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A spectacular Piedmont wildflower display

2011 May 12

PHOTO BY KEN MOORE. The penstemons (beardtongues) are beginning to flower at Mason Farm.

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist

Hey there folks, this is advance notice that the penstemons at Mason Farm are beginning to flower!!

Last week, a few early-flowering stems were evident. A “closer look” brought into focus hundreds upon hundreds of plants that will be coming into full, peak, flowering during the next two weeks.

Folks who enjoy walking the trail around Mason Farm’s Big Oak Woods during all the seasons may recall the charred, blackened appearance of some of the fields back in February and March. It’s unbelievable that spectacular masses of white flowers appear in those fields just two months after the N.C. Botanical Garden’s “fire crew” burned them.

The penstemon flowering will be more spectacular this year than last. Members of the garden’s fire crew said that prescribed burning (carefully planned and supervised fire used as a vegetation management tool) helps increase the diversity and flowering of plants in the fields. Fire also helps control some of the unwanted exotic invasives.

You’ll want to take a close look inside the snapdragon-like flowers to discover why they are called beardtongue. To avoid the poison ivy and ticks in the fields, I like to have binoculars handy for viewing flowers up close for surprising details. Those fields of wildflowers and grasses also attract all kinds of colorful pollinators, and binoculars help bring them in for close inspection.

We are fortunate to have such spectacular displays of wildflowers so easy to access without having to travel great distances.

Mason Farm is one of the most accessible nearby special places, and the entire experience is on easy-walking, level ground.

You can obtain a Mason Farm Biological Reserve visitor’s permit at the Botanical Garden reception desk. That permit allows you to enter the security gate that protects the natural area, which is open sunup to sundown. In the interest of protecting wildlife and ongoing biological research, dogs are not permitted, but you are very welcome to have children accompany you. Their eyes are keen and will show you things you most likely will miss.

Oh, I almost forgot: The official name of those beardtongues is Penstemon digitalis. It’s tall and white and covers the fields. Curiously, its natural range is limited to the mountains, and botanists are wondering how it arrived here, and when. Don’t be alarmed if you spot a few smaller, pinkish beardtongues scattered about among the taller white ones. Not certain what that one is, botanists simply say that it requires more study!

More importantly, make note that you have two weeks to view the penstemons, whatever species they are. Plan it as a peak penstemon break. It’s enough to rejuvenate both mind and spirit!

Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora.

PHOTO BY JOHNNY RANDALL. The N.C. Botanical Garden's Dan Stern takes a “penstemon break” at Mason Farm.

PHOTO BY JOHNNY RANDALL. The Botanical Garden's expert “fire crew” includes, left to right, Johnny Randall, Charlie Tomberlin, Monica Foley, Amanda Mixon, Andy Walker, Sally Heiney, Mike Kunz, Matt Gocke, JC Poythress and Irene Sadler.

PHOTO BY JOHNNY RANDALL. This field, burned in March, is now a sea of flowering penstemon.

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