April is National Native Plant Month. These flowering plants welcome the warmer weather with bursts of color — and national parks are the perfect places to see them.
Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium and other species)
Native to much of the northern and western United States, these bright purple plants are sturdy and resilient and germinate easily in areas that have been disturbed by fire. The plants begin flowering at the base of the stem, and the blooms gradually open farther and farther up the stalk as the season progresses. Ranging in size from one to eight feet tall, fireweed thrives in extreme environments, including Alaskan parks such as Denali, Gates of the Arctic, and Glacier Bay National Parks and Preserves.
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
This bright poppy is the state flower of California, and its four-petaled blooms open in golden yellow and vibrant orange hues in the spring. Native to the Pacific Coast and northern Mexico, the drought-tolerant species can be found blanketing entire hillsides after wet winters. Places to see them include Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Mojave, Pinnacles and Saguaro National Parks, among many others.
Calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa)
The Everglades is famous for its diversity of orchids, but Florida wetlands aren’t the only place to see these beautiful flowers in the wild. Some northern parks, including Mount Rainier and Rocky Mountain National Parks, are home to Calypso orchids, purple and pink forest-dwelling flowers also known as fairy slippers. The striking plant grows in shady, mossy wooded areas and is named after the sea nymph in Homer’s “Odyssey” who was similarly described as beautiful and secluded.
Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)
The white and pink clusters of bell-shaped flowers on these hardy shrubs are a cheery spring sight on forest and mountain trails at numerous national park sites in the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic and the South, including Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Catoctin Mountain Park, and New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. The plant is especially prominent at Shenandoah National Park, where its pastel-colored blooms stand out in contrast to the greens and blues of the park’s forested ridges and hollows.
Trillium (Trillium erectum and other species)
Trilliums are lily varieties whose three-petaled blooms are among the earliest flowers to emerge in the spring and are sometimes referred to as ephemerals for their fleeting color and beauty. Various trilliums poke their heads from shady, forested landscapes throughout the country as the weather first warms, with blossoms ranging in color from delicate white to bold yellows and pinks. Red trilliums, sometimes called wake-robins, are native to most of the East Coast and Midwest and among the more deeply colored trilliums, with a foul smell that attracts pollinators. This is one to admire — but not sniff — at places such as Cuyahoga Valley National Park and New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
Bluebonnet (various species)
Texans take their bluebonnets very seriously. State legislators decided in 1901 that this foot-tall lupine should be the Texas state flower — then they engaged in a simmering 70-year debate over which species should take the official honor, ultimately including five different kinds. These purple blossoms blanket roadsides and cattle pastures throughout the state in early spring. Big Bend National Park even has its own species named after it (the Big Bend bluebonnet, Lupinus havardii), which blooms profusely along paved roads in the park.
Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia family, various species)
The sparse, muted landscapes of the desert offer an ideal canvas for wildflowers, which begin emerging in late winter. A variety of blossoms dot the landscape, from desert gold (Geraea canescens) to golden evening primrose (Camissonia brevipes) to desert paintbrush (Castilleja chromosa). Flowering cacti are some of the most ubiquitous native plants in warm, sunny climates, including Southwestern sites such as Joshua Tree National Park, Mojave National Preserve, Saguaro National Park and Tonto National Monument. Among the agave, cholla, claret cup and ocotillo, more than 100 varieties of prickly pear are native to the U.S. and offer up bright orange, pink and yellow blooms — as well as nutritious fruits enjoyed by people and a variety of wildlife.
Notable national parks for seeing wildflowers
Some of these parks have recently established reservation systems requiring visitors to purchase tickets in advance to enter, so be sure to check the park website for requirements before you visit, especially if you plan to go during peak season.
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Mount Rainier receives so much snowfall during the winter, its wet valleys — fertilized by centuries of ash from this once-active volcano — burst with thousands of blossoms during the magnificent late spring and summer seasons. A settler gave the Paradise region of the park its name in the late 1800s after seeing the blanket of flowers along the mountain’s southern slope. There are almost too many varieties to name — asters, columbine, lilies, lupine, paintbrush, phlox and much more. The display is particularly impressive in the subalpine regions of the park, where the flowers work overtime between mid-July and mid-August to reproduce in the few short weeks before the snows return to the mountain.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountains has such a wealth of flowering plants and shrubs that enthusiasts nicknamed it “Wildflower National Park.” More than 1,500 different types of flowers bloom over the course of a long and vibrant season. Fast-fading woodland flowers begin opening as early as February, including lady slipper orchids, iris, columbine, trillium and violets. In summer, cardinal flowers, bee balm, jewelweed, rhododendron and other varieties bring deeper colors to the landscape. Asters, coneflowers and monk’s hood are among the many flowers that peak in late summer and fall. During the park’s annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, visitors can enjoy guided tours and educational programs.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Rocky Mountain is one of the highest-elevation parks in the country, and up in this rarefied air, three major ecosystems — the montane, subalpine and alpine regions of the park — each offer their own flowers. Blooms start as early as April in the lower elevations and reach their peak around mid-July in the alpine regions. A trip along the park’s 48-mile Trail Ridge Road offers an excellent cross-section of the park’s flowers, and during the height of summer, daily ranger-led hikes from the Alpine Visitor Center highlight the wide variety of blooms that have adapted to life above 11,000 feet. Plants that bloom — albeit briefly — at this altitude include alpine sunflowers, primrose, mountain dryad, snow buttercups, fairy primrose and Arctic gentian.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Glacier is home to nearly a thousand different kinds of flowering plants. In April, the lower elevations of the park start showing the first bright-yellow hints of glacier lilies, which bloom at higher and higher elevations as the season progresses. In late summer, purple asters dot the park’s eastern meadows, especially in the Two Medicine region. Perhaps best-known are the park’s profusions of beargrass, tall plants that cover the landscape in curious spikes of white blossoms at the height of the park’s wildflower season, roughly late June through August.
Stay On Top of News
Our email newsletter shares the latest on parks.