By Pat Stone
Henry James once said, “Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” I don’t want to argue with a famous author, so I’ll just say that, in my opinion, the other most beautiful words in the English language are “spring ephemerals.”
Relaxing on a gentle summer day is a pleasure, to be sure. So is pursuing those most delicate of early spring offerings, ephemeral wildflowers. The distinguishing trait of these plants is that they bloom and complete their life cycle before the trees leaf out and block the sun from the forest floor—hence, the name ephemeral. Trilliums, those large, three-leaved woodland beauties, are ones we all know. And grand they are. But there are so many more to admire, most of them small, delicate, and enchanting.
And their names! Who can resist wanting to see rue anemone, trailing arbutus, sweet cicely, squirrel corn or Dutchman’s breeches? And those are just some of the white ones. Start in on colorful blooms and you get trout lily, sundrops, yellow mandarin, meadow parsnip, little brown jug and pink lady’s slipper.
Spring ephemerals aren’t that hard to find. The trick, of course, is finding the flowers during the small windows when the plants are up and in bloom.
But here you can cheat. Did you miss your chance to admire the speckles on those super-early trout lilies when you looked at 3,000 feet in late March? Go up to 4,000 feet and seek them there—the old naturalists say every 1,000 feet you gain in altitude is equivalent to being 300 miles farther north. The trilliums haven’t started blooming where you live in February? Drop down to Jones State Park in South Carolina. They’re probably flowering there. Changing altitude lets you move forward and back in time!
Still, not every spring walk yields a plethora of ephemera. So, while I normally keep my favorite spots in the woods secret, I’m going to make an exception here and share the most profuse wildflower venture I know: Bradley Fork Trail at the southern end of the Smokies.
I have never been on a walk so carpeted with wildflowers. It’s like being at a parade—only you are the one parading and the banks of wildflowers lining the dirt-road trail are the crowds of spectators. Long swaths of Canada mayflower applaud you from one side, while clusters of fringed phacelia wave white pom-poms from the other. Wild geranium wrestles with giant chickweed for the best view of the trail (and sunlight). Swaths of woodland phlox intermingle with bands of speckled wood lily. Even my favorite ephemeral of all, crested dwarf iris, shows its precious, three-stemmed purple blooms in greater numbers than I’ve ever seen before. The first few miles of the trail are level and easy (albeit a bit wet if it has rained recently) after which it climbs—forward in height, backward in time—from 3,500 to 5,000 feet in a couple of miles.
To get there, head north out of Cherokee on U.S. Highway 441. A couple of miles past the Oconaluftee Visitors Center, take the marked right turn to Smokemont campground. Park at the far end of the campground, staying on the near (right as you drive in) side of the stream. Walk past the car-blocking gate and enjoy!
One last thought: if you’re like me, you’ll read an article like this and think, “That sounds wonderful; I’m going to do that sometime.” Then you’ll get so caught up in the blur of contemporary life that you never even remember your resolution to go wildflower hunting—much less do it.
That was always true of me, as well, until last spring when I realized what is, ultimately, the true spring ephemeral—me.
So I went on a half-dozen wildflower strolls. I studied the minute blooms on bishop’s cap until I finally saw how they got their name. I checked damp seeps until I discovered—and tasted—brook lettuce. I learned that wild stonecrop does, indeed, crop up on stones. And I loved every minute of it.
Don’t wait. There is no time like the present. Actually, there is no time other than the present.
Grab a guidebook. Put on your walking boots. Go. Happy Trails!
Wildflowers of the Smokies (Peter White, Great Smoky Mountains Association) covers more than 250 native wildflowers, organized first by color and then by shape. It has fine photographs and lore, is a cinch to use and fits in a pocket. It also describes a few fine wildflower hikes—and drives.
Waterfalls & Wildflowers in the Southern Appalachians
(Timothy P. Spira, UNC Press) covers more than 125 local wildflowers. It’s easy to use, well-illustrated with color photos and decked with lore. Even better, it gives complete directions to 30 regional waterfall hikes—and tells you what wildflowers you’ll likely find along the trails in each season.
Pat Stone is editor of GreenPrints: “The Weeder’s Digest,” a magazine that shares the personal side of gardening in stories and art. Learn more at GreenPrints.com.