Spring Foliage in Southern WV: Patterns & Places to LookApril 21, 2015
As spring sets in, you can find more than 1,400 vibrant plants sprouting with color across Southern West Virginia.
“It’s refreshing, and inspiring, after the grey of winter, to start seeing the greens of the gorge,” said Jodi French-Burr, a National Park Ranger in the New River Gorge. “It’s also fun to find that camaraderie with others, exploring nature. Especially with people who also seem to enjoy it.”
Where and when can you spot the spring color for yourself? Seeking out plantlife in the gorge is never an exact science, but there are some patterns you can count on:
- Blossoming begins in the south, and moves north because of the temperatures. (In the fall, it’s the reverse, with the leaves setting ablaze beginning in the north and sweeping south.)
- The colors begin blooming in the depths of the gorge first, then creep up to the mountaintops. The change can happen very quickly. Even a day can make a difference.
“We’re at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, at the top of the gorge park,” French-Burr said. “You can look out the windows of the overlook and see green way down in the bottom when it hasn’t even started up here at the top.”
There are plenty of types of ecosystems all across the gorge, from flatrock communities to small swamps. Each area is known for different plantlife. Sunflowers shine their yellow petals around the moist areas. Sycamores stick to the bottom. River Birch grows along the shorelines.
But again, there’s no guarantee anything will sprout at any given time.
“It’s not unusual to see 60 species along a trail, even if you only hike a couple of miles.”
“Nature has its own variety it throws in with the weather,” French-Burr said.
But that’s what makes it so interesting. Even on her off days, you’ll find French-Burr exploring the forests.
“For me, looking at flowers can almost take you away,” she said. “No matter what’s going on, you can step away from it and concentrate on the birds you’re hearing and the plants you see.”
And there’s plenty to see across Southern West Virginia. She said she feels lucky to work somewhere that’s so full of unique plant and wildlife.
“There’s plenty of diversity, if you know where to look,” she said. “It’s not unusual to see 60 species along a trail, even if you only hike a couple of miles.”
One place she said people often forget to look: up! There are plenty of colors blooming in the treetops.
Here are some of her other top suggestions to get you started:
Beginning at the confluence of the mighty New River and the trickling Glade Creek, this trail winds alongside the babbling stream into the scenic forests, where a bright sight awaits in late April. One of the most vibrant florals of the woodlands, the Virginia Bluebell, pops up in large blue patches all along the rich, wet soil. Its delicate, trumpeted petals also attract an array of butterflies.
Trails in the lower area of the town of Thurmond have an amazing diversity of wildflowers in mid- to late-April, with boldly purple violets and yellow bursts of bloodroot. The Dutchman’s Breeches are easy to spot, because they look like inflated pantaloons dangling upside down on a clothesline. Trout lilies’ slender petals are strewn back, as if it’s poised to strike. Later in the season, you can even find the rarer Painted Trillium— but only for a short window.
Sandstone offers a unique and rare ecosystem for plantlife. It’s one of only 5 flat rock communities in the state, home to a patch of plants that have moved in from the South along the river, which also deposits soil atop the rough sandstone, allowing some plants to grow. It’s also home to a grove of Paw Paw Trees, which bloom rich, deep red flowers. “It’s a subtle bloom, but pretty all the same,” French-Burr said.
One of the rarest and most prized orchids of the New River Gorge can be found at Grandview. It’s the stunning show-off, the Pink Lady Slipper, or moccasin flower, which blooms in early May. It’s got a swollen, deep pink pouch that some say resembles a slipper, with 3 spindly petals reaching out over it. If you know where to look, you might also uncover a rare Showy Orchid. Usually, several patches of star-like Fire Pinks also sprout here, beloved for their flaming red hue.
Grandview is also known for its stunning display of rose-purple Rhododendrons, the West Virginia state flower. But they don’t bloom until later in the year, around mid- to late-May.
Voted the #1 National Park trail in the country, this trail follows the cliffsides on the edge of the New River Gorge canyon, where you can spot the vibrant pink-purple Catawba Rhododendrons alongside hot-orange azaleas in bloom in mid or late May. Immediately after, the wide, umbrella-cupped Mountain Laurels, with their pink accents, start to sprout. Sometimes, for a very limited period, you can catch all of these magnificent blooms together.
The National Park Service publishes a wildflower checklist for the area, which you can use to guide you.
“Don’t let the number scare you,” French-Burr said. “Learn a new plant or two a year and you’ll start to build your knowledge.”
Get more great Southern WV stories. Sign up to get the full magazine in your email each quarter.