As winter gives way to spring, wildflowers begin a mad dash to grow and reproduce. Sunlight drives this sudden spurt of flowers, for spring wildflowers must do all their lovely work while the forest is not yet fully leafed out. Spring wildflower plants must grow, blossom, set seed, and store energy for next spring while sunlight still hits the forest floor. The spring flowers cannot flourish on the forest floor if shaded by trees fully leafed out. Thus spring heralds a rush of wildflowers gracing the woodlands of West Virginia.
First Blooms in Mid-March
Here in southern West Virginia, spring wildflowers first begin blooming in mid-March to early April near the bottom of the New River Gorge where it is the warmest. It’s no surprise then that the best place to spot spring wildflowers are on the trails that run along the bottom of the gorge. The National Park Service (NPS) maintains many such trails. In this blog I’d like to feature one of these trails and point out which spring wildflowers to look for.
Stone Cliff Trail: A Wildflower Hot Spot
For the past four or five years, my wife Phyllis and I have found the NPS Stone Cliff Trail to be a spring wildflower hot spot. Here are directions to the trailhead as posted by the NPS: “From U.S. Route 19 north of Beckley, take the Glen Jean-Thurmond exit. Take an immediate left, and go 0.5 miles to Glen Jean. Take a right and follow the signs to Thurmond (WV Route 25). Continue for 6.0 miles to a three-way intersection. Bear right and go 1.5 miles on this road. Take a right on the gravel road, just before the bridge crossing over the New River. Continue past the boat launch to the parking area. The trail begins beside the picnic area.”
Some of the earliest wildflowers grow on this trail. Bloodroot is an early spring wildflower that is common along this trail. Its brilliant white flower is always a welcome sight. After a mild winter, we spotted the first Bloodroot about the middle of March. It might blossom a week or two later after a seasonable winter. Another early spring wildflower prolific along this trail is sharp-lobed hepatica which blooms in late March and early April. Its lavender to deep purple petals really brighten up the forest floor. Trout lily are also common. They are easily identified by their curved, bright yellow flower petals and mottled green leaves. These also bloom from late March to early April. Most of the wildflowers are easiest to spot growing on the bank on the uphill side of the trail. Many also grow on top of the bank.
Later in mid-April, trilliums are found along this trail. Wake robin or purple trillium is common. Also present is the ever beautiful large-flowered trillium with its brilliant white petals arranged in a cluster of three. But the real attraction in the trillium family is the less common sessile trillium or toad trillium. Phyllis and I found toad trilliums on the Stone Cliff Trail back in 2013 and have kept watch on them every spring since then. Toad trillium differs from other trillium in that the flower head is stalkless, emerging directly from the three leaf whorl. Unlike other trilliums, the leaves are mottled green and dark green. Finally the flower petals do not open, but remain closed and standing upright.
Many other species of spring wildflowers line the Stone Cliff Trail including spring beauty, long-spurred violet, rue anemone, star chickweed, windflower (wood anemone), golden ragwort, and Canada violet. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but suggests just how prolifically spring wildflowers grow on the Stone Cliff Trail.