by Ray Allen
[caption id="attachment_469" align="alignleft" width="299" caption="Wild Azalea in the NC/TN mountains "]
Eat your heart out, northeasterners! What I call spring's "Wildflower Wave" has arrived in the deep south. After beginning in the southwestern deserts and lower California in February, the ancient bloom pattern of wildflowers in North America rolls east. Right now, you can see it everywhere in the south. Our corresponding gardeners have sent glowing reports recently. In north Florida, our lady in Pensacola reports lavish azalea bloom. Every yard is afire with the common large-flowered Formosa types and others. A little farther north, in the mountains of No. Georgia, daffodils are finishing up, and the spectacular bloom of Bradford Pear trees is everywhere. In a few days, it'll be the native dogwoods--their low-spreading branches filled with a dazzle of heavenly white flowers. Over in Texas, there's bloom too, but the peak of the bluebonnets and other favorites there will be in April.
In the Great Smoky Mtns. National Park that straddles the Tennessee/No. Carolina border, things are just beginning.
This national treasure is the most-visited national park of them all, enclosing most all of the highest peaks in the east, and the wildflowers there are one of the big draws. Because of the high elevations, the native flowers are slower than down in the valleys. But soon whole drifts of Great White Trillium will light up the woods, and hosts of other species, like the wild ground-growing orchids, the "Lady Slippers," will be adding pinks and yellows to the forest floor.
But actually, as the natives would tell you, 'You ain't seen nothing yet." Because the most spectacular flower show in the southern mountains is about two months away. Everone there knows that this is the ancestral home of most of the world's famed Rhododendron species. (The genus includes all rhododendrons and azaleas.) There are a few species native to Asia, but most hail originally from our own Appalachian highlands, and because of the elevations, they don't bloom there until early June. Of course, what you buy at the garden center for your yard will probably be a hybrid of these majestic native shrubs, but there is no sight like seeing them in their native habitats. Best easy viewing is along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the scenic highway built through the NC and VA mountains years ago. All along it's route, the native rhododendrons put on a breathtaking show every year.
Surpassing even the Parkway show is the bloom at a few little-known hiked-to spots that have been known by the locals--and botanical researchers-- for years. Several places like Roan Mountain and Gregory Bald seem to have the perfect soils, exposure and other conditions to push the famed Rhododendron genus to its highest flowering. It fact, since several of the deciduous species (azaleas) cross-hybridize in the wild, this has resulted in a virtual rainbow of solid color flowers, and super-spectacular bi-colors and tri-colors, more stunning than the display at any garden center. This rarely-seen bloom is truly one of the most incredible floristic events in the botanical world.
The photos at left are used with the permission of native rhododendron expert, Don Hyatt, who has visited these rarely-seen natural preserves for years. If you can, plan a trip, and see one of the most incredible natural flower shows on earth. Read and see more at Don's website: DonaldHyatt.com
I think the most incredible pages are the ones about a magical place called "Gregory Bald", a high grassy meadow on one of the area's highest peaks. The wild azaleas there have cross hybridized and formed what botanists call a "Hybrid Swarm"--a huge group of native plants blooming in concert showing off their endless array of various colorings. To you, believe me, it simply means some of the most incredible floral color you'll ever see. Check it out.