In the Southern Appalachians, the trails and backroads are exploding with wildflowers. After a cool, wet winter and early spring, we've been rewarded with an abundance of color. Here's a short guide to the most popular flowers to be found in the national parks in the region.
Ephemerals are the first flowers to come out and the first to disappear. After they're gone, you may not see any trace of them. Bloodroot with their reddish stems and deep-lobed leaves, are my favorite because they signal the end of winter. Right now, you can see them on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which zigzags across the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.
There are not too many flowers on the actual roadside. If you follow the white circles of the MST into the woods around Milepost 400 to Milepost 420, you'll see large, fat bloodroot. The flower opens in full sun and closes at night. Therefore, you might not notice it first thing in the morning on the trail.
Tiny spring beauties carpet the ground on every hillside. You can recognize them by the pink stripes on white petals. Hepatica is a small white flower, though it can also be pink or even blue. The flower has five to nine petals, which sits on top of three-lobed leaves.
Trilliums are starting to come out. They're so easy to identify--three petals and three leaves. However, with more than 40 species of trilliums, identifying the specific flower is more of a challenge. On the Hyatt Ridge Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and on the Appalachian Trail north of the Smokies, white trilliums are one of the showiest of the species.
Soon painted trilliums will appear; they can be identified by the red splash of "paint" around the inner base of the petal. You may also see sweet white trillium with a purple center, Catesby, which nods downward, Wake Robins with its purple petals. The list of trilliums is long.
Lady's slippers are magical. For many, spotted them iss the highlight of their hike. Part of the orchid family, lady's slippers are unmistakable with their petals creating a pouch, which is the slipper. Unlike the flowers mentioned above, lady's slippers prefer a dry habitat under pines or oaks. They seem to be solitary flowers. Where most flowers come in bunches, it's not unusual to see one lone lady's slipper.
Pink lady slippers are a thrill to see. But if you're lucky enough to find a yellow lady's slipper, savor the moment--it may not come again--and take lots of pictures.
Violets come in many colors. Tiny yellow violets are out first out. Halberd-leaved violets can be recognized by the arrowhead shaped leaves, which will remind you of a shield. There are white violets, light pink beaked violets, white violets and tall Canadian violets and yes, there are also purple violets.
Naming wildflowers is more than a parlor game. Phenology, the study which tracks seasonal and changes in plants and animals, alerts us to changes in the climate. Where and when you see a particular flower tells you about the altitude, amount of water and weather. Most wildflower books are arranged by color, which makes a great start to identification. But I also look at elevation, blooming times, and how common a flower is. If I can't decide between two flowers, which seem to look the same, I go with the more common one.
When looking for wildflowers, don't overlook Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site. Though the historic home is set on only 267 acres, its location between the mountains and the Piedmont encourages a variety of ecological terrains. In the few miles of trail, the site contains a great variety of wildflowers, including lady's slippers.
Walk Big Creek Trail in the Smokies in early May and you'll feel like you're flipping through a flower book. The classic recommended trail is Porter Creek Trail from the Greenbriar entrance.
The best way to learn about wildflowers is to go on a wildflower walk with experts. Bring water, sturdy hiking shoes or boots and be prepared to walk a couple of miles.
Here are several scheduled wildflower events in the Southern and Middle Appalachians in the coming weeks:
New River Gorge National River
Spring in West Virginia highlights the 10th annual New River Gorge Wildflower Weekend, April 19-21. The New River Gorge region lies at the core of the globally significant Appalachian forest and contains the most diverse flora of any river gorge in central and southern Appalachia. More than 75,000 acres of natural habitats are protected in regional parks, all havens for plants and animals. Check out the free programs.
Mammoth Cave National Park
You may not think of Mammoth Cave as a place to learn about wildflowers but there's more to the park than just the underground passages. This year's Wildflower Day in the park is scheduled for Saturday, April 20. You can explore the flowers on the trails on your own or you can follow park rangers and volunteer naturalists around the park to learn about everything from blossoms to birds. All the activities are free.
Catoctin Mountain Park
Catoctin Mountain Park comes alive in the spring with wildflowers. See the beauty and enjoy it with a ranger's expert guidance. This program is offered twice - April 27 and May 13 (Mother's Day).
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage (April 23-27, 2013) is an annual five-day event in Great Smoky Mountains National Park consisting of a variety of wildflower, fauna, and natural history walks, motorcades, photographic tours, art classes, and indoor seminars. Most programs are outdoors in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, while indoor offerings are held in various venues throughout Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Shenandoah National Park
The park's mid-Atlantic location straddles conditions of both the Northern and Southern Appalachian Mountains, which encourages so many wildflowers. Shenandoah has many of the same flowers as the Southern Appalachians. Conservation of native flowers and plants will be the focus of Shenandoah National Park's 27th annual Wildflower Weekend, on May 4-5. Visitors may see woodland beauties such as trillium, wild geranium, jack-in-the-pulpit, and a variety of others on naturalist-led hikes.
Trails included this year are Millers Head, Mill Prong, Appalachian, Stony Man, Franklin Cliffs, and Little Stony Man Cliffs. There will also be a bird walk and a 'Wildflower Identification for Beginners' walk. Programs are free, everyone is welcome, and no registration is required. Just show up.
An easy book to reference on the trail is: Wildflowers of the Smokies, published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, lists flowers by color. It's a small book that shows the most popular flowers in the Southern Appalachians.