I recently spent half of my Spring Break at Mammoth Cave National Park, near Cave City, Kentucky. The park is obviously well-known for the cave that is within its confines (Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world, with around 370 miles of passages), but it also contains many lovely hiking trails above ground. It was there that I rediscovered the charm of random patches of flowers dispersed among the leaf litter on the ground, and a subtle smattering of color peeping from behind a fallen log.
I've never before visited Mammoth Cave National Park in the early spring, though I've been there at other times of the year. I love to hike and examine the plant and animal life that are so abundant in the woods (except the all-too-common deer ticks; I'd be happier to avoid them), so we made a point of taking our cameras along. I was thrilled to see so many wildflowers blooming this time of year! My sons know that I am a plant-addict, so they expected that I would know the names of every bloom we stumbled upon. At first, I kept insisting that I didn't know very many Kentucky wildflowers (being an Iowa native, and an Illinois transplant), but then I began to take closer looks at some of the flowers.
"Hmmm, that looks an awful lot like my phlox, only smaller!" I thought. The more I examined the plants, the more convinced I became that they were, indeed, phlox! I didn't know that was a common wildflower, as I am much more versed in the plants that come in pots with handy tags. The heart-shaped petals on this specimen reminded me of creeping phlox, a popular plant for borders and rock gardens, though my front border features the taller garden phlox, which has a similar flower display. My sons tend to associate "flocks" with sheep, however, and didn't see the resemblance.
We continued on, and I came across a flower with leaves that looked just like the foliage on my columbine, though the white blooms were not at all similar. They turned out to be rue anemone, in the buttercup family. With a little further research, I discovered that columbine is a member of the Ranunculaceae family, which includes buttercups! I thought I primarily recognized plants based on their blooms, but apparently I have learned a lot about their foliage along the way!
I quite easily identified prolific wild roses covering a slope, though they didn't have any buds on them yet. The leaves (and thorns!) were a dead give-away! I had to wonder how they could thrive with no care whatsoever, while my roses at home seem to require careful pruning and fertilization. There is something to be said for the carefree flowers that find their own best environment to grow! I think there is a lesson to be learned in the wild. If a plant takes an inordinate amount of care to thrive in the spot in which I've planted it, I should consider the conditions in which the wild varieties thrive, and try to move it to an area of my garden that is closer to the native habitat.
As we proceeded, I found more and more plants that were obviously distantly related to the plants I so carefully cultivated in my home garden! We encountered this plant, which looked oddly similar to my Oriental poppies, but without the hairy leaves. The buds were also remarkably similar to the large, hairy orbs that part to reveal vibrant red-orange poppies in my front border. The petals had the same tissue-paper texture of my poppies, as well, but were in a sweet, clear yellow color. I've never seen a yellow poppy, so I experienced a little self-doubt, but I snapped a picture of it anyway, so I could look it up later. They were, indeed, in the papaver family, a type of wild celandine poppy! My confidence began to build!
The more pictures I took, the more pressing my need to know if these flowers could indeed be the wild country cousins of my tame little garden plants. We had dinner with two of the park rangers, good friends of my husband, and they recommended a lovely little book available in the Visitor Center bookstore, called Wildflowers of Mammoth Cave National Park, by Randy Seymour. It is very conveniently divided into the four seasons, and within each season, the flowers are grouped by color. It made it so easy to flip to the purple flowers blooming in the spring, and identify that these lovely little guys were most likely larkspur, in the same family as the showy delphiniums I planted in my front perennial border last summer!
We purchased the book, and embarked on another, longer hike, this time on a lesser known trail called Cedar Sink (named, in all probability, for the cedar trees and one of the largest sink-holes along the Mammoth Cave system). We found a completely different array of flowers on this stretch, including some only found in shady areas, like the elusive trilliums. They are my husband's particular favorite wildflower, so he spent a little time taking pictures of them from different angles. Nearby, he also found a jack-in-the-pulpit, also known by the botanical name Arisaema atrorubens, a member of the Arum family.
Burgundy Trillium Blooms, left and center, and Jack in the Pulpit, right
Meanwhile, I hurried along behind my kids, ensuring that they didn't get too far ahead of us. They tend to move at a little faster pace than us, and need a little encouragement to slow down and appreciate the tiny wonders around them. They also need frequent reminders that the other people sharing the trail would prefer to hear birds and the breeze through the trees, rather than the wild sounds our little hooligans were making! Needless to say, we didn't encounter many animals on our hike!
Near the entrance to a sink-hole, we found a plant that looked remarkably like my bleeding heart, only yellow and white instead of pink and white. The guidebook identified them by the common name Dutchman's Breeches, but when I checked the botanical name, it was dicentra. Another score! Nearby, another plant reminded me of my Checkered Lilies, with the downward facing blooms. On this one, I struck out. Despite their common name, checkered lilies are actually in the fritillaria family, while the blooms I found are truly a wild lily, the large-flowered bellwort, Uvularia grandiflora.
Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra) blooms and foliage, left and center, and Large-flowered Bellwort, right
Many wildflowers had me completely stumped, however. I chose one as the picture at the start of my article, with glossy white petals deeply veined with burgundy. It was one of the flowers we saw most frequently along both trails, but didn't appear to match up to any of the flowers in my book. Thanks to Melody, one of the Dave's Garden administrators, I now know it is known by the very appropriate common name of Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica). We were also unable to identify another common one, with its star-burst clusters of tiny yellow blossoms. For those who love interesting variagated foliage, I found another mysterious plant, whose name I would love to know. I think my next trip will be to our local library, in search of another wildflower book!
All images in this article were taken by Angela or David Carson, and are copyrighted by the owners. Thank you!
Unknown Starburst flowers
Unidentified plant with lovely foliage
About Angela Carson
I was bitten hard by the gardening bug when I was just a child, and have been doing my best to infect as many people as possible ever since! I particularly have a passion for spring bulbs and home-grown vegetables, which I am teaching the next generation how to preserve. My two sons have obviously inherited my interest in growing things, and my husband is starting to see the benefits of less lawn to mow, as long as he doesn't have to do the work of digging up new beds for my latest schemes!