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The path of the Blue Ridge Parkway traverses an unsurpassed diversity of climatic, vegetation, and micro-habitats.

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Taking advantage of this diversity are 14 major vegetation types, about 1,600 vascular plant species (50 threatened or endangered, this number may approach 2,000 species as the National Park Service (NPS) begins an extensive inventory of all plants and animals), and almost 100 species of non-native plants. More than 130 species of trees grow along the Parkway, about as many as are found in all of Europe. Added to that are estimates of almost 400 species of mosses and nearly 2000 species of fungi.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is unique in that it covers a wide range of habitats along the north-south axis of the Appalachian Mountains, such that the flora on a mountain summit at the northern end of the park may be quite different from the flora of a mountain summit at the southern end. Some of these habitats are exceptionally rare in the region and a few are even globally rare. An example includes rock outcrops at high elevations, which contain a fragile group of alpine species that were pushed southward during glacial times and eventually were left stranded on the southern mountains. The main threat to this fragile plant community is trampling by unaware park visitors. Another unique habitat is the Grassy Balds which were likely grazed by native animals such as bison and elk, but which now are maintained by park biologists.

The forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains are one of the areas most dramatic features. These forests are largely stunted oak, oak-hickory forests and mixed-oak pine while the highest parts of the Blue Ridge are generally coated in a dense spruce-fir stand. While the Blue Ridge Mountains include the highest summits in the eastern United States, the climate is nevertheless too warm to support a true alpine zone. For that reason, the range lacks the tree line found at lower elevations in the northern half of the Appalachian range.

Because of the wide range in elevation from high peak to low valley, the park visitor can enjoy a tremendous variety of wildflowers throughout the spring, summer, and fall months. While the summer wildflowers are blooming in the valleys, the spectacular spring wildflowers are just beginning to bloom on the high peaks. The following showy wildflowers are commonly found from May to August: Turk’s Cap Lily (Lilium superbum), Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule), Evening Primrose (Oenothera fruiticosa), Bee Balm (Monarda didyma), and Fire Pink (Silene virginica).

The same environmental variability that leads to such spectacular bloom displays in the spring and summer also contributes to autumn leaf color. The first leaves to change are those of deciduous trees on the highest elevations, which change to vivid shades of orange, red, yellow, and purple. Throughout the months of October and November the leaf color changes gradually, beginning in the high mountains and concluding at the lower slopes and valleys. The Virginia Department of Forestry’s (VDOF) Fall Foliage page provides a nice overview of fall leaf colors and what times you can expect to see peak color regionally.

[table, sort=”asc”] TREE,FALL LEAF COLOR
Ash,yellow to maroon
Beech,yellow to orange
Dogwood,scarlet to purple
Hickory,golden bronze
Oak,red or brown or russet
Poplar,golden yellow
Red maple,brilliant scarlet
[/table]
VDOF-fall-foliage-map

For the best wildflower or fall foliage viewing, check out our online resources such as tips, field reports and web cams.

Citations
Blue Ridge Parkway NPS, “Nature & Science” and “Plants”
Wikipedia.org, “Blue Ridge Mountains”

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