Wildflowers of the Nantahala River & Smoky Mountains

by | Nantahala National Forest

Spring is finally poking its lovely head out of the cave it hides in when winter blows in blustery and cold. Warmer days bring on spring fever and a desire to get outside and soak up the sun. Over 3,000 species of wildflowers of the Nantahala River and Smoky Mountains also use this time to show-off. Carolina Outfitters and Carolina Ocoee welcome you back for another awesome fun-filled season of white water rafting on the Nantahala River and the Ocoee River in the Great Smoky Mountains, Nantahala National Forest, and the Cherokee National Forest!


We would like to open this season’s blog with things that bloom. Flowers. Wildflowers to be more specific. One of the most beautiful settings on earth is a field of wildflowers in an array of brilliant colors. Below are just a few of the many wildflowers that bloom along the Nantahala River and in the Great Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina.


Wild Bleeding Heart


Wild Bleeding Heart flowers can be found as far north as Southwestern Pennsylvania and south to North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. This flower, also known as Fringed Bleeding Heart (from cross breeding with eastern and western plants along with related plants from eastern Asia) and the odd name Turkey Corn, grows in late spring and throughout summer. Though it grows wild in woodlands along the Appalachian Mountains, it can be grown in flower gardens. It gets its name from the heart shaped flowers with a drip of “blood” hanging down.




Dandelions mostly grow in yards among grass and in open fields. Some see them as pretty decorations, others see them as pesky wildflowers messing up their manicured lawn. Dandelion gets its name from the sharp-toothed, yellow petals that some liken to lion’s teeth. Pilgrims brought this invasive flower over from northern Europe, and once its seed heads blew away with the wind, this hardy flower spread far and wide. The leaves can be used in salads and to make dandelion tea. Dandelion leaves are high in nutrients, including potassium, iron, and vitamins A, C, B1, and B2. 




Daisies are happy little flowers that dot the countryside. They are invasive and some people consider them to be weeds. Daisies come in many varieties and colors, but the wildflower you see in forests and along dusty gravel roads has white petals with a yellow button-like center. Others have dark yellow petals and a dark brown button center (Black-Eyed Susans)They can grow as tall as two feet and thrive in the sun. Though daisies grow wild, you can purchase seeds and plant daisies wherever you want flowers as long as they have full sun.


Scarlet Indian Paintbrush


A variety of insects, especially bees, visit Scarlet Indian Paintbrush flowers for pollination. Hummingbirds also visit and can reach the sweet nectar deep in the plant. Known to have toxic properties, Native Americans used it as both a love charm in food and as a poison used against their enemies. Indian Paintbrush, however, is uncommon in Western North Carolina, but it does grow naturally in Clay County, North Carolina not far from the Nantahala National Forest and the Nantahala River.




Magnolia technically grows on a tree, but still produces a pretty flower. The Magnolia tree is one of the oldest trees in existence and symbolizes luck and stability. Magnolias aren’t only found in the deep south, but can be found in western North Carolina and are indigenous to Southern China. To learn more interesting facts about Magnolias visit History of Magnolias.


Mountain Laurel


Mountain Laurel blooms in May and June along roadways with rocky slopes in western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Other names for mountain laurel include Ivybush, Calico Bush, Sheep Laurel, Lambkill, Clamoun, and Spoonwood (because native Americans used to make their spoons out of it). Mountain Laurel is a highly toxic plant for both humans and animals, thus the name Lambkill. Its foliage stays green year round, and its blooms are an excellent source of nectar for bumble bees and butterflies.


Painted Trillium


Painted Trillium is found in the high elevations of North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains, so if you’re out for a hike, look for these small flowers. Its petals are white with a dark red to purple base with three large leaves. Painted Trillium are difficult to grow in gardens, so they remain mostly wildflowers. The plant hosts larvae for the black-patched clepsis moth, and American angle shades moth. Small mammals feed off the berries.


Wild Geranium


Wild Geranium can be found in loamy soil with an abundance of organic matter. It prefers shade, but can thrive in full sun with lots of moisture. Flower colors are white, pink or lilac and can be grown in flower beds with ease. Wild Geranium is also called Carolina Cranesbill because of the beak formed by the seed capsule. They bloom from spring into summer. Bees visit for pollinations and birds eat the seeds.


Wild Iris

wild iris purple flower

Wild Iris grows in part shade and part sun areas in well-drained rocky and woodland areas. At only 4-9 inches high, this wildflower makes a colorful carpet of blue/purple for ground cover. Named after the Greek Goddess of Rainbows, the Iris makes a pretty addition to your flower garden next to a pond or flowing creek. 


Wild Orchids


One of the most popular Orchids is the Lady’s Slipper Orchid. It’s shaped like a lady’s shoe, hence the name. Since it takes three to four years for this Orchid to reach maturity, you’ll have to be lucky or patient to see it in the wild. It grows well in the Southern Appalachian mountains because it’s a tropical flower, and parts of the Nantahala National Forest are a temperate rainforest, especially near the Nantahala River. The most common colors are pink and yellow and it flowers from April to about mid-June. 


Over 3,000 species of wildflowers thrive in the mountains of western North Carolina, making a hike in the spring or summer a must-do activity for flower lovers. After a refreshing trip down the Nantahala River with Carolina Outfitters white water rafting, take a hike to see how many wildflowers you can name along the trail. To learn more about North Carolina Wildflowers, visit Wildflowers | NCpedia or U.S Wildflowers.


Margaret Marr, is a local author of paranormal, mystery, and suspense laced with romance. She has written over 15 books available on Amazon. 


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