Interesting wildflowers appear throughout Western North Carolina from late February into early November. Most wildflower identification and observation takes place during the spring. All too often the subsequent seasons are ignored.
The three peak periods are from late April into mid-May, early July into early August, and mid-September into mid-October. In my opinion, the mid-summer peak provides the most spectacular displays of truly showy wildflowers that are readily accessible.
For this reason, in part, the annual Native Plant Conference at Western Carolina University is always held during the third or fourth week in July. Participants come from across North America to take part in various symposiums and field trips. Since the early 1990s, I’ve lead an all-day, plant identification outing for the NPC along the Blue Ridge Parkway. These excursions have made me keenly aware of the floral riches that can be found in the middle to higher elevations along the parkway this time of the year.
My wife, Elizabeth, and I checked out this past Sunday some of the stops I’ll be making this year on Wednesday, July 22. As you read this, both sides of the parkway are quite literally lined with showy wildflowers for mile upon mile: turk’s-cap lily and black cohosh are prolific.
You don’t need to be part of a formal outing to get up there and appreciate what’s going on. Indeed, you’ll have just as much or more fun by yourself or with a friend. If you’re only free on weekends, then that’s when you’ll have to go. If you can, however, get away on a weekday, especially Tuesday through Thursday. The experience will be more pleasurable as traffic will then be less congested. Always be aware of traffic dangers when plant hunting near roadside edges.
Scout out seepage areas, the bases of damp cliffs, woodland edges, and open meadow-like situations. Hiking a shady trail through dense woodlands will be much less productive.
Some of the uncommon to rare species we encountered Sunday were tall delphinium, little green orchis, leather flower (a “Clematis” species), false bugbane, mountain krigia, Blue Ridge St. John’s-wort, round-leaved sundew, oxeye sunflower, and sticky tofeldia (false asphodel). There are countless stands of three of the “Monarda” species — bee balm, basil balm, and wild bergamot — but we weren’t able to locate any purple bergamot.
Curiously, there seems to be very little spotted touch-me-not (orange colored) this year, while entire slopes are covered with pale touch-me-not (yellow). Rosebay rhododendron is still flowering profusely, but Carolina and purple rhododendron are about done for the year.
If you only have a few hours to spare, the single most productive site along the parkway between Asheville and Cherokee (the section I know best) may well be the meadows and woodland edges at Deep Gap, which is situated adjacent to the Glassy Mine Overlook near milepost 437.
There, in mid-July, you won’t, to my knowledge, encounter any rare or endangered plants. But you can anticipate locating, among others, spiderwort, fire pink, sleepy catchfly, forked catchfly, Small’s ragwort, Deptford pink, black-eyed Susan, green-headed coneflower, cinquefoil, gray beardtongue, wood betony, southern harebell, wild quinine, sundrops, evening primrose, whorled loosestrife, wild lettuce, tall blue lettuce, dwarf dandelion, mouse ear, wild geranium, daisy fleabane, Indian paintbrush, several aster species, several sunflower species, several St. John’s-wort species, poke milkweed, thimbleweed, great angelica, mountain laurel, rosebay rhododendron, wild hydrangea, bush honeysuckle, heal-all, Queen-Anne’s-lace, Joe Pye weed, white snakeroot (milksick plant), Turk’s-cap lily, yarrow, houstonia, both touch-me-not species, pale Indian plantain, Carolina phlox, tall coreopsis, starry campion, common hedgenettle, flowering spurge, and all three species, already mentioned, in the “Monarda” genus: bee balm, basil balm, and wild bergamot.
Note that at Deep Gap the stands of basil balm (usually snow white petals with black spots) are interbreeding with adjacent stands of wild bergamot (usually lilac-colored petals without spots) and producing intermediate forms.