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Spectacular wildflowers in the Piedmont

2009 May 14

Individuals flowers of mountain laurel deserve a closer look. Photo by Ken Moore.

By Ken Moore

A friend visiting last week from the Carolina mountains inquired of some locals about locations of spectacular wildflower displays here in the Piedmont. He was surprised by the response. Spectacular wildflowers and the Piedmont don’t go together, he was told. It’s an oxymoron!

I didn’t have opportunity to convince my friend otherwise because he was intent to be on his way on a two-week journey chasing wildflowers in the eastern coastal swamps and savannahs. He had little enthusiasm for what our local Piedmont may have to offer.

I had wanted to show him the spectacular mountain laurels, Kalmia latifolia, but he was not interested in a plant so common around his home turf. My enthusiasm for this local mountain did not impress him. Before he left, however, I gave him lengthy descriptions of other Piedmont locations of spectacular wildflowers.

I described the far-as-the-eye-could-see display of Dutchman’s breeches on the Flat River north of Durham. I described the river bottom, white with spring beauties, along the Eno River at Hillsborough. I described Mason Farm Biological Reserve, where fields still spectacular with sweeps of copper-brown broom sedge will give way in another week to knock-your-socks-off spectacular Penstemons. Mason Farm alone provides year-round occurrences of impressive seasonal displays. The number of local wild flora sites is endless.

This past weekend I discovered a spectacular new trail. The 2.2 mile Occoneechee Mountain loop trail begins at the western edge of the official parking area and leisurely meanders around the western mid-slope of the mountain dominated by mature rock chestnut oaks, Quercus montana. I was so engaged in the various flowering patches of fetterbush, Lyonia mariana, and deerberry, Vaccinium stamineum, that I was downright startled when I looked up to see, in full flower, alone in the open forest, a specimen of tree-form mountain laurel. My objective of the walk was to view the mountain laurel that is usually in full flower on Mother’s Day. Far out from the north-slope and mountain-top population of laurel, this fine specimen was a surprising sentinel of the spectacle to come.

I soon found myself dwarfed beneath a canopy of flowering laurel with, in places, a groundcover of galax, Galax aphylla, so characteristic of the mountains farther west.

The laurel seemed to be at peak, but many buds were still closed. A closer look at just-opened flowers will reveal 10 dark burgundy-red stamens embedded in the petal surface. Examining older flowers, you will discover stamens in an inverted curved position, having sprung upward, when ripe, tossing pollen out onto unsuspecting insect pollinators.


A sentinel mountain laurel announces a spectacular flower display further beyond. Photo by Ken Moore

I felt myself in the heart of the Carolina mountains. Some many thousands of years ago, I would have been correct. How fortunate we are that a few “relict” plant communities still linger nearby on sites where just a few degrees of temperature differences and slope orientation allow a few characteristic mountain species to survive following the last southern glacial episode.

The mountain laurels are still in flower. Get out in the next week to see them, and make note that we do have spectacular Piedmont wildflower displays!!

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