Fall wildflowers in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina

This is the time of the year when there is an explosion of wildflowers on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. Two friends from Atlanta, Georgia had agreed to join me in a drive up to the Parkway to study and photograph some of these wonderful wildflowers. My friends, Alan Cressler and Steve Bowling, met me at the house early Saturday morning (September 14, 2013), and we packed all of our gear into my truck and headed north toward North Carolina.

Scene from the Blue Ridge Parkway

I had planned to get to the Parkway via Hwy. 276 which runs through the Pisgah National Forest north of Brevard, North Carolina. This is a very scenic road with lots of wildflowers growing along the roadside. There were several flower species I had photographed about a year before in the Pisgah National Forest near to one of the entrances to the Parkway, and I hoped they would be blooming one year later. One of these is Chelone obliqua or Red Turtlehead.

We arrived at the spot, parked, and unpacked our gear. It was easy to find the plants, since those deep pink flowers were swaying in the breeze. They were growing on a wet cliff face very near to the road. In fact, they were so close to the road that while we were photographing these beauties, we had to move several times, because when we bent over to focus the camera lens, our rear ends would be sticking out into the path of traffic. We eventually got our shots, which included some of the darkest pink color forms I had ever seen:

A few miles up the road was another area where I had previously photographed wildflowers. These belong to a very colorful group of wildflowers that line Hwy. 276 north of Brevard, North Carolina. One of these is the common, Impatiens capesis or Orange Jewelweed. It’s also know as Common Jewelweed, Spotted Jewelweed, and Spotted Touch-me-not. Here is an image of the flower of Impatiens capensis:

Orange Jewelweed

This is a beautiful flower, but photographing it is a study in patience and frustration. You see, it hangs from the stem by a thread-thin connection, causing it to rock back and forth even in the slightest breeze. There seems to be almost no way to isolate it from the breezes, so I ended up snapping a dozen or more shots, hoping one of them was in focus. These grow right next to the highway, so any traffic going or coming just added to my frustration…

Intermixed with the Orange Jewelweed, were two of it’s “cousins”, Impatiens pallida (Pale Jewelweed) and the rare, Impatiens pallida forma alba (the white form of Pale Jewelweed):

Eventually, we reached the Parkway and headed west. Along the way, I remembered a roadside site that provides habitat for a very showy Gentian, Gentiana decora or, of course known as Showy Gentian. The flowers of this one are mostly white with blue stripes:

But, it was time head on to a site for an orchid species that I only recently discovered growing beside the road along the Parkway. This species is Spiranthes ochroleuca or Yellow Ladies’-tresses orchid. The flowers are not actually “yellow”, but rather are a pale, creamy color of yellow. In any case, they were in perfect shape for photography purposes. I like it when all I have to do is park the truck and walk about fifty feet to the photography location. 😉

Here are some images of this beautiful orchid species:

You may have noticed some colorful flowering plants behind the orchids in the previous shots. One of these is the purple Gentianopsis quinquefolia or Stiff Gentian. It seems to prefer to grow above 5500 feet (1675 meters) in altitude, so we were able to find it as we gained altitude. It grows in profusion on the roadside with the orchids, making for some interesting and colorful images. The plants are up to 12 inches (60 cm) tall, and they have 1-inch (2.5 cm) flowers that never fully open. The color ranges from a light, lilac purple to a rich, deep purple:

That last unfocused shot (above right) shows some of the many butterflies we saw busying themselves with pollinating the Stiff Gentians. I had always wondered what critter would be good at prying apart the closed flowers, and the butterflies seem to have a knack for doing so.

The other colorful flower that we saw growing among the orchids is the beautiful yellow Solidago roanensis or Roan Mountain Goldenrod. It really covers the roadsides at altitudes above 5000 feet (1500 meters). The splash of yellow we saw as we rounded many of the curves along the Parkway reminded us that autumn was almost upon us. Here are some shots of this Goldenrod:

Roan Mountain Goldenrod

There is one other similar appearing plant that grows among the Goldenrod, and it is Solidago bicolor or Silverrod:

Silverrod

I believe it is much more frequent in other locations, but we found only one small population.

Time was moving on, so we needed to do the same. Our next stop was Wolf Mountain Overlook just up the road a bit. For us, the great view was not the goal today, rather it was the wet cliff face on the north side of the Parkway, on the other side of the road from the overlook parking lot. When we arrived at the location, I was somewhat taken aback, since the sign indicating that we were at Wolf Mountain Overlook was missing — only the two vertical posts were still standing. That should have been a clue to me that we were not at the correct location, but that has never held me back. I found out later that this is Herrin Knob Overlook. I have no clue why the sign was missing.

The other clue was the condition of the cliff face — it was almost dry! The plants we came to see usually thrive in the water that runs over the cliff face. I also was expecting to find another wildflower species that I didn’t see at this location, at all. What’s going on, I wondered? Anyway, Alan and Steve had never been to this particular spot, so we searched the base of the cliff face for botanical material. What we found was a huge surprise to me: one of the plants I had come looking for — the rare, Gentiana latidens or Balsam Mountain Gentian, found only in a few places in the mountains of North Carolina. Even though we were soon to find out that the real Wolf Mountain Overlook was farther west about a quarter of a mile (~500 meters), we had just found the best population of this Gentian species that I had ever seen:

Balsam Mountain Gentian

Balsam Mountain Gentian

Balsam Mountain Gentian

At this point, I was really disapponted that the other wildflowers I was hoping to find were not present. So, after photographing this fantastic population, we packed our gear and headed farther west. After a short distance, I recognized the next overlook as the “real” Wolf Mountain Overlook. As expected, the cliff face was dripping wet, and it was obviously the right place because there were hundreds of Parnassia asarifolia or Kidney-leaf Grass-of-Parnassus growing at the base and on the cracks in the rock:

Parnassia asarifolia

Parnassia asarifolia and Gentiana latidens

In one of the wet spots at the base of the cliff face, I managed to find a few Saxifraga michauxii or Michaux’s Saxifrage that still had a few fresh flowers:

Michaux's saxifrage

What a way to end one of the most memorable day-trips I’ve ever had on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Great friends and great wildflowers — hard to beat that combination…

— Jim

10 comments


  • Chris Davidson

    Wonderful blog Jim!
    Looks like a great trip!

    September 16, 2013
  • Kathy Gregg

    Hi, All, Wow, my husband and I just returned from four days enjoying the Skyline Drive. But your flower photos have ours beat, for sure! The goldenrods and asters were fabulous but we didn’t see any gentians! Our prizes: videos and stills of three black bears, one of which was a cub up with her mom, munching acorns about 50 feet up in the air!!! Amazingly, we could hear one of them huffing as he strained to reach the laden branches.

    September 16, 2013
  • Great entry, long time no see, I had decided you were off to somewhere exotic again. I see that showy Gentian is found here in Raleigh County, WV, so I need to get busy and do some searching. I know where to find the common Blue Closed Gentian, do you know if they like the same habitat or appear together?

    September 16, 2013
    • Jim

      Charles, the Showy Gentian I photographed was in a rather dry woods. The Stiff Gentian was on a rather dry roadside bank, and the Balsam Mountain Gentian preferred to have its feet very near water…

      Jim

      September 16, 2013
  • sonnia hill

    Jim, I can’t wait to go to flickr, see, fave and comment on these beauties. Such a treat.
    Sonnia

    September 16, 2013
  • Another sensational trip. Please keep this blog going!

    September 16, 2013
  • A lovely set of shots Jim. I particularly liked the last 2 plants especially the saxifrage.
    In UK we have three similar species of Impatiens.One of them is pink and called Himalayan balsam (glandulifera) This is a highly invasive species of waterways and very difficult to control because of the way it distributes its seeds.

    September 18, 2013
  • I knew I should have planned a trip up there this fall, but can’t make it this year. Perhaps we can meet up there next year.

    September 22, 2013
  • KT

    Wow what a great trip! So many beautiful flowers. This is why I call autumn is spring’s encore. Wonderful images Jim.

    September 27, 2013
  • Raymond

    Believe I found some Balsam mountain gentian walking my property here in Southwestern Ontario. Wondering if you can verify what I have found.

    September 10, 2017

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