Here in the eastern United States — in central North Carolina to be precise — the Eno River is many things: a waterway, a food source, a photographic subject, a destination, a habitat, and a refuge. It’s also the giver of life for a range of wildflower species, many of which inhabit the floodplain surrounding the Eno and blossom in summer.
Since I hike along the banks of the Eno River, I frequently see these wildflowers. In fact I’ve seen them so often over the years they’ve become like old friends. And like old friends, they come and go of their own accord. Even so, while they’re here I try to give them the recognition they deserve.
So that’s what I’ll be doing in this article, as I give brief descriptions of each wildflower (or occasionally fruit/seed) along with the place and time where I found it and my photography of the corresponding plant.
[Before harvesting or consuming wild plants, make sure you have the permission of the landowner and an understanding of considerations for use.]
Because I don’t use plant identification apps of any kind, I often spend hours trawling through image searches or field guides in order to identify wildflowers. That was especially the case with wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria), which I found on an exposed upland trail at Occoneechee Mountain in early June.
The wild indigo plant itself stands up to three feet tall, with trifoliate leaflets (three small leaves joined together on the same stalk, like clover) and flowers at the ends of stalks. The flowers are about two inches long, pea-shaped, and bright yellow with dark brown markings toward the center.
Though toxic if ingested in large quantities, wild indigo is also antiseptic and immunomodulatory, helping the body to fight off infection and remain healthy. The roots can also be used to make a blue dye — hence the name — though the process is laborious and time-consuming.
Along the Hillsborough Riverwalk in early June, red clover (Trifolium pratense) isn’t the most common. On the contrary, it tends to be somewhat scarce on account of being crowded out by the much more abundant hop clover. But what it lacks in abundance, it makes up for in vibrance.
Standing up to two feet tall along the edges of woodlands, red clover produces trifoliate leaflets and magnificent magenta flowerheads, each up to an inch wide and composed of tiny tubular flowers. Easily dwarfing other varieties of clover, it often stands out like a sore thumb.
Despite being an introduced species, red clover is not terribly aggressive and has the added benefit of being a food source for many wild animals including mammals, birds, bees, moths, and butterflies.
Classified as a noxious weed, oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) is not the most desirable of wildflowers. Despite its beguiling appearance, it can form dense clusters that crowd out other plants and monopolize nutrients that would be more useful if shared.
Growing from a stem up to two feet tall, the leaves of oxeye daisy are toothed or lobed and up to four inches long. The composite flowers are two inches wide and quite distinctive, with many white ray florets on the edge and yellow disc florets in the center; along the Hillsborough Riverwalk, these can bloom as early as May.
Thankfully the leaves, roots, and flowers of oxeye daisy are edible, though occasionally pungent. Some sources even recommend frying them for extra flavor. And considering that the plant is invasive, no one would begrudge you if you made your own daisy buffet.
Growing along the Eno River, wild onion (Allium vineale) — also rather confusingly called green onion, wild garlic, and field garlic — is ubiquitous in central North Carolina and the eastern United States. Classified as a noxious weed, this is another wildflower that won’t be going out of stock any time soon.
The leaves of wild onion are up to a foot long, narrow, circular, hollow, and extend almost directly from the bulb; as such, there’s hardly any distinction between stem and leaf. In place of flowers — which only appear sporadically — there are often bulbils, small bulbs resulting from asexual reproduction that grow directly from the stem. Also helpful in confirming the identification of wild onion is the strong onion scent that emanates from its leaves when cut or crushed.
Much like oxeye daisy, all of the parts of wild onion are edible, though they may be mildly toxic when eaten in large doses; dogs especially are susceptible to this. Even so, the leaves are much more mild and can be incorporated into a variety of different foods, from casseroles and dips to stir fries and burritos.
Common Hedge Parsley
Another introduced wildflower that can be seen at this time of year along the Eno River is common hedge parsley (Torilis arvensis), a relative of the wild carrot. Preferring sunny well-drained soil, it frequently makes its home along exposed sidewalks and trails.
Up to three feet in height, it has lance-shaped leaflets that look a bit like a fleur-de-lis. The flowers are white and extremely tiny, occurring in clusters called umbels — which can be up to four inches wide — that are characteristic of the carrot family.
Common hedge parsley is also a food source for wasps, flies, and bees — who help to pollinate it in return for pollen and nectar — and for the black swallowtail, one of the most beautiful butterflies of summer.
One native wildflower that’s especially beloved is the blackberry (Rubus spp.) — of which the Allegheny blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) is a notable example and quite prevalent at Occoneechee Mountain in July and August.
Standing up to five feet tall, Allegheny blackberry plants have angular stems with numerous thorns that can easily take a chunk out of your finger. The leaves are oval, toothed, and compound — usually consisting of three to five leaflets joined to the same leaf stalk. The flowers are up to an inch wide, white, wrinkly, and delicate, with five petals, elongated stamens, and a green compound ovary at the center. The fruits are up to an inch long and half inch wide, thimble-shaped, clustered, and green, red, or black depending on ripeness — the darker, the riper.
The most commonly eaten part of the blackberry is of course the fruit, which is juicy, sweet, tangy, and exceptionally flavorful when fresh. In addition, it’s quite nutritious, being rich in vitamin C, vitamin K, manganese, and fiber — the last of which is the most likely reason for its helpfulness with digestion.
Native to the eastern United States, Carolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense) grows in grassland, marsh, and lowland, with a preference for partial shade. Though quite beautiful and a member of the same genus as tomatoes, it is unfortunately not at all edible.
Standing up to three feet tall, Carolina horsenettle has thorns all along its stems and leaves. The leaves are up to six inches long, alternate, lobed, and dandelion-shaped. The flowers are up to two inches wide and star-shaped, with five white petals and five yellow anthers. The fruits are up to an inch wide, yellow, and not at all edible.
In some regions of the United States, especially in the western states, Carolina horsenettle is considered a noxious weed, mostly for its potential toxicity to livestock. This toxicity is the result of a phytochemical called solanine — which can cause salivation, constipation, loss of consciousness, and death.
One of the most beautiful native wildflowers to be found in the eastern United States in summer — which I’ve seen especially on the Laurel Bluffs Trail at Eno River State Park in June — is fire pink (Silene virginica). Preferring rocky upland soil, it can be hard to find unless you’re willing to put in a little legwork.
Standing up to two feet tall, fire pink has long, thin leaves up to six inches long. The flowers are up to two inches wide and crimson red, with four petals that have “pinking” at the tips. (This archaic term refers to sequential notches in a row.) When seen in person, these flowers are in fact liable to cause a concussion — as you pick yourself up off the ground, recovering from their color.
Due to the position of the nectar in the flower, this is a favorite of the ruby-throated hummingbird and certain butterflies with proboscises long enough to reach fire pink’s recessed nectaries.
All in all, these summer wildflowers are bastions of color, shape, nutrition, and community. And though some of them may be more beneficial than others, there’s no doubt that they’re all well-suited to support the health of the land and planet when kept in their proper ecological place.
Needless to say, that’s a lesson humanity could learn from as well.