A North Carolina naturalist’s tips for spotting springtime blooms

Scott Dean shares his favorite hiking trails, advice for seeing spring ephemeral flowers, and an unforgettable outdoor event in the Smokies

Scott Dean has been leading walks through the forests, fields, and mountains of western North Carolina for nearly 30 years—and encouraging everyone to go wild for wildflowers

Naturalist Scott Dean has a simple mission: to cultivate as much excitement about plants as possible. As a child growing up in the southern Appalachians, he heard stories about plants from his grandmother, who regarded the local flora as both a grocery store and medicine cabinet. After retiring from a decades-long career in the Air Force, he moved to the Asheville area to study biology, before going on to help develop the Blue Ridge Naturalist program at the North Carolina Arboretum. These days, he’s busy teaching flora identification classes, guiding wildflower walks, and helping visitors embrace nature. Here, he shares his favorite hiking trails, advice for seeing spring ephemeral flowers, and an unforgettable outdoor event in the Smokies.

Dawn and Dusk
“I prefer to go wildflowering in the early morning before 10 a.m. or early evening after 5 or 6 p.m. I love seeing the morning dew on the petals. If I’m doing photography, then I avoid going out midday—bright sunlight washes the color out of the flowers.”

Best in Show
“Trillium usually wows people the most. If you go into the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest [in Robbinsville] and walk the two-mile loop, you’ll see literally a million blossoms. It’s just unbelievable. I like the large-flowered trillium, a species with pristine white blooms. As the flower ages, it turns more pinkish and purplish.

Large-flowered trillium

Photo via Shutterstock

On the Trail
“My personal favorite wildflower walk is on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains at Baxter Creek Trail. If you go between early to mid April, you will see anywhere from 45 to 50 species of wildflowers in bloom within a mile and a half. Closer to Waynesville at Balsam Gap, you can get on the Mountain-to-Sea Trail. Go north and you’ll spot trout lilies in the tens of thousands and tiny white flowers called spring beauty in probably the millions. That’s not hyperbole. There are areas where it looks like snow is on the ground.”

Take It Slow
“When wildflowering, I always advise people to take their time. It’s not a race. My students laugh because we’ll spend three hours on a trail and only travel a mile. When I go out, I bring a little jeweler’s loupe with seven-power magnification. Some of these flowers are the most intricate things, and you would never know if you didn’t look closely.”

Make the Pilgrimage
“Every year, Great Smoky Mountain National Park has a wonderful Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage (May 1–4). Experts give lectures on a spectrum of topics, such as wildflowers, ferns, trees, and birds, and then lead folks on walks to see them. It’s all happening in one of the most biologically and botanically diverse regions in North America at the prime time when things are popping off.”

This article appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Southbound.