And Heaven in a Wildflower

Celebrating wildflowers means slowing down, looking closely, and having just a little bit of luck.


By Jeff Rennicke


They have wreathed the locks of royalty, fragranced the privies of the Middle Ages, and been prescribed as cures for everything from snake bites to the pangs of unrequited love. To scientists they speak of soil types and photoperiods and offer hints about global climate change. To poets like William Blake, who saw “a world in a grain of sand / and heaven in a wild flower,” they offer a very different vision.

Flowering plants are the most widespread plant types on the landmass of our planet, with more than a quarter of a million species known and new species still being discovered. Still, when it comes to wildflowers in our national parks, most of us just drive right on by never knowing what we may be missing. “When you take the time to look at a flower,” says Donald Davidson, a renowned botanical illustrator who runs workshops in the national parks, “you are not just looking at beauty but at natural history, human history, art, poetry—all of it.”

To do that, however, you must slow down. “The speedsters miss so much,” he says, referring to the car-bound visitors who rush from scenic overlook to scenic overlook seeking out postcard views. “Get out of the car, look closely. There is so much to see and learn from wildflowers. It may take a little patience, but the genius is in the details.”

And maybe heaven really is in a wildflower, if only we would slow down and look.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park—North Carolina and Tennessee 

Call it Wildflower National Park. “The diversity of plants in the Smokies is dazzling,” says Peter White, author of Wildflowers of the Smokies. “Some 1,660 kinds of flowering plants are found in Great Smoky Mountains National Park—more than in any other North American national park, even though a number of other parks are considerably larger.” With a temperate climate, hidden grottos and waterfalls, and elevations ranging from 875 feet to 6,643 feet, something is almost always in bloom in the Smokies.

Spring ephemerals emerge in the valleys and along the creek sides as early as February. Look for trillium, hepaticas, fire pink, lady slippers, and  bleeding heart, even as the high peaks are still blanketed in snow. Along the Porters Creek Trail, the sound of rushing water provides the background for a setting dominated by dwarf iris, bloodroot, Robin’s plantain, rue anemone, and whole trailsides dusted with drifts of spring beauty.

By early summer, blossoms rise like scented mist up the hillsides. The climbing Kanati Fork Trail or Chestnut Top Trail can lead you to displays of Dutchman’s britches, fire pink, jewel weed, and larkspur. Higher up and deeper into the summer, look for trout lily, flame azalea, bee balm, wood sorrel, and painted trillium. By July the hillsides seem aflame with Catawba rhododendron. As summer wanes you can still find the starbursts of asters, shrouds of monkshood, and if you are not too distracted by the fall foliage, yellow flowers of witch-hazel that bloom into early winter.

Beyond their beauty, wildflowers are also closely studied for the effects of lowered air quality (there is concern that high levels of air pollution hamper a flower’s ability to attract pollinators by scent), global warming, and the influx of more than 380 invasive species already identified in the park. Learn the science in the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage (www.springwildflowerpilgrimage.org, 865.436.7318), a week-long event that attracts more than 1,200 flower lovers to lectures, programs, and guided hikes among a park in bloom.

Gates of the Arctic National Park—Alaska

Long-time Alaskan Ray Bane, a former ranger at Gates of the Arctic, has called summer “a lie” in the Arctic. “Winter is the truth about Alaska,” he says. But if summer is a lie, what a spectacular lie it is. Sit on a ridge in Gates of the Arctic on a warm July day and the tundra surrounding you almost buzzes with life: mountain avens nodding “yes and yes and yes” in the soft breeze, puffs of cotton grass like tufts of summer clouds, white dryad and the yellow pinwheels of arnica, the fragile petals of forget-me-nots as blue as the clear Arctic sky.

Summer is a sky-rocket season this far north—short but spectacular. In the 24-hour summer sunlight, plants can photosynthesize almost constantly, fueling an unparalleled burst of life. Still, the cold, windy conditions that dominate most of the year are never far away. You can see the fingerprints of Alaska’s “truth” in the plants themselves. Moss campion clings like a clenched fist of purple flowers to the tundra floor to avoid the wind. The Arctic poppy is heliotropic, tracing the sun’s path with its flower head to maximize the solar rays and covering its stem in dark hairs to absorb heat. Everything that grows in the Arctic must be tough. In 1967, seeds from a 10,000-yearold tundra lupine discovered frozen in permafrost actually germinated within 48 hours of being planted.

Without a single maintained trail, the 7.2 million acres of wilderness set above the Arctic Circle are not the kind of place to expect interpretive signs to guide you to wildflowers. Many visitors drive up the rugged Dalton Highway, which skirts the eastern edge of the park, and hike in through fields of yellow oxytrope, bluebells, and Arctic daisies. Paddling the upper reaches of the Noatak River can lead you beneath hillsides dancing with saxifrage and daubed with Indian paintbrush. In July, hiking into the popular rock-climbing routes of the Arrigetch Peaks can land you hip-deep in fireweed.

Soak it in the way the plants and animals store up energy for winter. The “truth about Alaska” is never far away.

Death Valley National Park—California and Nevada

Park Ranger Charlie Callagan has learned to be careful with superlatives when it comes to the wildflower displays of Death Valley National Park. “In 1998 we had great wildflowers, and I was telling people that this was the bloom of the century,” he says. “Then in 2005, we had an even better year. People were kidding me saying, ‘Well, that was a pretty quick century!’”

At first glance, Death Valley can seem like an unlikely place for wildflowers, or much else in the way of life. With an annual average of just 1.9 inches of rain and summer temperatures as high as 134 degrees, it is one of the hottest and driest spots on the continent. Still, looks can be deceiving. There are 1,032 species of plants in this 3.3-million acre park, and under the right conditions—sufficient warmth, a lack of moisture-robbing winds, and above-average rainfall from well-spaced storms in winter and early spring—the show can be spectacular.

In good years, the displays begin as early as mid-February at the lower elevations. Look on the valley floor and along the base of alluvial fans in the southern section of the park for desert gold, blazing star, poppies, and an array of cactus species. By April, the show has moved up the slopes of the Amargosa and Panamint Mountains where you’ll find Panamint daisies, paintbrush, desert rue, and lupine. In the final flourish in early June, the highest reaches of the park such as Dante’s View and the shoulders of Telescope Mountain are fringed with wildrose, mariposa lilies, and colorful wands of lupine.

“Even in an average year the wildflowers of Death Valley can be incredibly beautiful if you know where to look,” says Callagan. And just knowing that the big blooms do happen, he says, “opens our eyes to the possibilities of the desert, makes us realize that there are millions and billions of seeds out there lying dormant, just waiting for the next time the perfect storm of conditions comes along again.”

Rocky Mountain National Park—Colorado

A “highway to the sky” and the “highest paved road in the world,” Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road has been called many things. Add one more: Wildflower Way. “There are dozens of great places to see wildflowers all over the park,” says naturalist Jared Gricoskie, who leads tours for the Rocky Mountain Nature Association and his own company Yellow Wood Guiding. “But if all you did was to drive the 48 miles of Trail Ridge, stopping at every pull out, you’d get a wonderful crosssection of the park’s flowers.”

Rocky Mountain stands more than a mile tall, stretching from 7,840 feet at the Beaver Meadows entrance to the 14,259-foot summit of Longs Peak and reaching through three major ecosystems, each with its own constellations of wildflowers. Below 9,000 feet, the wooded trails of Sprague Lake and the Gem Lake Trail shimmer with fairy slippers, western wallflower, daisies, larkspur, and buttercups blooming as early as April. A bit higher in the subalpine areas, columbine, silver lupine, and shooting star fringe the popular hike stringing together Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes. But the star of the show is the alpine tundra, a “world by itself in the sky,” as early conservationist Enos Mills called it. Trail Ridge Road is the pathway to that world.

Mid-July is peak season on the tundra. “At the height,” says Gricoskie, “you can’t walk ten steps without seeing a dozen different species.” There are alpine forget-me-nots, fairy primrose, phlox, blue harebell, iris, alpine sunflower. There are snow buttercups, golden draba, alp lily, and sky pilot. More than 200 varieties in all, and each one a survivor in this land above the trees where winds can top 170 miles an hour and snow can fall any month of the year. Ranger-led hikes run every day at 10 a.m. during the summer from the Alpine Visitor Center—or try self-guided hikes at the Medicine Bow, Rock Cut, or Lake Irene pull-outs areas.

It’s a short season—just six to eight weeks by the calendar—but Gricoskie uses a different measure: the Arctic gentian. “It is one of the last alpine flowers to bloom and, for me, a symbol of the season winding down,” he says. 

Leave No Trace

  • DO know before you go. Consult guidebooks and local experts for prime blooming seasons and
    locations.
  • DON’T pry open blossoms, spray with mist bottles to simulate dew, jostle stems to simulate
    wind, or in any other way manipulate plants for photographic purposes.
  • DO carry a magnifying glass or a macro camera lens to look closely at the beauty of flowers.
  • DON’T remove surrounding vegetation, rocks, or logs for a better view. The flower may be dependent on the exact, tiny  icroclimates created by such things to survive.
  • DO carry a guidebook for field identification or photograph and identify later.
  • DON’T pick or remove flowers in national parks—it’s illegal.
  • DO stay on trails or tread lightly if you must step off-trail.
  • DON’T trample flowers with boots or stake your tent on top of them.

Get Some Flower Power

Guidebooks:
General guides such as Wildflowers of North America by Frank D. Venning can be a good starting point; also visit the park bookstore for local guidebooks.

Websites:
Get up-to-date wildflower information for individual parks at www.nps.gov. The National Park Service also maintains the “Celebrating Wildflowers” website at

Wildflower Tours:
Most national parks offer ranger-led wildflower walks during peak bloom seasons. For a list of tour times and locations, contact the park’s main visitor center.

Jeff Rennicke has stopped to enjoy the wildflowers in more than 40 of our national parks.

This article appears in the Winter 2009 issue.

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