Wildflowers of the Appalachian Trail

This page is a work in progress.

I first began to know wildflowers during my Appalachian Trail hike in 2009. For five months, I carried Wildflowers of the Appalachian Trail by Leonard M. Adkins. This book weighs more than a full dinner, but it was worth every gram.

When I started hiking in March, there were no flowers in bloom, but the red leaves of galax lined the Georgian trail. In North Carolina, bleeding hearts emerged through fallen foliage. In Tenesee, there was snow but one day after the coldest snowstorm, I saw my first wild bleeding hearts. Eight years later, I have yet to see them again. To keep my memory alive, I knit hats for my grandmother and mother.


Moving north into Virginia, flowers started to appear everywhere. There were jack in the pulpits at a shelter, toothwort standing by a small stream, a lone fire pink glowing near the James River, lousewort curled in a clearing with strange satellite dishes, dutchman’s breeches billowing in the breeze near a clear spring. On Tinker Cliffs, we found a single eastern columbine.

And then there were the trillium. Fields of pale pink blooms in Jefferson Forest.

Flowering dogwoods lined the streets of Waynesboro.

I moved too quickly for the rhododendron blooms, but there were spiderwort in West Virgina, azaleas, blue flag iris, sheep laurel in Pennsylvania, mountain laurel in New Jersey and New York, maiden pink in the fields of Connecticut, spring beauties in Massachusetts. Most of what I remember about Vermont is the rain, but we also saw Indian Pipe.

The Kalmia were in full glory when I arrived in New Hampshire. Bog laurel amazed me with it’s almost unbelievable pink. Mountain laurel, sheep laurel, and bog laurel are all in the same plant genus, Kalmia. Their perfect five part symmetry is a challenge for designing knitting motifs, but I have been thinking of making a hat that will, when seen from above, represent just one flower.

Climbing a high peak in the White Mountains, I saw rhodora for the first time. This poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson express the feeling I had on first encountering this shrub:

The Rhodora:
    By Ralph Waldo Emerson

In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals, fallen in the pool,
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool.
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.

There were also blue bead lilies, diapensia, mouse-earred chickweed and cotton sedge – an immediate favorite. Thank goodness for the AMC hut libraries to supplement my trusty wildflower guide.

The last state for a northbounder is, of course, Maine. Earlier in the year, I had been accepted as a graduate student to the University of Maine in Orono, so when I arrived there alone on a wet July day, I saw the iconic blue sign on the woods and thought, “Well, here is where I am for next two years.” It was a good place to be, for many reasons, including the bluets. I love these minature flowers with their pale petals and bright centers. The inspired my (successful) first stranded hat, which my mother loved and wore until it was lost.


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