Updated: Mar 20
The far western North Carolina mountains are one of the best places to observe the progression of spring wildflower bloom. Also called “Spring Ephemerals”, these plants flower, set seed and die before the trees above them have a chance to grow leaves large enough to block the sunlight from the forest floor. These plants with their exquisite flowers, personify springtime. Trilliums, blood root, Trailing Arbutus, Dutchman’s Breeches, Spring beauty, hepatica, dog-toother Violets, Rue Anemone and everyone’s’ favorite, the Lady Slipper or moccasin flower are just a few of the flowers that greet you in the spring.
By June, and sometimes earlier if it was a mild winter, all these plants disappear into the surrounding undergrowth. Some are gone all together, while others blend in with the profuse growth of the summer, such as ferns, Solomon Seal and Spotted or Nodding Mandarin. People travel from all over the world to this area at this magical time of year. If you know where to look, undisturbed areas can be seen where carpets of trilliums blanket the ground. It is no surprise that researchers have noted that the highest density of spring ephemerals are found near tree stumps and decaying logs where ants make their colonies. Ants are an important player in the spread of many spring ephemerals. Spring wildflowers play a vital role in providing food for rare butterfly larvae and emerging pollinators such as honeybees, flies and bumblebees.
The spring wildflower bloom takes place during the months of March, April and May. One of the most wonderful things about staying at Huffman Creek is the wide diversity of wildlife that can be spotted at any given time. In Graham County the elevation varies from 1000 feet above sea level to about 5,350. This means that on any given week in the Spring you can drive to a spot where wildflowers are in bloom.
Early Spring Flowers
In early spring, usually mid-March, the weather is uncertain. It can vary from snow to summer-like weather and back again in a matter of several days. If you arrive in the early spring you will want to look for the very first flowers that show their beautiful blossoms. Trailing Arbutus is my favorite to find. When you first spot the green leaves, creeping along the ground, you may not spot the small white to pink blossom sheltered beneath the leaves. These plants like to grow along dry southern hillsides. It is well worth it to kneel down and examine the leaves closely. The flowers have a fragrance that if it ever could be bottled would be the most beautiful perfume in the world. You literally have to put your nose right down to the ground to detect it. But, oh my! It only blooms for a few short weeks at the very beginning of the spring and then the flowers disappear, not to emerge again until next spring.
You will find the spotted leaves of the Trout lilies, also called Dog-Toothed Violets, all over the forest floor. The plant is called a trout lily because the leave supposedly resembles the skin of the native trout in the surrounding streams. The blossom brightens the forest floor with yellow caps perched on stems that look like the hats of elves.
The third special plant to look for in the earliest weeks is the Hepatica, also called Liverwort. Also sporting a spotted leaf, this plant is fun to find because the leaf is tri-lobed and was supposed to look like a human liver. In the 16—and 1700’s healers and doctors used “The Doctrine of Signatures” to decide what plant to use to treat a disease. It was thought that God marked specific plants to resemble human body parts so that we would know what could be used as medicine. Modern Research has not been able to validate that the hepatica has any value in treating diseases of the liver.
Soon after the first wildflowers begin to bloom, there is an explosion of flowers. There are so many and such a variety that you may choose to step back and see the big picture as well as the individual plants. Take a flower field guide with you on your walk and at the same time just admire the multitude of colors and shapes as a whole.
If you decide to explore outside the Huffman creek property, three of the best places to see the spring wildflowers in easy driving distance from Huffman Creek are the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, the Slickrock Trail adjacent to the Historic Tapoco Lodge and the Twenty Mile Ranger Station along State Road 28 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These locations are all at rather low elevations so the flowers will bloom here before they start to bloom higher up in the mountains.
Graham County has seven different kinds of Trillium that grow and bloom here. They bloom at different times, so you can learn to identify them as you discover them. They are all lovely and everyone has their favorites. One of the most striking is the Painted Trillium, a pure white with a red heart. the Great White Trillium is often found in colonies. In Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest you can see carpets of these flowers along the upper loop trail. If you stand very quietly for a few minutes you also may be lucky enough to see white butterflies flying up and down above the flowers. It almost looks as if the flowers themselves are floating above the ground. Remember that picking the bloom from a trillium can actually kill the plant. The plant puts all its energy into producing at the most two, but usually just one beautiful bloom. These blooms eventually produce seeds which ants disperse. However, pluck the bloom and the plant may not have enough energy to produce blooms next year. Taking a picture is a far better way to preserve their beauty!
One of the most popular and well-known spring wildflowers is the Pink Lady Slipper or Moccasin Flower. These exquisite orchids also grow in colonies. Consider yourself extremely lucky if you discover one. They are so well loved that people tend to try and transplant them to their homes. Lady Slippers have a special relationship with a fungus that grows in the soil. If they are moved into a different soil without the fungus, even if it is the best soil money can buy, they perish. When they are growing in their natural environment they can be quite large, 6-18 inches high! You will find them in acid soil and the often grow along the banks of mountain streams.
A third wildflower that can be found growing as a ground cover is the Dwarf Crested Iris. 4-6 inches tall, the flowers are pale to deep lavender. Occasionally you will find a patch that has pure white flowers. They prefer a drier soil on the south side of the mountain and when they are happy and blooming, the area appears as if purple stars are scattered on a brilliant green carpet of blade-like leaves.
Mid- to Late-Spring Flowers
In the mid to late spring, after many of the ephemerals have bloomed and faded, a whole new series of plants show off their flowers. These plants are able to withstand less light to bloom and you will see them when the tree canopy is heavier.
The dog hobble will have flowers that are white and urn-shaped and dangle from the leaf axils in drooping clusters. The shrub is sprawling and can grow five feet or more. Patches are commonly found along streambeds. Their name allegedly stems from hunting dogs disappearing into the shrubs and getting tangled up!
Mountain Laurel begins to bloom at this time, with their delicate white to pink cups. Laurel, called “ivy” by the early settlers, has crooked, grooved branches. The leaves are evergreen and shiny. The plants form dense thickets that are called “Laurel Hells”. If you try to walk through one of the thickets you will quickly discover how difficult it is!
Solomon’s Seal and Solomon’s Plume can both be found blooming together along green forest trails. Solomon’s Plume have alternate leaves. The flowers are tiny and white and bloom as a dense plume only at the very tip of the plant. Solomon’s Seal have tubular flowers, like little bells. They are greenish when newly opened and then turn white. They hang underneath each leaf axel along a single, arching stem.
Tips for Enjoying Springs Wildflowers in the Appalachians
1. Have a field guide handy, so that you can identify unfamiliar beauties. Don’t pick a flower to bring back home, take a picture instead.
2. Make sure to notice the leaves of the plant as well as the flower
3. Bring a magnifying glass or a hand lens so that you can see each flower. Some of the tiniest flowers are the most beautiful and are often overlooked.
4. Always bring water with you when you hike. It is easy to get distracted and walk farther then you intended and there is nothing like a cold drink of good water!
5. The light for picture taking is the best in the early morning and at dusk. The light slants through the trees and highlights the leaves and blossoms.
6. Move to an area of higher elevation if the flowers you are looking for have already bloomed lower down.