The changing of the clocks this month welcomes spring and with that comes lighter evenings, perfect for late-in-the-day hikes and enjoying nature after the working day. One of the more special places to embrace the change of season in the US is Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, which is home not only to many hiking trails but also over 850 species of ephemeral flowering plants, many of which are special to the state of Virginia.
Spring-flowering ephemerals are wildflowers that have a short life cycle. They bloom, are pollinated, go to seed, and then become dormant again until the following year. The window for experiencing Shenandoah’s woodland wildflowers is between mid-March into summer. Seventy percent of the flowers you will see here are native to the US and welcome visitors with a varied display of color and natural beauty throughout the growing season.
The first signs of blooming happens at a lower elevation in the park’s valley near bodies of water such as the South River, Hughes River, Rose River, and Mill Prong, and where the temperatures are warmer. During the beginning of the season, you’ll find violets, large-flowered trillium, pink lady’s slippers, and wild geraniums. People visiting later in spring will be blown away by the fields of pink azaleas and white mountain laurel.
As the season progresses into summer and fall, growth advances through the valley up onto the higher banks of Skyline Drive and the Big Meadows where columbine, milkweed, nodding onion, ox eye daisy, and wild sunflowers transform the landscape.
It makes sense if you are planning a hike in Shenandoah to keep in mind the stages of growth in the park. Lower level treks are recommended in spring where you’ll find the beginning signs of life. The National Park Service has created an informative calendar plotting out the different varietals of wildflowers and their average date of bloom. When enjoying the flowers in Shenandoah National Park, please bear in mind it is illegal to uproot or make cuttings from plants in the national park system.
What types of flowers can you see now?
The large-flowered trillium is one of the showier flowers in Shenandoah National Park. It can often take up to six years for a trillium to put out its first flower. The three-petaled white flower slowly turns a lovely light pink shade after it has been pollinated.
Nature makes some beautiful spring bouquets in the woodland and one of them is the varietal of chickweed. The pretty little dime-sized flowers are bunched together throughout the lower levels of the valley, scattered across the woodland floor.
There’s quite a range of violets in the park and not all are actually violet in color. You’ll find the common blue violet but also a yellow and white species. Violets are pollinated by bees, and a lot of native solitary bees in Virginia are small and can fit easily into a small bud like a violet. These flowers are also important hosts for butterflies; the great-spangled fritillaries, for example, only eat these plants and rely on them for survival.
Native in all counties of Virginia, this plant is very common in the park, but it has quite an unusual flower. The striped green and purple head can change sex every year depending on the nutrients in the soil. Male flowers can be identified as having one leaf and females have two.
Wild ginger is easily recognizable by its heart-shaped fuzzy leaves. These are low-growing plants that like wet ground, so you’ll likely find them growing near rivers, streams, and water bars in the park. The flowers are quite hard to see, as they grow at the very base of the leaves. However, they are worth hunting for; their very beautiful three-pointed petals are dusty red-brown in color.
Golden ragwort is a member of the daisy family. This is a beautifully sunny flower and its height makes it easy to spot. There are other varieties of ragwort flowers in Shenandoah National Park, but the golden is the first to bloom.
Apples are not native to North America. They were brought over from Europe long ago, but there are a lot of apple trees in the park, some of which are over a hundred years old. The flowers are large and pinkish-white in color, and the thousands of blooming trees throughout the woods make for quite a dramatic spectacle at this time of year.
Wild strawberries have a small pretty white flower that turns to fruit after pollination. The berry provides important sustenance for native wildlife in Virginia, especially the box turtle. Due to the size of the flower, it is often quite hard to see. To spot them, look around the bases of trees or fallen trunks.