Wildflowers of Tazewell County
Written by June H. Brown, Tazewell County Tourism
It’s one of the joys of living in the mountains – that spring hike, wandering about the hillsides and exploring what grows. We have many beautiful, native plants that call these mountains home. Here are just a few of my favorites:
Hard to spot – these flowers push up through last year’s plants; leaves are mottled like the sides of a trout and the flower is small, delicate and pale yellow. They come up in the earliest part of spring when the ground is still cold and the weather unpredictable. Their flowering period is very short; they will come up, flower, and go to seed in about three weeks. The flowers close up at night, re-open each morning and need bright afternoon sun to fully open. They are sometimes called the “dogtooth violet,” not because of the flower but because the underground bulb is white and shaped like a dog’s tooth.
Poor Robin’s Plantain
(Erigeron – fleabane”) Shorter and showier than most – flowers are ‘ray and disk’ – disks are bright yellow and form a flat center, rays are mostly white and there can be 50-100 on each disk. Roughly translated the scientific “erigeron” means ‘early old man’ and was probably taken from the time of year when the plants flower (early in the summer) and the ‘gray hair’ or wooly nature of the leaves. Fleabane was used by the early colonists in this country to rid the house of fleas and other insects. It is said that the plant is native to America and can cause contact dermatitis. Note: I’ve pulled many of them up from garden spaces and never realized any skin problems. The plants flower from April to June and they spread rapidly from runners.
Some call these tiny plants evergreen shrubs; the stems are indeed woody, but they are too tiny (in my opinion, anyway) to be called a shrub. On the mountain where I grew up, they grew under the piles of tree leaves that are left through the winter and you usually had to be in the “patch” to find them. The tiny red berries are delicious and certain leaves are really good for chewing, not swallowing. Yes, these plants are where the original Oil of Wintergreen came from! The tea made from them is a traditional folk remedy for head and stomach aches, colds and fevers. The flavor in teaberry chewing gum also comes from these deep green plants; it was always my favorite gum as I grew up and remained my mother’s favorite as long as she lived. It has gotten hard to find in later years, but is still on the market. The “Peterson Medicinal Plants Field Guide” warns that wintergreen essential oil is highly toxic; that it can be absorbed through the skin and cause liver and/or kidney problems. Strange – it’s o.k. to eat it, but don’t get any on you.
Sometimes called “wakerobin,” this showy perennial flowering plant is widely seen in Tazewell and surrounding counties. In fact, I have one in my flower garden under the big elm tree in my front yard. It was given to me by a very good friend close to thirty years ago and still thrives. I do not know where she found it; I know she was hiking. A single white flower grows on each stem and they open in late March of early April (it can be later here) and they turn pinkish as they age. They grow sometimes in profusion on the forest floor before the leaf canopy emerges; they are beautiful in another friend’s back yard where it is shady and they don’t have any boundaries. These plants go dormant in the late summer and it’s always a happy time for me when they begin to come up in the early spring. They’re really very dependable!
Mountain Laurel & Rhododendron
These two flowering, evergreen shrubs are plentiful in our area. When I had the privilege of riding our Original Pocahontas ATV Trail last year in the early spring, I saw lots and lots of mountain laurel in bud and would have loved to return when they were in bloom. I grew up within walking distance of many thickets of mountain laurel and used to make bouquets of them frequently. Once I was frightened out of my wits by a deer hidden in a thicket; I know now that thickets like those are a very favorite resting place for deer and are called “hells” by hikers because they are impossible to get through. Rhododendron is supposed to like eastern exposure, but I have rhododendron on the west side of my house which has thrived there for many years and it is so pretty when it blooms it causes motorists to slow down for a better look. The picture above could have been made right there at my house!
The easiest way to identify these shrubs is by their flowers. The mountain laurel that grew at my childhood home was white with a small red stripe in the center; however it does in some areas bloom pink. It blooms from May through June. Rhododendron in the mountains usually blooms in June to July; the flowers may be white, pale pink, lavender or deep rose; mine is pink and blooms usually in early to mid May and lasts about a month. The leaves of these beautiful shrubs are also different with the mountain laurel a good bit smaller, a slightly lighter shade of green and shaped differently than the rhododendron, whose leaves curl up tightly in very cold weather.