Blue Ridge Parkway

Blue Ridge Parkway

Plants

Nonnative Species

Managing and preserving natural resources, including Southern Appalachian ecosystems, individual native species and cultural landscapes, along a 469-mile ribbon of land with some 1,200 miles of boundary is extremely difficult. Because of its linear character, Blue Ridge Parkway lands are susceptible to invasion by exotic plants and animals from adjacent lands.

With thousands of "cut and fill" slopes, more than 3,000 vista openings and more than 1,000 utility and roadway crossings, the Parkway contains an unusually large number of "disturbance" habitats for pioneer and often exotic plant species. In the Southern Appalachian highland forest landscape, exotic thickets and groves are aesthetic intrusions. They often obscure native flora and give visitors a false image of the area's natural vegetation. Furthermore, exotic plant invasion can lead to elimination of some species of local flora. Exotic vine species such as kudzu, honeysuckle and bittersweet prevent mature forests from developing by suppressing tree emergence and growth.

Control of an exotic plant species is a long-term commitment since non-natives are prolific seed producers and often become well established in an area within one or two years. Many of these species also have long-lived seed viability, further enhancing their establishment. Abandonment of a control area can actually result in enhancement of exotic populations. Consequently, Parkway staff must look for new exotic species that might establish themselves in these newly disturbed areas.

Several non-native animals can also pose problems to our native species. Eastern bluebird populations dropped significantly as the more aggressive European starlings took over available nesting cavities. Introduced brown and rainbow trout have displaced brook trout from many aquatic systems, forcing our only native trout to move further and further upstream. The list of nonnative species extends down to invertebrates, including earthworms and crayfish, and even fungi. The introduced chestnut blight fungus wiped out American chestnut trees throughout the Southern Appalachian forests, and the balsam woolly aphid has destroyed spruce forests at our highest elevations.

Wildflowers

The diversity of wildflowers on the Blue Ridge Parkway is truly amazing. Blooming starts in late March and extends through October, rewarding visitors to the park with a wide variety of floral displays ranging from the small and delicate to the large and showy. The high rainfall, rich soils, varied topography, and moderate climate provide an environment where many species can coexist together. Historically, glaciers never extended into this region. Species that could not move fast enough south in front of the advancing ice fields became extinct. The overall effect was a “compression” of the flora to the south. Of the approximately 1,600 species of vascular plants that occur in the park, as much as 80 percent are wildflowers. With so many species occurring together, each has evolved to bloom at different times of the year, presumably to avoid competition of pollinators.

Arguably the single best time of the year to see many species in bloom is early spring, just as canopy trees are beginning to leaf out (late April – early May). The forest floor is covered with numerous plants in bloom, such as Chickweed, Wild Ginger, Liverleaf, Toothwort, Spring Beauty, Trout Lily, Trillium, Larkspur, Foamflower, and Jack-in-the-pulpit. Later in the season other species such as Turk’s Cap Lily, Meadow Rue, Evening Primrose, Bellflower, Bee Balm, Impatiens, and Turtlehead are in bloom. Even later, species such as Goldenrod, Aster, Blazing Star, and Black-eyed Susan’s will bloom.

Unfortunately, these showy plants attract plant poachers from long-distances. It is illegal to collect any plant or plant part within the park. To help reduce the market for stolen plants and flowers, before you purchase them in a retail market, verify from the seller that the plant was propagated instead of wild collected.

Plants

Spanning the Southern and Central Appalachians, the Blue Ridge Parkway offers an exceptional glimpse of the Appalachian flora, which is world renown for its diversity. There are currently over 1,400 species of vascular plants known to occur in the park, though this number may well likely approach 2,000 species as the park begins an extensive inventory of all plants and animals. The flora of the Blue Ridge Parkway is so diverse for reasons such as, climatic variability, large north-south geographic range, diverse geologic substrate, and many different micro-habitats. Because of the wide range in elevation from high peak to low valley, the park visitor can enjoy a tremendous variety of wildflowers throughout the spring, summer, and fall months. While the summer wildflowers are blooming in the valleys, the spectacular spring wildflowers are just beginning to bloom on the high peaks. The following showy wildflowers are commonly found from May to August: Turk’s Cap Lily (Lilium superbum), Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule), Evening Primrose (Oenothera fruiticosa), Bee Balm (Monarda didyma), and Fire Pink (Silene virginica).

The Blue Ridge Parkway is unique in that it covers a wide range of habitats along the north-south axis of the Appalachian Mountains, such that the flora on a mountain summit at the northern end of the park may be quite different from the flora of a mountain summit at the southern end. Some of these habitats are exceptionally rare in the region and a few are even globally rare. An example includes rock outcrops at high elevations, which contain a fragile group of alpine species that were pushed southward during glacial times and eventually were left stranded on the southern mountains. The main threat to this fragile plant community is trampling by unaware park visitors. Another unique habitat is the Grassy Balds which were likely grazed by native animals such as bison and elk, but which now are maintained by park biologists.

The same environmental variability that leads to such spectacular bloom displays in the spring and summer also contributes to autumn leaf color. The first leaves to change are those of deciduous trees on the highest elevations, which change to vivid shades of orange, red, yellow, and purple. Throughout the month of October the leaf color changes gradually, beginning in the high mountains and concluding at the lower slopes and valleys.