Archived Mountain Voices

Late summer is an awesome time to botanize

Spring is the appointed time for the various wildflower pilgrimages and outings that attract thousands of visitors to the mountains of Western North Carolina each year. In April and May, it’s a piece of cake to locate spring beauty, hepatica, trailing arbutus, painted trillium, trout lily and all of the other showy wildflowers that appear in profusion before the leaf canopy fully closes in overhead.

Springtime wildflowering is easy pickings. No bugs. No sweltering heat. No beggar’s-lice. No sudden afternoon thunderstorms that leave you drenched and far from home.

As you read this column, however, it’s mid-August and all of the negative factors cited above are out in full force. Yet, the dog days represent one of the very best times to get out and botanize. Sweat may run off your brow into your eyes while you’re trying to key out an unknown species, but — if you persist — you’ll encounter many of the more spectacular wildflowers our region has to offer.

Most summertime wildflowers are located along open roadsides, woodland borders, and in upland pastures or meadows. The edges of creeks, rivers, lakes, and ponds are productive. Whenever I’m driving along and encounter an exposed rockface with water seepage, I hardly ever fail to pull over and take a look.

Wet rockfaces are especially promising when there are moss mats that provide a footing for plants like round-leaved sundew, a carnivorous plant that captures small insects with its glistening, sticky leaves. Sundews exude enzymes that dissolve the insect.  The insect’s proteins are then converted into nitrogen so the plant can inhabit its acidic, nitrogen-deficient habitat.

In damp pastures and meadows, Joe Pye weed and New York ironweed are making their appearance. The former is recognized by almost everyone, but do you know ironweed? It grows from three- to seven-feet tall, with a leaf-spread of about three feet. It’s easy to spot from your car. Whereas Joe-Pye-weed produces soft rounded plumes of lavender-pink flowerheads, ironweed presents a rugged, flat-topped appearance with numerous flowerets of a vivid deep purple (sometimes blue) hue gathered into a head about a foot wide.

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My favorite late summer wildflower is cardinal flower. Look for it along stream banks or back in the shade of moist woodland borders. About two- to four-feet high, the plant displays spikes of scarlet flowers above toothed leaves that alternate along the main stem. The one-inch long flowers are so vivid they seem to glow as they beckon hummingbirds and other pollinators.

You never know what you’ll encounter if you get out and poke around.  Several years ago, I stopped alongside U.S. 64 in Macon County with a natural history workshop from the John C. Campbell Folk School to take a look at a wetland area situated below the road embankment. We talked about wetland types (marshes, swamps, and bogs) for awhile until a belted kingfisher diverted our attention with rattling calls as it circled back and forth. Had we not been looking out over the wetland through binoculars at the kingfisher, we wouldn’t have spotted one of the more dense stands of spiked blazing star that I’ve ever encountered.

Spiked blazing star grows up to five-feet high with lovely spires of lavender-purple flowers. In its natural setting — as viewed from a distance through binoculars — the graceful plants moved slightly in the wind against a background of rushes and alder, creating an August wildflower setting that was memorable.      

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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