Not many of us have the dedication, good fortune or funds that enable today’s better known plant hunters to trek into the wilderness in China, South Africa or Mexico in search of wildflowers.
We can, however, follow in the footsteps of some of the great plant explorers of the past right here in our own back yard, where Western North Carolina coves and mountaintops were a hot spot for such expeditions throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
The arrival of spring marks the start of a wildflower show that continues for months along many WNC hiking trails. Before the forests’ trees are fully leafed out, an array of spring ephemerals blooms beneath them.
Starting in mid-March at the lowest elevations, this show continues into early May at the higher reaches. Violets, trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpits, bloodroot, trout lily, anemone and dwarf crested iris are just a sampling of the botanical bounty that carpets the hardwood-forest floor. Many flowering trees also blossom early in the season, including the Carolina silverbell, dogwood and redbud.
Spring’s first blooms are closely followed by a number of the region’s showy native shrubs. Catawba rhododendron, native azaleas, mountain laurel, hydrangea and viburnum fill the brief lull until the start of the spectacular summer wildflower season, which moves out of the forest and into the sunnier open spaces.
Even the blazing fall season isn’t solely about leaves. Asters galore and goldenrod bloom well into autumn, and many members of the sunflower family blossom deep into October.
North Carolina’s Best Wildflower Hikes: Mountains by Kevin Adams (Westcliffe, 2004) details 50 of the region’s best hikes for viewing wildflowers, coded by month for peak display. Last summer, Adams’ book steered me to a very easy hike off the Blue Ridge Parkway at Fryingpan Mountain (several miles southwest of Mount Pisgah), where I was rewarded with an excellent flower show.
Two low-elevation, early spring wildflower hikes to consider are the Baxter Creek (shorter) and Big Creek trails, both within the northwestern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Access to this portion of the park is via the Waterville exit (exit 451) just past the Tennessee border off Interstate 40. Both trails begin from the same picnic/campground area, past the Big Creek ranger station once you’ve re-entered North Carolina.
Adams’ book cites three hikes in Pisgah National Forest between Brevard and the Blue Ridge Parkway where peak bloom time comes in April. All three are off U.S. Highway 276. The Twin Falls hike leads off from Avery Creek Road, and the Moore Cove Falls and Pink Beds trails are accessed from parking areas along U.S. 276.
The Max Patch section of the Appalachian Trail is among the best stretches in the region for high-elevation, late-spring wildflowers. This grassy bald, straddling the Tennessee border in Madison County, offers nearly 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains. The roundtrip hike along the Appalachian Trail is 9.5 miles, and depending on your stamina, you may opt for a shuttle vehicle. Or choose to spend more time enjoying the wildflowers and the view and backtrack along the trail.
Highly detailed information on these hikes and 44 more can be found in Adams’ guidebook. Maps are also available online for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/hiking.htm) and Pisgah National Forest at (www.cs.unca.edu/nfsnc/recreation/recreate.htm). Click on the “Pisgah District” map for the trails along U.S. 276. For Max Patch, click on the link labeled “Hot Springs and Harmon Den.”
A walk in the woods can become an exploration—and even a preview of plants you might like to have in your own garden. Thanks to the growing interest in reducing human impact on the environment, many quality native species are coming out of the woods and roadsides and into propagation by the nursery trade. So bring a camera and a guidebook, and with the right conditions and quality nursery plants, chances are you’ll be able to grow many of the wonderful blooms that grace the region’s wild places.
The truly adventurous hiker may want to hunt for Oconee bells, Shortia galacifolia, a rare native plant with a storied past. It begins with Asa Gray, a renowned professor of botany at Harvard, a friend of Darwin’s who made regular plant expeditions to North Carolina. After first seeing Oconee bells in botanist André Michaux’s herbarium collection in Paris, Gray searched for years to find the plant. Lost to science for nearly 100 years, Shortia was rediscovered briefly in 1877 near Marion and again in 1886 along the Toxaway River. It was already rare back then. But these days, it might be easier to find this reportedly easy-to-grow plant in a nursery.
[Christopher Carrie lives in Clyde.]