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Spectacular wildflowers in the Piedmont

2012 May 3

By Ken Moore
Flora columnist

A friend visiting from the Carolina mountains inquired of some local folks about locations of spectacular wildflower displays here in the Piedmont. He was surprised by their response that the Piedmont doesn’t have any spectacular displays of wildflowers.

I didn’t have the opportunity to convince my friend otherwise because he was intent to be on his way on a two-week journey in pursuit of spectacular wildflower displays in the eastern coastal long leaf pine savannahs.

Before he left, however, I described locations of spectacular wildflowers here in our Piedmont.
For instance, there is the far-as-the-eye-can-see display of Dutchman’s breeches on the Flat River north of Durham in mid-March; spring beauties carpet the flood plains of the Eno River and New Hope Creek from late February through mid-April; and some of the fields at Mason Farm Biological Reserve are a sea of tall white-flowering Penstemons in mid-May. In late summer and early fall those same fields have spectacular displays of other wildflowers. Depending on the season, we have lots of spectacular wildflower areas here in the Piedmont!

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

I wanted to show my friend the spectacular mountain laurels,Kalmia latifolia, on Occoneechee Mountain near Hillsborough, but he was not interested in a plant so common around his home turf.

However, you local folks should welcome this spectacular mountain laurel display such a short drive away. The Occoneechee mountain laurel is usually at peak on Mother’s Day, but it’s early this year; now’s the time to visit.

The 2.2-mile Occoneechee Mountain loop trail begins at the western edge of the parking area and leisurely meanders around the western slope of the mountain, dominated by mature rock chestnut oaks, Quercus montana.

Along that path you’ll find flowering patches of fetterbush, Lyonia mariana, and deerberry, Vaccinium stamineum. If you’re observant you may spot a lone mountain laurel in the forest below you. That lone flowering specimen stands like a sentinel ahead of the endless thicket of mountain laurel you will find as you continue around to the north slopes.

You’ll find yourself dwarfed beneath a canopy of flowering laurel, and in places you’ll be surprised to see evergreen round leaves of galax, Galax aphylla, covering the ground beneath the laurel. You will feel like you are in the Carolina mountains. We’re fortunate to have a few locations like Occoneechee where small relict mountain-plant communities continue to survive on cool north river slopes following the last southern glacial period.

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

Pause for a while and take a closer look at some of those round, bowl-shaped laurel flowers. In some, the 10 dark, burgundy-red stamens are embedded in the petal surface. In older flowers, you will discover that the stamens are in an inverted curved position, having sprung upward when ripe, tossing pollen onto unsuspecting insect pollinators. If you’re clever, you may be able to get some of those embedded stamens to perform for you.

Make haste to get out this week if you want to enjoy this particular spectacular Piedmont wildflower display!

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora (

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