I have a never-ending love of wildflowers because they were my introduction to a lifelong pursuit and love of plants, gardening, garden design and garden management. As a child, I learned the names of all the wildflowers from my grandmother and parents as we dutifully carried a well-loved copy of “Wild Flowers of North Carolina” by William S. Justice and C. Ritchie Bell on every walk and wildflower exploration in the woods. This guide, in its simplicity, was my first plant bible until my botany classes in college and still today, I reach for that well-worn copy when I’m asked about wildflowers.
The unfolding of wildflowers through the seasons in the Southern Appalachian Mountains has literally stopped me in my tracks time and time again. Most recently, in the Arboretum’s Stream Garden where I’ve grown to appreciate an overlooked wildflower: golden ragwort or groundsel (Packera aurea). This unassuming plant won me over with its bold spring yellow flowers held high on erect stems.
The lure of wildflowers in the springtime seems to be one that I can’t escape and perhaps you feel that too. A walk to the National Native Azalea Collection area along Bent Creek unfolds a set of wildflowers including Oconee bells (Shortia galacifolia), trout lily (Erythronium americanum), Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) and wild violets (Viola sp.). Dry banks along Bent Creek Road hold at eye level an entire range of sun loving ephemerals such as firepink (Silene virginica) and fleabane (Erigeron spp.) that will be shaded by summer’s foliage in a few weeks. Creekside, I noted that one of my favorite wildflowers, yellow root (Xanthoriza simplicissima), is blooming. Its star shaped brown flowers hardly call attention to their complexity and dramatic presentation. The wet seep along Running Cedar Road is filled with cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) fiddleheads and a sweep of rivercane ( Arundinaria gigantea) and although not wildflowers per se, they are harbingers of spring in their own calming way.
In the Plants of Promise Garden, I stop to admire a large planting of Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica; pictured right) and I catch my breath at the amazing blue color of the petals as they shiver in the breeze. Crested iris (Iris cristata; pictured left) boldly dares to bloom at the edge of an island planting in the Bonsai Exhibition Garden while toadshade or toad trillium (Trillium sessile) demurely blooms in the shade of a redbud tree (Cercis canadensis). In the Stream Garden the dark red flower petals of pawpaw (Asimina triloba) look black against the blue sky and wild ginger (Asarum canadense) with Mayapple carpets the soils under a yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea) cathedral canopy. A large patch of later blooming bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) also joins in the tapestry.
This year, the signature Quilt Garden pays homage to two of North Carolina’s native lily species featuring Gray’s Lily (Lilium grayi) and Carolina Lily or Michaux’s Lily, (Lilium michauxii) in its Carolina Lily Variation Quilt block pattern.
A visit to the Arboretum, in any season is a chance to be lured into loving wildflowers and to be convinced that one can grow them if one is keen to try.
The Arboretum will continue to try cultivate these amazing wildflowers and other native plants throughout the gardens with generous support from donors. Native plants are incredibly important for our ecosystem and The North Carolina Arboretum Society supports the Arboretum in this work. We are particularly grateful for a recent multi-year pledge from Merrily Orsini and Frederick “Rick” Heath to support The Native Plant Fund. The Native Plant Fund, established by Drs. Jane Bramham and Camilla Collins in 2007, funds native plant installations and related projects throughout the campus. Thank you Merrily and Rick for helping us bloom!