Orchids and Toadstools
(and Some Plants In Between)

Wildflowers are the Park's third most popular attraction, after scenery and hiking. Our checklist of vascular plants includes about 1,100 species. A few of these are ferns and clubmosses; many are grasses, sedges, or rushes; possibly a hundred and fifty are trees or shrubs. Of the remainder there are quite a few—ragweed for example—that are hard to think of as wildflowers. That leaves two or three hundred species worth the attention of a wildflower hobbyist.

But remember that you can't collect, pick, or eat the flowers. Please don't pick a flower and take it to the Visitor Center to be classified. Better: make an accurate drawing, write down an accurate description, and take those to the Visitor Center. Best: buy a flower book and take it to the flower. The Visitor Centers have several books on wildflowers, including:

A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-central North America, by Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKinney. (Peterson Field Guide Series.) 420 pages. 1,344 illustrations, mostly pen-and-ink, but some in color. Flowers are arranged by color and form, which makes the book easy to use.

Wildflowers of the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains. 208 pages. Color photographs and short descriptions of 200 species, arranged by color. Most of these species occur in the Park. This is a useful book for beginners.

Fall Wildflowers, by Oscar Gupton and Fred Swope. 208 pages with color photographs and descriptions.

Wildflowers in Color, by Arthur Stupka. 144 pages. Descriptions and color photos of 266 species of wildflowers of Shenandoah and Great

Smokies National Parks, and the Blue Ridge Parkway. The flowers are arranged by family.

The Wildflower Calendar is a chart that shows the usual blooming dates of the Park's more common wildflowers. It's FREE for the asking at Headquarters and the Visitor Centers.

 So, Where Are the Orchids?

Shenandoah National Park has about eighteen species of orchids. Most of them are either rare or inconspicuous; none are big and gaudy like the ones you find on trees in the tropics, or in your florist's refrigerator. But, here are five attractive species that you'll see in Shenandoah if you're in the right place at the right time. All of them are locally common: you might walk for hours without finding one, then come on a small area with dozens of them.

Showy orchid, Orchis spectabilis. The flowers are up to an inch long, purple above and white below; from three to twelve flowers on a terminal spike. They bloom in May, in woods at lower elevations, often beside the trails and fire roads.

Purple fringe orchid, Habenaria fimbriata. Numerous small flowers, lilac-pink or lilac-purple, on a spike. Lower lip deeply fringed. They bloom in late June and early July, in fairly wet places, at all elevations.

Yellow ladyslipper, Cypripedium calceolus. The "slipper" is pure yellow and usually about an inch long (two inches in the larger, less common variety.) It blooms in May, in woods and semi-open areas, at all elevations.

Pink ladyslipper, Cypripedium acaule. The "slipper" is purplish pink, veined with a darker red, and up to two inches long. Blooms in May, in woods, mostly at lower elevations.

Nodding ladies tresses, Spiranthes cernua. The small white flowers are arranged spirally on the spike, and have an odor of vanilla. In open and semi-open places. One of our latest wildflowers; it blooms in October.


Practically the entire Park consists of trees, nearly all of them deciduous (meaning not evergreen), and most of them oaks and hickories. Other trees may predominate in specialized areas:

Black locust, a pioneer species, is usually the first tree to grow up in abandoned fields and meadows.

Evergreens, mostly hemlocks, which occur in the cooler and moist parts of the Park. Pines are common on dry slopes in the South Section.

Cove hardwoods, including yellow and black birch, basswood, tulip poplar, red and sugar maples, may be the predominant species along streams at lower elevations.

Because of the heavy timbering that occurred here before the Park was created, most of our trees are young second growth, In a few places you can find very large, old trees. The most notable are the hemlocks in the Limberlost (Mile 43.0). Here and there throughout the Park are big trees that escaped cutting because they grew in a rugged area where timbering would have been difficult. The great hemlocks and tulip poplars along Doyles River (Mile 81.1) may have been spared for that reason.

The sales outlets at the Visitor Centers have useful books on trees:

Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs, by George A. Petrides. (Peterson Field Guide Series.) 428 pages. Descriptions of 646 species, with keys and pen- and-ink drawings. Rather comprehensive and detailed, which might make it somewhat difficult for beginners.

Trees of North America, by C. Frank Brockman (A Golden Field Guide.) 280 pages, covering about 730 species. Descriptions, range maps, and color illustrations, conveniently arranged. Less technical and easier to use than the other two.

 Ferns and Clubmosses

This is a small but interesting group of plants, represented in the Park by about 47 species. References:

Ferns and Fern Allies of Shenandoah National Park, by Peter M. Mazzeo. Pamphlet, 52 pages, inexpensive. Keys and descriptions; the illustrations are pen-and-ink drawings.


This is a large, varied, and fascinating group of plants that occur in all parts of the Park. They depend heavily on rainfall, so that in dry years they're scarce, and in wet years very abundant. I can't tell you how many species we have; probably several hundred.

Mushrooms, like nuts and berries, can be legally gathered and eaten in the Park. But, a word of caution. Eating wild mushrooms is safe only if you know, for sure, what you're doing. There are various superstitions about how to distinguish between edible and poisonous mushrooms:

I've heard that you should cook mushrooms with a silver spoon. If the spoon turns black, the mushrooms are poisonous; if it doesn't, they're edible. DON'T BELIEVE IT.

I've heard that you can test a mushroom by eating a very tiny piece; then wait an hour and eat a bigger one; then wait another hour and, if you're still feeling no pain, eat all you want. DON'T BELIEVE IT. Some of the most poisonous mushrooms produce no symptoms at all during the first six to fifteen hours after you eat them.

There is no characteristic of a mushroom (color of gills, ring around the stem, cup at the base, etc.) that can tell you whether it's poisonous. There is no alternative to knowing the species of each mushroom you propose to eat, and knowing whether or not that particular species is edible.

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© Copyright 1997 Antony Heatwole, All rights reserved