The dawning of color in late winter has always been a sure sign to the Appalachian people that spring is soon on its way. The hardy leaves of blue flag irises pushing up through the snow, and the stalks of daffodils extending through the cold soil can be a welcomed sign to many. This signals that the transformation from frigid temperatures to the end of hard winter living is over for the season. The rain and warm southern winds aid in the transition from a bleak winter into colorful fields and hillsides, and as the weather becomes fair, foragers search the mountains for beneficial plants to bring back home to eat or use for dyes, tanning agents, or medicines. Sometimes these plants and flowers are simply identified, enjoyed for their inherent beauty, and left alone. These early blooms are also welcomed meals by many animals that roam the valleys and mountains. So, if you love to be outdoors and plan on hiking early in the season, be on the lookout for these emerging Appalachian flowers.
Skunk Cabbage (Yes, it’s really stinky!)
As early as February it is possible to find the pungent flowers and leaves of skunk cabbage pushing up through the cold, damp Appalachian ground. The odd flower it yields makes it easy to identify, producing a teardrop shaped sheath, reddish-purple in color with green-yellow specks. Once the sheath opens, an off-white club shaped organ can be seen inside; it’s green, broad ovate leaves resemble a cross between cabbage and plantain. Skunk cabbage is an impressive plant harboring the ability to regulate its own temperature. This plant puts off enough heat in late winter and early spring to melt the snow and ice around river banks from which it grows, keeping an internal temperature around 60 degrees.
Yellow Trout Lily
Found in March through May, the yellow trout lily reminds their observer to plant your roots deep and persevere, much like the Appalachian mountain culture. When trout lilies mature they produce two lance shaped leaves of a mottled purple-green color and a single yellow flower emerging on a long stalk between them. Trout lily bulbs, their main means for reproduction, are sterile for roughly three to six years. It isn’t until after a few years pass that the bulb will produce one leaf and no flower, a few more years go by and it will fully mature, producing two leaves and yellow flower. Although it takes more than a handful of years for these Appalachian flowers to mature, it is not uncommon to see hundreds or thousands of trout lilies all bunched-up together on the hillsides of open woodlands; a colony would have taken hundreds of years to create.
Do you see those little yellow flowers along the roadside in March and April? You may have spotted colt’s foot. Akin to dandelion, colt’s foot received its name from the shape of its leaves, resembling horse’s hooves. The scientific name Tussilago signifies this plant dispels coughs, which is exactly what it was used for over the years. An old Appalachian folk remedy uses colt’s foot to make a tea by boiling down the leaves, straining, then sweetening the colt’s foot infused water with honey or liquor, and it drank as needed for cough and colds.
The beloved chickweed is found all throughout the Appalachian and Smoky Mountains. Identified by its small white star-shaped flowers sprouting from stringy stems with light green, smooth oval leaves. Although, many modern homeowners consider this plant to be a pest, chickweed was helpful to early Appalachian mountain folk and it still gathered today, as it is a nutritious source of early spring food, high in fiber, minerals, and vitamin A and C. Chickweed is loved by small mammals such as birds and rabbits and has also been used medicinally. It was mostly used as an anti-inflammatory, both internally and externally; as well as astringent for acne, blisters, and splinters. Before modern science, mountain folk would use these beneficial Appalachian flowers to forecast rain, as the flowers will close-up if a storm is on its way.
Pink Lady’s Slipper
You may have come across this bizarre Appalachian Mountain orchid while hiking. Known as a pink lady’s slipper, this odd plant features two large, shiny basal leaves at the bottom, between them is a fuzzy stalk that leads to a thin, pink, and veiny pouch. While pink and yellow lady’s slippers are more common, if you find a white lady’s slipper, consider yourself very lucky, they are very rare. Pink lady’s slippers are unique because in order to grow and successfully reproduce, there must be a particular fungus also present in the soil. It is recommended that no lady’s slippers should be picked, not only because on the select means of which it reproduces, but also because it can take several years for a plant to mature, and these plants can live to be over 20 years old.
Those are just some of the Appalachian flowers that can be found blooming early in the Springtime. What are your favorite mountain wildflowers?