Wildflowers are the park's third most popular attraction, after scenery and hiking. The park checklist of vascular plants includes about 1,100 species. A few of these are ferns and club mosses; 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.

Photo taken by Amy P. Moyers

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, or take a digital image, and take those to the Visitor Center. Better yet: buy a flower book and determine what flower you are looking at. Best, look at the program schedule in the visitor guide, Overlook, and take a park ranger led guided tour relating to wildflowers.

The visitor centers have a number of excellent 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.

Peterson First Guide to Wildflowers, by Roger Tory Peterson. 128 pages. A concise field guide to 188 common wildflowers of northeastern and north-central North America.

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.

  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. NOTE: All of the orchids listed below are fragile, none transplant easily; please do not disturb them, but leave them for the pleasure of future visitors.

Pink Lady's Slipper
Photo taken by Henry Heatwole

Showy orchid, Orchis spectabilis. The flowers are up to an inch long, purple above and white below. They have 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 lady's slipper, 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 lady's slipper, 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. One of our latest wildflowers; it blooms in October, in open and semi-open places.


Practically the entire park consists of trees, most 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, once mostly hemlocks found in the cooler and moist parts of the park. Today, you will see standing dead hemlocks or the last of the species to survive the hemlock wooly adelgid infestation. Pines are common on dry slopes in the South District.

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

Because of the heavy timbering that occurred before the park was created, most trees are young second growth. In a few places you can find very large, old trees. A few trees were left for shade in pastures. 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 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 about trees including:

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 and Shrubs of Virginia, by Oscar W. Guyton and Fred C. Swope. This non-technical guide provides a description, habitat picture and close-up of flowers and fruit of many Virginia species.

National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees of Eastern Region, North America. 714 pages, 993 full-color photographs covering 364 species.

Peterson First Guide to Trees, by George A. Petriades. 128 pages. A concise guide to 243 common trees of North America.

  Ferns and Clubmosses

Maidenhair Fern
Photo taken by Henry Heatwole

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

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.

Red Calostoma
Photo taken by Henry Heatwole

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

It's been said 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. IT IS NOT TRUE.

It's been said that 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. IT IS NOT TRUE. Some of the most poisonous mushrooms produce no symptoms at all during the first six to fifteen hours after you eat them.

Hemlock Varnish Shelf
Photo by Larry W. Brown

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. Best advice, rely on the supermarket for mushrooms you want to eat and enjoy the visual experience of those in the wild.

Reference available at the Visitor Centers or from the Shenandoah National Park Association.

National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mushrooms of North America. 926 pages, 726 full-color photographs and 250 black-and-white illustrations covering 703 species.