Grand Floral Parade

Wildflowers Along the Appalachian Trail
By Leonard M. Adkins
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Spring Beauty
Spring Beauty may offer simple pleasures, but it's very genetically complex.

One of the greatest pleasures to be found during a visit with the Appalachian Trail is the opportunity to enjoy the grand parade of colors, shapes, sizes, and varieties of wildflowers as their procession of blooms starts in late winter, proceeds into the spring rains, continues throughout the hot summer months, and lingers long into the cooler temperatures of the fall. An amazingly large number of the wildflowers that grow throughout the eastern United States can be observed on even just one short walk along the trail. (Unless otherwise noted, all of the flowers in this article may be found ranging at least in small isolated spots in all of the states through which the AT passes from Georgia to Maine.)

Whenever hiking wildflower enthusiasts get together, it seems that one of their favorite topics of discussion is about which flower is actually the first to emerge as winter begins to lose its grip on the mountains. There is no one answer, of course. Elevation, latitude, the severity of the winter, and a myriad of other things all affect which flower you'll find first. Due to Virginia's overall lower elevation and resulting warmer temperatures, hikers on that portion of the AT may actually encounter some flowers earlier in the year than people afoot amid the mountains of Georgia, North Carolina, or Tennessee. Walkers sauntering along the shoreline of a low-lying lake in central Maine may enjoy the spring flowers sooner than trekkers traversing ridgelines in the White Mountains. No matter where you are, though, there are those harbingers of spring which do make their appearance year in and year out before any of the other flowers in a particular region.

One of the earliest plants to emerge from the ground (and also one of the most unique looking) is skunk cabbage, which grows in moist woods and meadows. If you want to find out how this plant received its name, just rub it a bit and bring your hand up to your nose. Although Native Americans inhaled the aroma as a cure for headaches, once you take a sniff you probably won't want to do so again! As a mechanism to withstand the cold (since it sometimes blooms while February snows are still on the ground), skunk cabbage produces its own heat by burning carbohydrates stored in its large root system. Temperatures inside its buds have been found to be as much as twenty-seven degrees higher than the surrounding air.

Also fighting winter's cold temperatures, the tiny white flowers of trailing arbutus can often be found buried beneath a late snowfall at about the same time that dogtooth violet like its western relative the glacier lily is pushing its way through and above the blanket of snow.

True to its name, the spring beauty emerges as the weather gets just a bit warmer. Lining the AT with flowers of pinkish white, the spring beauty is genetically quite interesting. We humans all have a stable number of chromosomes: forty-six. But the number of chromosomes in the spring beauty varies from plant to plant with more than fifty possible chromosomal combinations.

Making an appearance along with, or soon after the spring beauty, hepatica's white flowers are found up and down the trail. The blooms were once used by farmers as a sign that planting could safely begin.

Mayapple fruit may ripen in May, but it first pushes its way through the ground in March when its umbrella-like leaves form huge carpets spreading out across the forest or around the AT. In the past this plant was used as a treatment for warts, and even today two substances found in mayapple are used for medicinal purposes; podophyllin is a cathartic and peltatine has been used in experiments for the treatment of cancer.

Found at about the same time as mayapple, the dwarf iris was named by the Greeks for their goddess of the rainbow because of its multihued petals and sepals. Iris was the messenger of Juno and the rainbow was the bridge she utilized for her frequent errands between the heavens and earth.

While dwarf iris and other early flowers such as early saxifrage, periwinkle, and star chickweed (Georgia to New Jersey) are contributing to the interest to be found on the floor of the forest, two small trees or shrubs are adding large splashes of color to otherwise still winter-dull hillsides. Serviceberry's drooping clusters of white flowers are accentuated and set off nicely by the deep, rich purple blossoms covering almost every inch of the redbud tree's branches (Georgia to Connecticut).

The pace of the floral procession accelerates when the spring rains of April saturate the soil. Appearing at the same time or in quick succession, rue anemone, wild ginger, azalea, trillium, Solomon's seal (Georgia to southern New England), false Solomon's seal, Dutchman's-breeches, bloodroot, and fringed phacelia (Georgia to Virginia/West Virginia) turn wooded areas into palettes of color.

Since they emerge at the same time and share similar appearances, it can be difficult to distinguish Solomon's seal from false Solomon's seal. It's best done at either the flowering or fruit-bearing time. The little bell-shaped flowers of Solomon's seal hang down in pairs from the stem, while the tiny, starred blossoms of false Solomon's seal extend from the end of the stem. Later in the year, the fruit of Solomon's seal is a dark blue (almost black) berry, easily differentiated from the red berries of false Solomon's seal.

The name for bloodroot comes from the red or orange sap inside its root and stem. Another common name for the plant is red puccoon, derived from the Native American word pak, meaning "blood." These earliest inhabitants of North America used the sap as a dye for clothing and baskets. Because it must endure the cold temperatures of early spring, the leaves stay curled around the stem to conserve warmth and do not unfurl until pollination occurs.

There are some places in the woods where fringed phacelia is so copious that it seems like someone has spread confetti throughout the forest. A close look at the plant reveals tiny, but deep, fringes (known as fimbrations in botanical terms) around the flower's outer edges.

Also blossoming in response to the nourishment of April showers are blue cohosh, jack-in-the-pulpit, spiderwort, ragwort (Georgia to southern New England), pussytoes, bellwort, buttercup, cinquefoil, meadow rue, and, growing in the moister areas along the trail, marsh marigold.

Many people think that the green, white, or purple sheath with a hood the pulpit which surrounds and covers "Jack" is the plant's flower. Actually, the sheath is just a leaf bract, and you need to lift up the hood and look inside in order to see the diminutive flowers clustered around Jack's base. When you return in the fall, the pulpit will have fallen away and red berries will have replaced the flowers. After putting the plant's roots through a rather elaborate cooking process, Native Americans pounded them into powder to be used as a type of flour. Hence, the other name for jack-in-the-pulpit Indian turnip. Don't try eating the root, though, as it is quite poisonous without the Native American's methods of cooking.

Among those joining the flowery pageant in late April and May are dogwood, bluet, wild geranium, flame azalea (Georgia to southern Pennsylvania), fire pink (Georgia to New Jersey/New York), bowman's root (Georgia to New York), galax (Georgia to Virginia/West Virginia), fly poison (Georgia to New Jersey), phlox (Georgia to southern New England), Indian cucumber root, columbine, bunchberry (Virginia/West Virginia to Maine), diapensia, lily of the valley, whorled pogonia, lady's slipper, gaywings, and sweet cicely.

Despite its name, the dogwood is not named for man's best friend. The tree was once called dagwood because its timber was so strong that it was carved into daggers. Studies of older civilizations show that the dogwood was as highly prized as horns were in the making of such weapons, hence the tree's Latin generic name, Cornus. Commonly mistaken for the flower, the pink and white that you see on the trees are actually leaf bracts encircling the petals of the dogwood's small blossom. Look inside the center of the bracts to see the tiny, greenish flower.

Although northbound AT thru-hikers become intimately acquainted with the tiny bluet as it lines the trail in long mats on the mountains along the North Carolina/Tennessee border, the flower grows well throughout the length of the AT. The genus and species name is Latin for sky blue, an obvious reference to the flower's delicately upturned petals which seem to reflect the cleanliness and simplicity of an unclouded sky. This also may account for one of its other common names, Quaker Lady.

After the pink and purplish petals of the wild geranium drop off, an elongated ovary becomes part of the seed pod, which resembles a bird's head with a long beak rising up from the stem. In fact, hundreds of years ago, inhabitants of the Old World named the plant cranesbill, and even the word geranium comes from the Greek geranos, which means "crane." Because all parts of the wild geranium contain tannin, it was once used as an astringent and its leaves were brewed to treat diarrhea and bleeding ulcers.

Indian cucumber root, a member of the lily family, is an intriguing-looking plant which rises on a single stem to a whorl of leaves about halfway up its length and continues on to a second whorl on top. The uppermost leaves can hide the small, dangling, yellow flower. The underground portion of the plant is edible.

At some time in the distant past, ornate and unusual flowers of columbine reminded people of flocks of hovering birds and the plant earned the name columba, Latin for dove. It was also in days gone by that the plant was used to treat numerous illnesses. The juice from a fresh plant was used to treat jaundice and to help reduce the size of a swollen liver. Columbine's leaves and flowers were also believed to be a cure for measles and smallpox. It may not have cured these ills, but since the plant does contain prussic acid, it may have had a narcotic and soothing effect to help ease sufferers' pains.

Like other orchids, the exotic structure of the pink lady's slipper is designed to attract certain pollinators. After insects work their way through the slit in the red-veined pouch, they deposit pollen from other plants by brushing against the stigma, a part of the female organ. Exiting the flower by way of the two openings at the rear of the slipper, the insects then pick up that plant's pollen by grazing the anthers, the pollen producing portion of the male organ. These plants need more than this process to reproduce, though. In common with other orchids, these lady's slippers will only grow when certain fungi are present in their roots. If soil and weather conditions are not conducive to the production of the fungi, the lady's slipper will not survive.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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