Over 3,700 blooming native plants have been identified in North Carolina and many of them can be found in Wilkes County.
Wildflowers have put on an outstanding show this spring in the local woods, with some species blooming a little later than usual.
Trout lilies, which aren’t true lilies, are among the first to arrive. Their delicate yellow flowers appear in late March and the first of April along streams, close to the start of trout fishing season.
Their leaves, speckled like native brook trout, appear in large numbers and bring welcome green to otherwise brown ground. Trout lily leaves are edible and can be cooked and served with butter as a vegetable.
Bloodroot is often found among trout lilies but slightly later.
A bloodroot leaf is wrapped around the flower stem when it emerges and unfurls as it blooms. The namesake red sap in the roots is used as a natural red or yellow-orange dye.
The root sap has morphine-like alkaloids, primarily the toxin sanguinarine. Native Americans used the sap to induce vomiting, but ingestion isn’t recommended. The root sap has human tissue-destroying properties, so it was once used to treat ringworm, warts, polyps and fungal growths. Sanguinarine is used in some mouthwashes and toothpastes as a plaque inhibitor.
The low-growing trailing arbutus is among the best known of Eastern American wildflowers due to the spicy scent of its small white or pink flowers. It has oval, leathery, evergreen leaves with rust-colored hairs.
Trailing arbutus grows in a symbiotic relationship with a specific fungus often in the acidic soils of pinewoods, so it’s hard to successfully transplant. The plant is fairly rare due to its specific growing conditions, environmental disturbances (timber harvesting) and zeal of flower pickers.
At least two types of trillium bloom in Wilkes in the early spring: wake robin, with pale yellow or deep maroon flowers; and Catesby’s, white with red rays coming from the center of the flower. All species of trillium are distinguished by their three leaves radiating from the tops of their stalks.
Trout lily, bloodroot, trailing arbutus and trillium are among several local early spring wildflowers with seeds dispersed by ants, often to favorable germination spots. The fleshy parts of the seeds are important early season food for the ants, when dead bugs the ants prefer are in short supply.
Just to name a few, other spring bloomers in Wilkes include foam flower, showy orchis, dwarf-crested iris, fire pink, Carolina silver bell and Carolina columbine.
Foam flowers are named for their delicate white flowers on a stem that look somewhat like foam. They grow from underground runners so spread easily.
Showy orchis is an elegant small orchid with light purple and white flowers. These and other wild orchids also have a special relationship with certain fungi and only grow where it’s present, so they likewise are hard to transplant.
Other orchids found in Wilkes include pink lady slippers, often in Virginia pine stands, and the less common yellow lady slippers. “Slippers” is a reference to the inflated moccasin-like portion of the flowers.
Found in several parts of the Brushy Mountains, Carolina silverbell is a shrubby tree with dainty clusters of white bell-shaped flowers hanging below the branches in early spring. Its lime green foliage turns yellow in the fall.
Crested dwarf iris is among the more easily grown local wildflowers due to its tolerance of varied soil and light conditions.
The delicate Carolina columbine has drooping, bell-like light pink/red and yellow flowers with nectar consumed by butterflies, bumblebees and hummingbirds.
Carolina columbine is among wildflowers migratory ruby-throated hummingbirds count on for energy upon arriving in North Carolina after a nonstop crossing of the Gulf of Mexico each spring. In turn, they help pollinate the flowers.
Hummingbirds also gather nectar from the showy red flowers of fire pink, which start blooming a little later in the spring. These star-shaped blooms appear one to two feet off the ground, so stand out well.
Bee balm and red cardinal flower, both summer bloomers, are also important nectar sources for hummingbirds.