Wildflowers are a feast for the eye and food for the soul. . They sing a silent song, according to those who enjoy their vibrant hues in early spring.
Then, a few months later, the autumn showcases in the forests and orchards are just as magnificent, glorious, and stunning when they arrive during October’s decisive summit in a fusion of vibrant yellows, oranges and reds.
From early spring to late fall, a variety of plant life abounds in the mountainous and hilly provinces of Southern West Virginia.
In April and early May, a range of wildflowers grows just beyond our doorsteps.
To find the fall season tribes of timberland floral forms, however, one must venture beyond the borders of shrubs and saplings and trace the devious and crooked trails beyond the forest’s shaggy, scrub foliage.
Beds of plant life are resident practically everywhere, especially in remote niches of the Appalachian woodlands, shrouded in dense undergrowth, growing out of rotted, hollow logs and stumps, or bedded behind rocks.
When I visited the southern counties recently, some late-season flower beds were slowly revealing themselves behind morning layers of fog, which often seem like misty twists in dreams that one rarely sees coming.
When I was a boy, I was familiar with those majestic, arboreal features near my grandparents’ old homestead. However, this end-of-summer season visit was hypnotically different.
I was catching the first glimpse of peaking maples in resplendent yellow and red. The towering poplars stretched to the sky in their leafy display of muted hues of emerald and golden-brown. The entire landscape was doing its best to look like a spilled box of crayons.
Though not always synonymous with autumn, the curving and twirling mountain trails and thoroughfares offered distinct advantages to an eager photographer.
In a good year, their leaf displays might even rival the traditional spots of New Hampshire and Vermont, while offering locations that are vastly less crowded.
Herb and wildflower enthusiasts say they normally do not have to travel far to witness a kaleidoscope of nature’s booty in the forested glens and vales that abound in nearly every woodland hollow.
“I’ve found pods of wildflowers in the same places where I saw them as a stub-toed boy,” observed J.K. (Kent) Lilly of Camp Creek, when I chanced to venture upon the venerable 85-year-old woodsman in a laurel thicket of southern Mercer County.
Lilly’s study of the woods began more than 70 years ago when he first saw late spring snowflakes captured in the red hearts of phlox clusters near his boyhood home.
As a youngster, he roamed the forests, searching out prime wildflower locations.
Now, the retired forest ranger goes back to visit these same sites.
“Some people might think I’m eccentric,” offered the soft-spoken mountain man who fashions a variety of home remedies from herbs and roots that grow near his hill land farm on Stovall Ridge.
“Not many people will stop to appreciate the floral wonders that grow in the nearby woods. I never get tired of them.”
The forest’s fertile floor annually nourishes a veritable botanical garden near Lilly’s old home place.
In early spring, yellow lady slippers thrive in the rich, loamy soil of the easterly slopes. Pink lady slippers—a favorite wildflower among those who relish early spring’s garland of beauty—grows among pine, huckleberry, and oak.
Lilly can count a hundred different kinds of blossoms on a solitary stroll through the woodland flowerbeds.
“Every time I go out and get to looking, I find some new ones. I doubt if all of them have ever been catalogued. Some were brought here from Canada by the glaciers.”
Engulfed with the mass of breathtaking beauty, some wildflower lovers say the colorful blossoms offer bewitching fragrances that can never be captured in a perfume bottle.
Foam flower, sometimes referred to as a mystery flower, is white. It can be found nestled among other varieties of forest bouquets.
Blue violets abound in shaded forest surfaces.
“Flowers give a cheerful face to the landscape,” Lilly noted of the enchanting woodland phenomena that grow in the nearby woods.
“They grow abundantly along old logging roads and strip mining trails. They bloom at different times, and a different flower seems to blossom each time I go out looking for them.”
Spring wildflowers seem to grow in the most unlikely places—in deserted railway beds, in the creases of unkempt walkways, or along woodland pathways.
They include ox-eye daisies, St. John’s wort, wild roses, pink and yellow lady slippers, spotted touch-me-nots, hepaticas, chicory, evening primroses, goats’ beard, Dutchman’s breeches, honeysuckle, Jack-in-the-pulpits, skunk cabbage, foxgloves, native rhododendron and more.
Some of the other varieties are painted trillium, wild geranium, dogwood, bell wort, violets, buttercups, wild ginger, periwinkles, trailing arbutus, and numerous mints, including penny royal.
“Wild impatiens or touch-me-nots thrive in rich, moist soil,” noted Lilly, a folklore enthusiast and veteran forester of Mercer County. “Bears really like to wallow in them. It offers a kind of healing ointment for their briar-raked hides.”
He went on, “When you touch or jar one of these little elongated pods, it bursts and scatters its seeds, which have a kind of nutty flavor.”
Spring wildflowers are most common in the woods before the trees break out their leaves. Many of them show their flowers, bear fruit, scatter their seeds, and store food in their roots for the next year before summer arrives.
Then, they disappear until the next spring.
Although May is the ideal month for viewing the wildflowers, every month from April through September has something to offer, according to Lilly.
“Joe-Pie Weed and Queen Ann’s Lace are communal in the fall,” he said. “Golden Rod and Life Everlasting (commonly called Indian tobacco) blossoms right up until it frosts.
“There’s always something of beauty to behold if you take time to look for it. I wouldn’t trade these hills for anything else on earth.”
Top o’ the morning!