From the northern mountains to the southern coastal plains, Alabama's landscape is blanketed with a diverse array of wildflowers and native plants. Many species found in Alabama are also common throughout the southeastern United States, including spring-blooming flowering trees and shrubs such as the southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), the many varieties of azalea (Rhododendron spp.), and the official state wildflower, the oak-leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia). Herbaceous wildflowers can be found blooming from March to June and range from the shade-loving wakerobins (Trillium spp.) and the curious may-apple (Podophyllum peltatum) to sun lovers such as the exquisite spider lilies (Hymenocallis spp.) and the carnivorous pitcherplants (Sarracenia ssp.)
Alabama is also home to several flowering plants found nowhere else in the world; such species are referred to by scientists
as "endemic" species. These plants include the Alabama pitcherplant (Sarracenia rubra ssp. alabamensis) and Cahaba prairie-clover (Dalea cahaba), both found in central Alabama, and the Alabama gladecress (Leavenworthia alabamica), known from northwest Alabama. The portion of the Southeast that covers north-central Florida, southwestern Georgia, and
southeastern Alabama is one of the most diverse regions of endemic plant species in the country.
Alabama's wildflower diversity is largely a result of the state's wealth of geologic formations, soil types, and habitats. Alabama is uniquely situated at the convergence of several major physiographic provinces, known as sections within the state borders. The northernmost section, the Highland Rim, flanks the Tennessee River in the northwestern part of the state and is characterized by rolling uplands, numerous sinks, springs, and southward-flowing streams with high walls and steep limestone cliffs. Beautiful spring wildflowers found largely in this section include goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), two-leaf bishop's-cap (Mitella diphylla), umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala), blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), mountain spurge (Pachysandra procumbens), and dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria).
To the south and east of the Highland Rim is the Cumberland Plateau, which developed on ridges and valleys of tilted and uplifted bedrock composed of dolomite and limestone. This section has a higher average elevation than any adjacent sections and extends to the northeast corner of the state. Bordering the Cumberland Plateau to the south is the Valley and Ridge section, a series of limestone, sandstone, and shale ridges and valleys that include the southernmost reaches of the Appalachian Mountains. The Piedmont section, to the south of the Valley and Ridge, extends west from Georgia into east-central Alabama and is a raised, gently sloping upland of disordered igneous and metamorphic rocks.
These three sections contain many beautiful herbaceous species of wildflowers, including the Cahaba lily (Hymenocallis coronaria), fire-pink (Silene virginica), American trout lily (Erythronium americanum), pink lady's-slipper orchid (Cypripedium acaule), rose-pink (Sabatia angularis), twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla), orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida), and the rare Alabama war bonnet (Jamesianthus alabamensis), which is in the sunflower family. In the northwest quarter of Alabama, wildflower seekers can find the glade violet (Viola egglestonii), Alabama gladecress (Leavenworthia alabamica), the rare French's shootingstar (Dodecatheon frenchii), hairy alumroot (Heuchera villosa), and common hop (Humulus lupulus). Typical flowering trees and shrubs found in this region are Alabama cherry (Prunus alabamensis), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), and Alabama snow wreath (Neviusia alabamensis), a member of the rose family.
The Valley and Ridge and Cumberland Plateau sections converge in Bibb County with the fall line Hills of the Coastal Plain section to create a unique ecosystem known as the Ketona Dolomite Glades—barren, sloping outcrops of sedimentary rocks dolomite and limestone. These unusual habitats were brought to light in the early 1990s in Bibb County and are now owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy as the Kathy Stiles Freeland Bibb County Glades Preserve. These areas vary from gently rolling hills to steep outcrops all with soils high in magnesium and calcium. The unique chemical makeup of the soils has resulted in a plant community that is found nowhere else in the world. Endemic plant species here include the Cahaba Indian paintbrush (Castilleja kraliana), Cahaba prairie-clover (Dalea cahaba), Cahaba torch (Liatris oligocephala), sticky rosinweed (Silphium glutinosum), and the only known population of a newly discovered species of yellow-eyed grass (Xyris spathifolia). In addition to wildflowers unique to these habitats, species common to other regions of the United States may also be found here, including the hairy Carolina horse-nettle (Solanum pumilum), thought to be extinct since 1837, and the yellow nailwort (Paronychia virginica), known typically from Virginia, Texas, and Arkansas.
The East Gulf Coastal Plains section, with its generally sandy and clayey soils, supports a large host of wildflowers, many of which are characteristic of humid, temperate climates. This large physiographic section contains a number of different plant communities. The Black Belt region, known for its characteristic rich, dark, prairie-like soil, stretches across the middle of the state, beginning in Macon and Bullock counties and then curving to the northwest and leaving the state in Sumter and southern Pickens counties. Notable wildflower species in this region include the rare Alabama croton (Croton alabamensis), prairie false foxglove (Agalinis heterophylla), lemon beebalm (Monarda citriodora), diamondflowers (Stenaria nigricans), long-leaf ground cherry (Physalis longifolia), and large-leaf grass of Parnassus (Parnassia grandifolia).
The southeastern and south-central portions of Alabama are home to the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) forests and wiregrass (Aristida stricta) ecosystems. Before European settlement, longleaf pine forests, with a dense understory of wiregrass and other species common to pine flatwoods, covered most of the lower half of Alabama; that ecosystem has now been reduced to about 3 percent of its former breadth. Natural fires are required for the germination of new longleaf pine seeds, native cane (Arundinaria gigantea spp.), and many other plants in this ecosystem, but humans have suppressed fire for generations. Typical wildflower species of this region include Michaux's gopher-apple (Licania michau xii), sandhill wild buckwheat (Eriogonum tomentosum), erect milk pea (Galactia erecta), Savannah primrose-willow (Ludwigia virgata), and swamp bay (Persea palustris).
Bogs are another unique habitat type in Coastal Plain section. These wet, marshy areas are dominated by a unique herbaceous
flora and like the longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem require natural fire cycles. Perhaps the most charismatic plants often
found in these bogs are the carnivorous pitcher plants. Pitcher plants have evolved modified leaves that form long tubes that
contain enzyme-laden juices used for digesting insects that fall inside. The several different species of pitcher plant almost
all hybridize with each other, making positive species identification difficult at times. Yellow trumpets (Sarracenia alata), yellow pitcherplant (S. flava), white-top pitcherplant (S. leucophylla), parrot pitcherplant (S. psittacina), and sweet pitcherplant (S. rubra) are among the more common species found in southern bogs. Other types of carnivorous plants inhabit the ecosystem, but they
do not boast the unusual and attractive flowers borne by pitcher plants. Instead, plants such as sundews (Drosera spp.) and butterworts (Pinguilcula spp.) have sticky hairs on their leaves or stems that trap insects prior to digesting them with enzymes. Other wildflowers
of the southern bogs include pale grass-pink (Calopogon pallidus), zigzag bladderwort (Utricularia subulata), Boykin's lobelia (Lobeli a boykinii), yellow bog orchid (Platanthera integra), orange milkwort (Polygala lutea), panhandle lily (Lilium iridollae), Baldwin's yellow-eyed-grass (Xyris baldwiniana), coastal false asphodel (Triantha racemosa), and flattened pipewort (Eriocaulon compressum).
Invasive Alien Species
Alabama's relatively mild winters, especially in the lower regions of the state, can support many non-native species of sub-tropical plants, and they are beginning to make their way across the landscape. Sadly, some of these new plant immigrants are invasive and are threatening the native flora and ecology of the state. Most Alabamians are familiar with kudzu (Pueraria montana var. lobata)—the icon of invasive species in the state—which was originally planted in the mistaken belief that it would control soil erosion. Most people are unaware however, that Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) and Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense) are both more invasive and cover several times the acreage of land than is now infested by kudzu. Other aggressive invasive weeds in Alabama's landscape include cogon grass (Imperata cylindrica), Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum), Japanese climbing fern (Lygodium japonicum), tropical soda-apple (Solanum viarum), and Chinese tallowtree (Triadica sebifera). Aggressive invasive aquatic plants include hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata), Eurasian water milfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum), and alligator-weed (Alternanthera philoxeroides). Many people do not realize that invasive plants cost taxpayers millions of dollars each year for control and eradication of these pests along roadways, right-of-ways, and power lines and in public lakes and waterways. Unfortunately, many retailers and online sellers continue to offer Japanese honeysuckle, Chinese privet, and other invasive plants for sale in Alabama. Until citizens are made aware of the ultimate costs to the landscape of planting invasive species, residents and land managers will forever be combating them amongst the beautifully rich and incredibly diversebut disappearingnative flora of the state of Alabama.
Endangered Flowering Plant Species
Alabama currently has more than 20 plants federally listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as either threatened or endangered, among which are several wildflower species including: little amphianthus (Amphianthus pusillus), Price's potato-bean (Apios priceana), Huntsville vasevine (Clematis morefieldii), Alabama leather flower (Clematis socialis), false rosemary (Conradina canescens), Apalachicola false rosemary (Conradina glabra), leafy prairie-clover (Dalea foliosa), smooth purple coneflower (Echinacea laevigata), lyre-leafed ear bladderpod (Paysonia lyrata), pondberry (Lindera melissifolia), Mohr's Barbara's buttons (Marshallia mohrii), Piedmont mock bishopweed (Ptilimnium nodosum), Little River arrowhead (Sagittaria secund ifolia), green pitcherplant (Sarracenia oreophila), Alabama pitcherplant (Sarracenia rubra ssp. alabamensis), American chaffseed (Schwalbea americana), gentian pinkroot (Spigelia gentianoides), Virginia meadowsweet (Spiraea virginiana), relict wakerobin (Trillium reliquum), and Tennessee yellow-eyed grass (Xyris tennesseensis).
Allison, J. R., and T. E. Stevens. "Vascular Flora of the Ketona Dolomite Outcrops in Bibb County, Alabama." Castanea 66, nos. 1 & 2 (2001): 154-205.
Estill J. C., and M. B. Cruzan. "Phytogeography of Rare Plant Species Endemic to the Southeastern United States." Castanea 66, nos. 1 & 2 (2001): 2-23.
Flora of North America Editorial Committee, eds. Flora of North America North of Mexico. 14+ vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993- .
Midgley, Jan W. Alabama Wildflowers. Birmingham, Ala.: Sweetwater Press, 1998.
Weakley, Alan S. Flora of the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia, Northern Florida, and Surrounding Areas. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Herbarium, 2008; http://herbarium.unc.edu/WeakleyFlora_2008-Apr.pdf
Curtis J. Hansen
Published November 5, 2009
Last updated May 25, 2012