BY PAM BAGGETT / Cedar Grove, North Carolina, USDA Zone 7a
On my next Parkway trip, I plan to take Wildflowers of the Southern Mountains by Richard M. Smith (University of Tennessee Press, 1998) and Wildflowers of the Blue Ridge Parkway by J. Anthony Alderman (University of North Carolina Press, 1997). The camera-crazed will want Wildflowers of the Southern Appalachians: How to Photograph and Identify Them by Kevin Adams and Marty Casstevens (John F. Blair, 1996).
Blue Ridge Beauties
For years I read that Phlox paniculata was native to North Carolina. If so, why had I never seen it growing wild? My coastal upbringing acquainted me with the red-gold pinwheels of Gaillardia pulchella and the sweet, sticky blossoms of an unidentified native azalea. In central North Carolina, where I now live, I’ve spotted little Iris verna, the silvered leaves of Geranium maculatum, sweeps of spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), and shade-loving heucheras. But where was the queen of the June perennials?
Two summers ago I discovered the answer: I’d never seen Phlox paniculata growing wild in North Carolina because I had never been up on the Blue Ridge Parkway in June. A winding mountain road that threads along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains from southwestern North Carolina to upper Virginia, the Parkway is the place to view spring’s spectacular native rhododendron display or the vibrant autumn leaf color that attracts thousands of tourists each October. Though less dramatic than those brief ostentatious displays, the wildflowers that bloom on the Parkway’s roadsides in summer will make any plant lover’s heart palpitate.
I returned last June, determined to botanize my way across the Blue Ridge. But after four hours I had managed to travel 20 miles, stopped every few yards by a new surprise, like the speckled yellow whorls of Monarda clinopodia, the elegant and exotic-looking Asclepias exaltata, and dainty purple Penstemon smallii. The flaming red stars of fire pink (Silene virginica) were everywhere once I climbed above 3,500 feet, belying its reputation for being a difficult grower. (Think steep rocky slopes, the ultimate in good drainage.) A sea of dainty hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) swept over shaded slopes and damp, sunlit rock formations, where water wept from the fissures.
I spotted only a few remaining blossoms on Rhododendron catawbiense, but New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) was in full beeladen bloom. Large stands of maple-leaved raspberry (Rubus odoratus) arched over banks and cliff faces, its oversized magenta-purple blossoms interwoven with the rosy bells of leatherleaf clematis (Clematis viorna). And then, there she was, holding court at 3,750 feet, her rosy purple clusters gracefully inclined toward the sun. In the wild, Phlox paniculata tends to be that shade of purple gardeners are always trying to “improve,” but along one stretch of the Parkway I found creamy white and pink as well. I spotted flowers with overlapping petals—the plant breeder’s preference—but also starry domes and wide-spaced petals flashing gaptoothed grins. The queen’s gown of deep green foliage was unmarred by powdery mildew, a slap at those of us who struggle with it in the steamy-hot lowlands.
Pack your field guides and traverse the Blue Ridge, but watch your step. A deep, grated culvert hugs the cliff side of the road, designed to prevent rain from eroding the downward slope. Over time the open culvert has been buried in organic matter, so it only looks like solid ground—a fact I discovered when one leg went through and I performed my first full split since my midtwenties.
And watch out for bears. After all, they grow wild on the Blue Ridge, too. H
Phlox paniculata ‘Nicky’
If I had seen Phlox paniculata ‘Nicky’ up on the Blue Ridge, I’d have wrecked my car. Radiant, rich raspberry-magenta flower heads top three- to four-foot stems, causing brakes to squeal wherever it’s grown. So will the mildew-resistant foliage. Not convinced? Try ‘Nicky’ with lemon-yellow daylilies and Panicum virgatum ‘Dallas Blues’. Sources, page 96.