Permanent Camp: Grass-of-Parnassus

Permanent Camp: Grass-of-Parnassus

by George Ellison with illustration by Elizabeth Ellison 

“From a distance the white flowers are attractive but not extraordinary; when observed closely, though, the delicate tracery of the green veins on the waxy white petals is astonishing.” 
~Alan S. Weakley, “Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States” (UNC Herbarium, 2010)

Many of the late-summer-into-fall wildflowers are as fine as any that bloom in spring. And nothing that appears in any season is more exquisitely designed than Grass-of-Parnassus, which flowers from August into October and is aptly named for Mount Parnassus, the sacred mountain in ancient Greece near Delphi.

Three species are found in the eastern United States. Of these, the most common—and the only one in Great Smoky Mountains National Park) is kidney-leaved Grass-of-Parnassus (P. asarifolia), a plant 4-18 inches high with five petals and rounded kidney-shaped basal leaves as wide or wider than long.

Many if not all plants have some sort of nectar guide system comprised of lines or spots or shapes or fragrances, etc., that beguile insects into becoming pollinators.

Notice in Elizabeth's artwork how the green lines embedded in the white petals of Grass-of-Parnassus radiate from the center of the flower to its outermost forked edges, creating harmonious patterns designed to attract foraging insects. And, just to make sure they've got the insect's undivided attention, the whiteness of the petals weakly reflects ultraviolet light whereas the green in the lines glows like neon.

Once again, form follows function.   

But none can match the patterns displayed by Grass-of-Parnassus as the forked lines radiate in harmony creating an overall design that attracts both insect and human eyes.

George Ellison is an award-winning naturalist and writer. His wife is the noted artist and paper-maker, Elizabeth Ellison, who has a gallery-studio in Bryson City, NC. Contact them at or 


Related Posts
  1. A conversation with the authors of the new Kephart biography A conversation with the authors of the new Kephart biography Working with literary authorities George Ellison and Janet McCue to edit their new book, Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography, was like being a roadie for a dynamic singer-songwriter duo (imagine going on tour with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchel
  2. Smokies LIVE: Bringing the Smokies to You Smokies LIVE: Bringing the Smokies to You
  3. Welcome to Smokies LIVE Welcome to Smokies LIVE
  4. Video Feature: Nature Marches On Video Feature: Nature Marches On