Let's take a summer driving tour of North Carolina's wildflowers. You might wonder why I would propose summer instead of spring; after all, in early spring the forest floor bursts open with trilliums, spring beauty, bloodroot, and countless other botanical treasures. But to me, the summer wildflowers put on a performance unrivaled in floral extravagance. And viewing the show is as easy as driving a country road.
Actually, there are three distinct periods when North Carolina's herbaceous wildflowers are their showiest. First come the spring ephemerals. Since they mostly grow in the forest, they have to complete their flowering cycle before the trees leaf out and block the sun. In rich, undisturbed areas, the wildflowers can carpet the ground, but their fleeting nature makes the blooming period all too brief. The last flowering show begins in September and continues until the killing frosts. That's when the yellow goldenrods, purple and pink asters, and a few other autumn wildflowers bloom. This flowering period is so intense in some areas that, from a distance, the fields and open slopes look like they've been covered with golden shag carpeting and then sprinkled with amethyst crystals for contrast.
While those spring and fall wildflower blooms are stunning, the summer flowering episode is my favorite, particularly in the mountain region. Unlike the spring ephemerals, which have little competition for sunlight, summer wildflowers have to compete fiercely. They grow tall and big and in thick clusters. Beginning around mid-July and lasting into September, the roadsides become an exciting hodgepodge of vibrant yellows, purples, and reds.
Keep in mind that we're talking about herbaceous wildflowers-the ones that die completely back to the ground after they finish flowering. Since numerous species of shrubs, vines, and trees bloom throughout the season, and since there are always going to be at least a few herbaceous species in bloom, you'll find some sort of wildflowers in bloom at any given time. But for me, the colorful extravagance of the summer bloomers is unsurpassed in North Carolina.
Many of the summer wildflowers are members of the Aster family (Asteraceae). Sometimes called the Composite family due to the structure of the flowers-flower heads consisting of many small flowers growing together-this group consists of the true sunflowers, along with many similar species such as black-eyed Susan, coreopsis, oxe-eye, coneflower, and large-flowered leafcup. Other summer-blooming members of this large family are the pink and purple thistles, the deep purple ironweeds, the yellow wingstems, and the stately Joe-Pye weeds. Among the showiest and most stunning of all the summer bloomers are the colorful bee balms (genus Monarda). Like most members of the Mint family (Lamiaceae), bee balm has square stems and a distinct and pleasant aroma. Depending on the species, the color ranges from pale white to intense red to neon fuchsia. The Harebell family (Campanulaceae) gives us the vivid red cardinal flowers and purple lobelias; the Lily family (Liliaceae) includes perhaps the showiest and most popular of all summer wildflowers, Turk's-cap lily; and the Touch-Me-Not family (Balsaminaceae) graces streambanks and wet roadsides with yellow and orange jewelweed. There are many others, but these will really stand out on a country drive.
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Reading about wildflowers is fine for a rainy day, but why read about something you can see for yourself? Hop in the car and check out the flowers in the wild. The mountain region is the best place in North Carolina to see summer wildflowers, with something in bloom from mid-July through the end of August along most any roadway.
Blue Ridge Parkway
America's favorite scenic road is, without question, the best place in the state to view summer wildflowers. More than 250 miles of the roadway snake through the North Carolina mountains, and it's safe to say that every single mile offers something for the wildflower enthusiast. The northern portion winds through open areas with pastures, weedy fields, and slow-moving streams. This is a great area to view ironweed, jewelweed, and thistles. Additionally, the northern portion is a wonderful region for watching butterflies, which also happen to like our summer wildflowers. The section of the Parkway from around Mount Mitchell to Asheville is very good, but unfortunately, signs prohibit you from stopping along much of that section since it is part of the Asheville watershed. My favorite stretch of the Parkway for viewing wildflowers is in the southern region, from about Mount Pisgah, just south of Asheville, to around Waterrock Knob, near Waynesville. This segment is good for spring and fall wildflowers, as well.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
If you can endure the summer crowds, the Smokies are a great place to see wildflowers. Just about anywhere you go you'll find something, but among the finest areas is the seven-mile drive from Newfound Gap to Clingmans Dome. Along that drive you'll find Turk's-cap lily, sunflowers, oxe-eye, and bee balm; and at the parking area below the Clingmans Dome summit are dense patches of coneflower.
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Ashe and Alleghany Counties
Tucked into the extreme northwestern part of the state, these two counties feature quintessential farm-country scenery. In summer, a variety of wildflowers bloom along the roads and waterways of these open areas, making the views even grander. Pick any road in the region and drive slowly.
U.S. Highway 19
U.S. 19E splits a few miles west of Burnsville, with U.S. 19W heading due north to cross over the Unaka Mountains into Tennessee and U.S. 19E continuing east to Spruce Pine before it, too, turns north and heads to Tennessee. Although both of these roads are major transportation arteries for the area (particularly U.S. 19E), you will see a surprising amount of wildflowers on a mid-summer drive. Instead of just driving straight through, turn off onto the side roads occasionally for even more variety.
Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests
With a combined total of than a million acres in the North Carolina mountains, it might seem ridiculous to suggest that you can just pick any road and find wildflowers. But that's all you have to do. Most Forest Service roads traverse a variety a habitats; even roads that maintain the same elevation usually wind into valleys and out around ridges, exposing you at some point to good summer wildflower habitat. Most roads in the national forests are unpaved, and after even a brief summer dry spell the roadside vegetation can get dusty. If possible, make the drive right after a rain shower.
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Take a Hike
Because most of the summer showy wildflowers grow best in at least partial sun, you'll have better luck seeing them by driving country roads than you will by hiking into the forests. However, you'll find a few wildflowers no matter where you go, and some trails are excellent for them. Choose one that has open meadows, particularly in the higher elevations. The best one of all is the Appalachian Trail, which generally follows a crest along the mountains and passes through lots of clearings and high meadows. Particularly good stretches of the Appalachian Trail are in the Roan Mountain Highlands region, the Max Patch Mountain area, and along the entire length of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.