For those of us living in the Chesapeake Watershed, the high-pitched, whistling voices of osprey returning and the appearance of delicate wildflowers are familiar harbingers of spring. The wildflowers rush to take center stage before the warmer temperatures produce the wild profusion of summer vegetation that will soon block their moment in the sun. But their appearance is fleeting – hence the term “spring emphemerals” to describe them – and elusive.
From a botanical standpoint the watershed includes a nice variation of habitat for wildflowers: wetlands, woodlands, open lands, and rocky areas. Fortunately we are blessed with a great number of easily accessible state, national, and regional parks, arboretums, and natural areas that showcase all of these habitats and make for rewarding wildflower hikes.
So grab your camera and favorite field guide and give these destinations a try. Or, alternatively, leave your camera and guides at home and smell the earth, the bark of a tree or the sweet scent of a wildflowers while “forest bathing.”
Rocks State Park
Rocks State Park, located in Harford County in Northern Maryland, has 855 acres of dense forests and massive boulders rising above Deer Creek. Several trails wind through the forest and along the creek. Towards the end of April be on the lookout in the woods above the creek for wild ginger, bloodroot, and trailing arbutus. Later, in mid-May, this area is host to flowering Solomon’s seal, Indian cucumber-root, wild geranium, and wild sarsaparilla. The lower, moister woods are carpeted with sweet white violet, marsh blue violet, Canada mayflower, forget-me-not, and golden ragwort.
Antietam National Battlefield & Cemetery
Best known for its famous Civil War battle, Antietam will provide a welcome diversion for companions more interested in history than wildflowers. Situated in a limestone valley, the park provides ideal habitat for such April wildflowers as trillium (both maroon and green), Dutchman’s breeches, pale violet, blue cohosh and wild ginger. In May be on the lookout for dwarf larkspur and round-leaved ragwort. Along Antietam Creek look for displays of Mayapple, Jack-in-the-pulpit, wild blue phlox, Virginia waterleaf, and broad-leaved waterleaf.
Seneca Creek State Park
The park, comprised of 6,300 acres, extends along 14 scenic miles of Seneca Creek, as it winds its way to the Potomac River. A variety of habitats within the park, including open fields, wetlands, rock outcrops, and moist woodlands, are home to a variety of spring wildflowers. Trailing arbutus grows on a rocky trail above Black Rock Mill in early April along with wild columbine in early May. Look for several orchids, including large whorled pogonia and round-leaved orchid growing near the mill.
Rock Creek Park
An urban oasis only six miles from the White House, Rock Creek Park is a surprising “must” for spring wilflower connoisseurs. You will see most of the spring wildflowers by crossing the Boundary Bridge and following the main trail left. Its habitats include bottomland along Rock Creek, a bit of swamp, and rocky upland forest. Skunk cabbage abounds in late winter and early spring. By late March you will be able to find spring beauty and bloodroot, and higher up on the rocks look for round-lobed hepatica. By mid-April Virginia bluebells pop up along the creek, contrasting with the smooth yellow violet, trout-lily, and, if you are lucky enough to spot them, Dutchman’s breeches. On the hillsides look for wild ginger, star chickweed, rue-anemone, cut-leaved toothwort. Saxifrage and alumroot prefer more rocky areas. Jack-in-the-pulpit, perforate bellwort, smooth Solomon’s seal, Mayapple, sweet cecily and golden ragwort can be found along the main trail towards the end of April.
Battle Creek Cypress Swamp
Battle Creek Cypress Swamp encompasses about 100 acres of cypress swamp and surrounding upland woods and was recognized as a National Natural Landmark in 1965. The best time to come looking for wildflowers here is spring, as the dense canopy of cypress trees is more to the liking of spring wildflowers than their sun-loving counterparts. Numerous varieties of ferns flourish in this environment. Early skunk cabbage is followed later by golden club, false hellebore, cursed crowfoot, Pennsylvania bittercress, and marsh blue violet. Along the swamp perimeter find Jack-in-the-pulplit, toothwort, golden Alexanders, and golden ragwort. By May pink lady’s slipper flowers in the woods, and cranesbill, field pansy, and blue toadflax can be found in the open fields.
Scott’s Run Nature Preserve
By all accounts this Fairfax County gem should be on the top of the list for watershed wildflower destinations no matter what time of year. It has been referred to as “the most diverse forest, from a plant community and species viewpoint, seen in the entire Piedmont.” Its rocky cliffs, and narrow valleys were carved by the erosive forces of the Potomac River, and created rugged terrain with trails descending sheer cliffs to challenge the most intrepid hikers. With mature oak, beech, hemlock and wild cherry trees, Scott’s Run provides rewarding outings any time of year, but is especially enticing in the spring when trailing arbutus, Virginia bluebells and trillium bloom on the steep hillsides. Early May is a good time to spot yellow stargrass, hissup buttercup, golden Alexanders, lyre-leaved sage, one-flowered cancer-root, and more!
Ball’s Bluff Regional Park
This regional park near Leesburg preserves the site of the Battle of Ball's Bluff, the first Civil War engagement to take place in Loudoun County. It is now quite popular in spring as a destination for birders and naturalists. The terrain consists of high bluffs, rich woodlands and a flood plain along the Potomac River. By mid-April the rocky hillsides are home to several varieties of trillium, sessile bellwort, wild ginger, star chickweed, blue cohosh, squirrel corn, and yellow corydalis. Masses of Virginia bluebells, trout-lillies, and broad-leaved waterleaf are abundant along the alluvial floodplain. Hit the higher, drier trails by the end of April in order to find bastard toadflax, rue-anemone, birdfoot violet, bluets, and rattlesnake-weed. And you may be lucky enough to spot shooting star on one of the bluffs, a species rare for the Piedmont.
Leesylvania State Park
Leesylvania State Park, the ancestral home of the Lee family, sits along the Potomac River, on the lower end of Occoquan Bay. A portion of the park is freshwater tidal wetland filled with arrowhead, arrow arum and spatterdock. By mid-May sweetflag, yellow iris, and southern blue flag bloom in the marsh, while bloodroot, yellow corydalis and bluets flower in the upland woods.
Shenandoah National Park
With over 200,000 acres, it is not surprising that Shenandoah National Park is one of the top places for finding spring wildflowers! There are more than 850 species of flowering plants that grow in Shenandoah National Park. The rich diversity of wildflowers in the park is particularly evident in spring at the lower elevations along streams such as South River, Hughes River, Rose River, and Mill Prong. Later in the season, the shoulder of Skyline Drive and the Big Meadows area are great places to see summer and fall wildflowers. View the park’s wildflower calendar for a list of more frequently seen wildflowers and when they bloom, or view the complete species list of wildflowers.
And be sure to mark your calendar for Shenandoah National Park’s annual Wildflower Weekend, May 14, 2022.
Cacapon Resort State Park
Located in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, Cacapon State Park flanks the eastern side of Cacapon Mountain, a ridge of Oriskany sandstone peppered with well-marked trails wandering through wetland, woodlands and open fields. By late April and early May, the woods host colorful displays of flowering dogwood and redbud, and forest floors are carpeted with hepatica, spring beauty, meadowrue, and toothwort. In May you will find both yellow and pink lady’s-slipper in the moist woodlands and yellow pimpernel and white beardtongue in the open fields.
Read about these places and many more in greater detail in Finding Wildlflowers in the Washington-Baltimore Area by Cristol Fleming, Marion Blois Lobstein, and Barbara Tufty.
Leesylvania State Park is the location of the ancestral home of the Lee family overlooking the Potomac River. Today the park offers a range of recreational activities and beautiful views of the river, one of the Chesapeake's largest tributaries.
Shenandoah National Park is your escape to recreation and re-creation. Cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, quiet wooded hollows—plan a hike, a meander along Skyline Drive, or a picnic with the family.
The park, comprised of 6,300 acres, extends along 14 scenic miles of Seneca Creek. The Clopper Day-Use Area contains many scenic areas, including the 90-acre Clopper Lake, surrounded by forests and fields.
Scotts Run Nature Preserve consists of a hilly, wildflower-riddled tract of riverside woodlands northwest of Washington. For songbirds and other wildlife, it’s a sanctuary. For local people, it’s a community park.
Ball's Bluff Regional Park, containing Ball's Bluff Battlefield and National Cemetery offers hiking trails and interpretive signs aid in understanding this important and tragic part of American history.
This 100-acre nature sanctuary contains the northernmost bald cypress swamp in North America; along the Patuxent River. As you walk on the quarter-mile boardwalk trail, listen to nature's harmony of calling frogs and songbirds.
Antietam National Battlefield commemorates the American Civil War Battle of Antietam that occurred on September 17, 1862 and includes a visitor center, a national military cemetery and a field hospital museum.
Rock Creek Park is truly a gem in our nation's capital. It offers visitors an opportunity to reflect and soothe their spirits through the beauty of nature along a tributary of the Potomac River, and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.
Rocks State Park features opportunities for fishing, hiking, picnicking, canoeing and tubing, as well as bow hunting, rock climbing and repelling. Playgrounds, shelters, and comfort stations are available at each of the three picnic areas.