The Smokies in Your Backyard: Crested Dwarf Iris, Foam Flower, and Columbine

The Smokies in Your Backyard: Crested Dwarf Iris, Foam Flower, and Columbine

Steve Kemp and Janet Rock

By Steve Kemp & Janet Rock 

It’s impossible not to get excited about wildflowers at this time of year. Out of the 1,600 species of flowering plants that can found in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, here are some that should thrive around your home if you reside in the Southeast, central Appalachians, and parts of the Midwest. Remember to procure them from a reputable nursery that specializes in flora native to your region. All plants are protected by federal law in GSMNP except for berries and mushrooms harvested for personal consumption.

Crested dwarf iris
Crested dwarf iris. Photo by Shannon Welch

Crested dwarf iris (Iris cristata)
Translated from Greek, iris means ‘rainbow,’ a perfect moniker for this colorful group of flowers. As the name implies, the crested dwarf iris rarely grows taller than six inches. It blooms in April and May in the Smokies and is common at the lower and mid elevations. Its natural range runs from Maryland to Georgia and west to Arkansas.

In your garden, this iris transplants easily and should do well in partial shade or full sun. Your soil should be well-drained yet moist. Many gardeners place it among rocks. This wildflower should go forth and multiply by underground rhizomes for years to come.

Foam Flower
Foam flower. Photo by Tom Harrington

Foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia)
The genus name, Tiarella, means ‘little crown,’ and this beautiful flower will soon attain royalty status if it takes to your garden. In the Smokies, it blooms from April into June and is a common inhabitant of moist woods and stream banks. Its natural range stretches from eastern Canada down to North Carolina and Tennessee.

Foam flower can be transplanted or grown from seeds in moist shady places. They like rich, moist soils and may bloom for a month or more. If growing from seed, start your seeds indoors two months before the last hard frost of the spring. Foam flower in the right shady environs can make an outstanding ground cover.

Wild Columbine
Wild Columbine. Photo by Joye Ardyn Durham

Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Columbine’s bright red flowers make it a delight to discover in the spring woods, whether you are a human or a hummingbird. Blossoms can be enjoyed from April into June. In the Smokies, this tall plant enjoys rocky, wet areas at the lower and mid elevations. Its native range runs from eastern Canada to Georgia and west to Wisconsin and middle Tennessee.

Columbine can be transplanted or grown from seed in the spring or early summer. They do well in full sun or partial shade depending on how hot the site becomes in summer. Water young plants during dry spells. Soil should be moist and well drained, like a Smoky Mountain streamside. Mature plants grow to nearly two feet tall.

The propagation of native plants has several advantages over exotics or ornamental species: the natives are naturally hardier and require less watering, pesticides, and fertilizing. They also provide food and habitat for birds, pollinating insects, and other wildlife. In addition, native plants help restore our historic landscapes and curtail the spread of invasive and destructive non-native species.

Steve Kemp worked as a seasonal ranger in multiple national parks and spent 30 years as a writer, editor, and publisher with GSMA. He is a frequent contributor to Smokies Life and is the author of several books, most notably Who Pooped in the ParkJanet Rock worked with the U.S. Forest Service before embarking on her 28-year career with GSMNP as the park’s official botanist. She co-authored the popular field guide Wildflowers of the Smokies and has contributed to several scientific articles on park plants.

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