, harebells, and fireweed. The last is a tall (3-to-7 feet), assertive plant with purple flowers. It moves into recently burned sites but is also common in open, disturbed sites. Bearflower (Boykinia richardsonii) is quite common as are lupines and asters.
The average visitor rarely goes up to Denali to see its wildflowers. But it's the park flora that supports all the animals that attract people.
The tundra in Denali seems to be bare and one might think there's nothing up here. Yet, the tundra is full of life - lichen, alders, and flowers. The tiny tundra dogwood is a small, four-petaled white flower, looking nothing like the dogwood tree in North Carolina. But mountain gentians are the same as in the east. Its blue purple flowers get white as they age, just like people do.
The elegant paintbrush (Castilleja elegans) - that's its name - is elegant. The flower has a profusion of pink petals on a multi-stemmed plant. This species of paintbrush seems to confine itself to Alaska. The more common Indian paintbrush is smaller and delicate.
Exit Glacier is the most popular walk in the park, bringing visitors close to the glacier. But if you look beyond the blue ice you'll see small wildflowers peeking out of the ground. Conditions are tough for wildflowers at Kenai Fjords. In a land dominated by rock and ice, it's amazing that anything grows.
Harebells, covered in snow most of the year, pop up their blue heads from under a rock in mid-summer. Dwarf fireweed seems to grow straight out of the gravel and silt. The glacier has been receding, offering scientists a perfect laboratory to discover how plants reclaim an area and create forest floor from rock.
Logan Pass is a well-known spot for observing mountain goats, and one of the reasons is the rich bouquet of wildflowers that grow here and serve as vegetative chum for the goats. So diverse is the wildflower garden on the pass that the Montana Native Plant Society last May named the Logan Pass area as the first "Important Plant Area" designated in the state of Montana.
The Logan Pass area is home to popular flowers like glacier lilies, beargrass, spring beauties, paintbrush and wandering daisies. But that's not exactly what makes the area so special. Rather, what does is the exceptional number of rare arctic-alpine plants found here. There are more than 30 different rare plants and mosses in an area that covers less than 3 percent of the park.
The Logan Pass region has been described as a "hot spot for plants" due to a wide diversity of habitats, including alpine meadows, wetlands, turf, hanging gardens, fellfields, moist and dry dwarf shrublands and more. Here you can you can find eight globally rare species and 27 different state listed sensitive species representing about 30 percent of the state-listed species found in the park.
Logan Pass also provides habitat for the world’s largest population of goose-grass sedge. It is the only place in Montana to view glaucous gentian, running pine, Macoun’s draba, and several moss species.
Venture into Acadia in the summer and you'll find meadows and hillsides colored with bobbing stands of lupines. Pedal your bike along the park's famous Carriage Paths through the woods of Mount Desert Island and you just might spy such natives as lily-of-the-valley (Maianthemum canadense), bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), goldthread (Coptis trifolia formerly C. groenlandica), bluebead lily (Clintonia borealis), and starflower (Trientalis borealis).
Bunchberry is a member of the dogwood family and has dogwood-like white flowers in spring and red "bunchberries" later in the season. Bluebead lily has a pale yellow flower in
spring and later a striking blue, bead-like fruit that is poisonous, note park botanists.
Come August and into September Acadia's native wildflowers, the asters and goldenrods, erupt in full bloom.
If your summer starts in May and you find yourself in Canyonlands, you won't have to look hard to spot wildflowers.
Come mid-May the landscape is daubing with the reds, yellows, golds, and whites of wildflowers against redrock spires and cliffs ribbed with cream and buff stripes.
It's still a bit early for narrow-leaf yucca to come to bloom, and Mormon tea isn't quite fully in bloom by mid-month, but claret-cup cactus, Desert Indian paintbrush, orange globemallows, and western peppergrass can be in full bloom. And those were just the easy ones to name. Monkey flower, columbine and maidenhair fern also can be found if you look in well-shaded alcoves near seeps or dripping springs.
How to get started
Knowing the names of wildflowers is more than a parlor game. It enables you to understand the area you're visiting. Pick up a flower guide to the park. The more specific the guide, the easier it will be to narrow down the possible identification of the flower.
A guide organized by color is best for most visitors. Within the color, check the season and the altitude. And whenever I really get confused and can't decide between two or more identifications, I always go for the more common flower.
Flower guides can be bought at the park bookstore or on its website.