Twin Leaf Flower


Virginia Wildflowers is a natural history photo gallery and casual field guide to wildflowers and mushrooms. I live in Southwest Virginia, so most of my photos were taken in this part of the state. The images are organized by species and date, and usually include close-ups of leaves, stems and flowers along with basic natural history information. My goal in making this site was to teach myself about native wildflowers in my home area.  An added benefit would be to help someone else (–maybe you?) learn the same.

If you arrived here because you are looking for information about a specific plant, try using the search bar in the right sidebar. Common names and latin names can be searched. If you would just like to browse what is here, try scanning the archive in the left sidebar.

Most of these blog posts contain photo gallery/slideshows, so be sure to click on the gallery to open a larger viewer.

Welcome to Virginia Wildflowers! Enjoy your visit!



Circium sp.

Thistle.  Is it a beautiful purple wildflower that generously produces nectar for butterflies and seeds for small birds like the American Goldfinch? Or, is it a treacherous weed of fields and pastures that is a scourge for farmers everywhere?  Can I paint a fair portrait?

IMG_8499It is both.  This prickly plant bears plump flower heads on tall stems, in various shades of pink, lilac, and purple. Pollinators flock to the nectar-rich blooms, and a field of thistle may be one of the best places I can think of to find an assortment of bees and butterflies at work. After thistle flowers whither, the ovary swells and produces a mass of silky, feathery seeds that are carried away by the wind. This pink pincushion of a flower is morphologically fascinating at each stage of its development, and therefore I will argue, it is lovely in its own way.

However, thistles have developed an elaborate defense system to prevent mammals from grazing on them. Practically every part of the plant is sharp and prickly. Ouch, don’t bump into one! This inconvenient feature of the plant makes it very hard to manage, especially if you have a lot of it on your property.  For farmers, thistles are simply noxious weeds that deserve eradication.

There are many species of thistles, including the locally common Bull thistle, Canada thistle, Plumeless thistle, Musk thistle, and Field thistle.  Some are native and some are introduced. You can find thistles blooming throughout the summer and they are are never hard to find! Ask any butterfly!

Click on any image for a larger view:

Autumn Sneezeweed


Helenium autumnale

Helenium autumnale, Sneezeweed

I really like this species epithet: autumnale!  It reminds me of what is happening right now, ever so subtly, in the great outdoors:  There are little signs of autumn coming–the black gums dropping bright red leaves on the forest floor…  the preying mantis growing large and more conspicuous on the prowl… the late summer flowers putting on their biggest show yet, in colors that welcome the upcoming fall season: brilliant golds, soft creams, and deep purples…  It all puts one in mind of a Robert Frost poem about autumn… but let’s not go there yet—it is just way too early for that!

Autumn sneezeweed (or Helen’s Flower): Note how each ray flower of this aster is turned backward and bears a pretty scalloped edge with 3 lobes.  And the yellow center of disk flowers is globular, not flattened. It is just darling!

Sneezeweed is a native perennial that will grow 2-5 feet in height while flaunting numerous bright yellow, daisy-like blooms. The stem is winged; the leaves are dark green, alternate, lance-shaped and slightly toothed. This wildflower is so pretty that cultivars of it are commonly grown by gardeners looking to add some height and color to their fall gardens.

A late-summer and fall-blooming plant of moist places, sneezeweed likes to keep its feet wet in hot weather. I photographed these plants growing around the perimeter of Pandapas Pond, in Montgomery County, in late August; others were spotted around the same time in a sunny bog near Glen Alton.

From a medicinal perspective, sneezeweed was once dried to a powder and used to make snuff. Achoo!! Excuse me. The purpose of snuff was to cause sneezing, which we all know helps to rid the body of evil spirits!

Achoo!! More snuff please!

Grass of Parnassus

Kidneyleaf Grass-of-Parnassus

Parnassia asarifolia

A friend led me to a sphagnum bog in the mountains near Glen Alton, and that’s where we found a beautiful white wildflower in bloom:  the Grass of Parnassus!  Surrounding this plant was an immense diversity of other moisture-loving plants including sphagnum moss, sundews, cotton grass, horsetails, shining clubmoss, and alder.

IMG_0891First of all, this is not a grass!  This is a perennial herb with kidney-shaped basal leaves and tall flowering stems.  The leaves are 1 to 2 inches across and entire.  The flowering stems can grow up to 1.5 feet in height.

grassofparnassusEach stem bears only one flower—but what a gem it is!  Five white petals outlined with strong greenish veins surround 5 prominent stamens with anthers.  Each of these anthers is then separated by 5 other smaller, sterile anthers! Together, the symphony of stamens and ornate petals conspire to create an exotic and arresting, late-summer flower.

Look for the Grass of Parnassus blooming near mountain swamps and seeps, and alongside streams, from late August thru October.  this plant is listed as endangered in Maryland and Kentucky.


Cardinal Flower

Lobelia cardinalis

It’s showtime—and this late-summer bloomer is as showy a flower as they come! Cardinal flower, a native perennial, produces bright red flowers on tall, unbranched stems. The flowers are produced on a raceme, which opens from the bottom first.

Each individual flower is bright red and tubular, with 5 deep lobes that are obvious on first inspection. The reproductive organs of the flower are clustered into a grayish head at the top of the tube. Similar to great blue lobelia, the lower petal of each flower forms a 3-lobed lip at the entrance to the flower. The overall effect of the shape of the flower is that of a flying bird. Lovely!

The stems are unbranched and grow up to a meter tall. The leaves are lance-shaped with serrated margins; leaves vary in size up to 6 inches long.

Cardinal flower grows in sun to part-shade.  It prefers wet places, like streambanks and soggy ditches along the sides of roads. Hummingbirds are attracted to the bright red color of these flowers and consequently are important pollinators. The flowers are also visited by butterflies, especially swallowtails.

Historically, the plant gets its name from the color of the vestments of Catholic cardinals. As a medicinal plant, teas were made from the roots and leaves, and then used to treat respiratory and intestinal disorders. As a wildlife food, mammals generally avoid eating cardinal flower because it produces a milky, white latex that is toxic.

See the gallery below for photos taken in August, in Montgomery and Giles Counties in VIrginia.

Rusty seeds of Ironweed




This very tall, late-summer flower is ubiquitous in our part of VIrginia.  The small, deep purple flowers begin to bloom in fields and along roadsides in August. The spectacular show of color continues through fall.

Ironweed is a perennial wildflower, and a member of the Aster family. The leaves of the plant are elliptic to lanceolate and in the case of  New York ironweed (shown here, I think), the leaves have a finely toothed margin. There are several other species of ironwood recognized in the genus Veronia. The typical habitat for them is moist areas–in ditches, seeps, and moist thickets.

The name “ironweed” comes from the characteristic stems, which are very tough and can persist right through the winter.  Some say the name also refers to the stems, flowers and seeds, which age with time to a “rusty” color.  Look for this coloration as you scan the photographs below.


Great Blue Lobelia

Great Blue Lobelia

Lobelia siphilitica

Great Blue Lobelia
Great Blue Lobelia

It is a late summer treat to see great blue lobelia in full bloom, often alongside the fabulously red cardinal flower. Sometimes called “blue cardinal flower”, great blue lobelia resembles red cardinal flower, (Lobelia cardinalis), in stature, habitat, and structure. Both of these plants are tall wetland species with colorful flowers borne on terminal racemes. Their tube-shaped flowers have a lower lip divided into three lobes and an upper lip divided into two lobes. The large leaves of great blue lobelia are alternate, lanceolate, serrate and sessile.

Great Blue Lobelia with Cardinal Flower
Great Blue Lobelia with Cardinal Flower

If left untouched, great blue lobelia will grow unbranched and reach up to 3 or 4 feet in height.  However, if deer manage to browse them back, the flowers will be borne on shorter, branched racemes.

Great blue lobelia is not an edible plant. It is an emetic–meaning it will cause vomiting. Long ago it was thought to be medicinally useful as a cure for syphilis, hense the species name L. siphilitica.

Hummingbirds, insects and people are attracted to this beautiful flower. If you have a wet place in your yard, collect some seeds in early October and plant them right away for enjoyment next summer. Once started in the right place, the plants will self-sow.

Cranefly Orchid

Cranefly Orchid or Crippled Cranefly

Tipularia discolor

Cranefly Orchid
Cranefly Orchid

It is mid-August, and there is a mysterious orchid blooming in the woods right now. It is tall and delicate, oddly conspicuous, yet almost invisible to the eye. It is called the Crane-fly Orchid.

Like Putty-root Orchid, the crane-fly orchid has a 2-part life cycle. In the fall, each plant pushes up a single, oval leaf that is green above and purple below. Sometimes the surface of the leaf is spotted. The leaf stays green all winter and then dies back completely by May or June. Two months later, when there is no longer any sign of the original leaf, a flower stalk emerges from the ground and grows up to 18 inches in height. By late August or September, the stalk is resplendent with up to 40 small orchid flowers.

Cranefly Orchid
Cranefly Orchid

All the features of the flowers are so fine that they appear like the spindly legs of a cranefly, hence the first common name.  And because the flowers are somewhat asymmetrical, the twisted shape explains the origin of the second common name for the plant, which is crippled cranefly.

But what about the color of the orchid? They are commonly described as translucent, with a hue that hovers between pink and brown. Personally, the color really reminds me of another exotic local, the Lily-leaved Twayblade.

A final common name for this native perennial is Elfin Spur. The term must refer to the diminutive size of the individual flowers, and the long, odd spur that protrudes from the back of each one.

If you have a patient eye, look for the cranefly orchid growing in late summer in the mixed hardwood forests of Southwest Virginia. It likes rich, acidic soil. Colonies thrive on shaded stream banks or in other damp woodland locations.

Illustration of the Cranefly Orchid thanks to: USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. Vol. 1: 573.

a natural history gallery of wildflowers and mushrooms


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