Hike in the southern Appalachian Mountains, drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, or visit the Botanical Gardens at Asheville, or the North Carolina Arboretum and you’ll find wildflowers in bloom virtually year-round. As we discussed in Wildflowers Part I, hundreds of species make their homes in our unique mountain environment.
Where to look
Some wildflowers are quite common and cover a wide range of elevations, like the many species in the Aster family. Others are very rare and endangered, such as Gray’s lily (Lilium grayi) and Rugel’s ragwort (Rugelia nudicaulis). While some wildflowers cling to rocky outcroppings, others prefer the nutrient-rich forest floor or a wet bank by a stream.
What to look for
There are some very unusual looking wildflowers: stiff gentian (Gentianella quinquefolia), with blossoms like Christmas tree bulbs, bear corn (Conopholis americana) that resembles a corncob more than a flower, and Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) that is easily mistaken for a fungus
Within a single genus, such as Trillium, you may find different species with blossoms in an assortment of colors—white, yellow, red, and multi-colored!
The variety is almost endless. The fun is in the discovery.
Botanists’ nomenclature for every plant part and shape enables them to identify and categorize plants—but paying attention to a few basic characteristics will help identify many wildflowers.
Habitat. The process of elimination begins with observing the plant’s habitat. It’s unlikely you’ll find a pink turtlehead (Chelone lyonii), whose natural home is seeps and stream banks, on a dry, rocky slope! Assess habitat according to sun/shade, wet/dry, open area/woodland, and elevation.
Flower. Consider color, number of petals, and blossom shape—single bloom or cluster; upward spike or drooping panicle; flat or rounded. Flowers can grow on different parts of the stem. Is the flower at the top of the stalk, growing from a joint between the leaf and the stem, or at ground level?
Leaf pattern or arrangement. Wildflowers’ leaves are also important to their identification. Leaves may be basal (growing at the base of the stem next to the ground), opposite (growing in pairs on either side of the stem), alternate (alternating on either side of the stem), or whorled (more than two leaves growing in a circle around the stem). Some plants have both basal and stem leaves; others flower with no leaves at all!
Leaf shape and margins. Basic leaf shapes are linear (long and narrow), lanceolate (lance-like), oblong, elliptical, ovate (egg-like), and cordate (heart-shaped). The margins or edges of the leaf may be smooth, serrated/toothed, or lobed/scalloped. A compound leaf may appear to be multiple leaves, but is a single leaf composed of several leaflets.
Consult a reference
Now it’s time to match the characteristics you’ve observed with a high-quality wildflower reference. One of my favorites, Wildflowers of the Smokies, includes color photos, plant descriptions, bloom time, and typical location. Plant and wildflower identification apps are available for smart phones—even if you don’t have a reference app, phones are great for taking pictures of wildflowers to look up later. Make note of wildflowers you observe, the place, and the date. As you expand your knowledge of wildflowers, you’ll become more adept at finding and identifying them.
With the establishment of state and national parks and forests in the 1930s, public appreciation and conservation of native plants and wildflowers began to take hold. Appalachian forests clear-cut for logging are recovering with government protection and help from conservation groups, but threats remain from non-native plants, insects, and diseases!
Native plants lose the competition with exotic kudzu, Japanese stiltgrass, princess tree, and privet. Woolly adelgids attacks native hemlocks and emerald ash borers threaten ash tree species and the American fringe tree. Anthracnose kills flowering dogwoods.
Humans who “over-love” our mountains pick or dig flowers, hike off-trail, and camp in undesignated areas. Poachers remove and sell conifer seedlings, perennials, and roots of the American ginseng plant.
In Wildflowers of the Blue Ridge Parkway, J. Anthony Alderman coins the Ten Commandments of Wildflower Conservation: “Thou shalt not pick, bend or break, trample, dig, poach, let pets run free, set fires, [or] alter the environment. Thou shalt enjoy and preserve and educate.”
Article by Beth Leonard, Extension Master GardenerSM Volunteer.
Wildflowers Part III describes a few of the most common southern Appalachian wildflowers.
Wildflowers Part IV discusses gardening with wildflowers.
Alderman, J. Anthony (1997). Wildflowers of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The University of North Carolina Press.
Spira, Timothy P. (2011). Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont. The University of North Carolina Press.
White, Peter (2000). Wildflowers of the Smokies. Great Smoky Mountains Association.