Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Wednesday's Wildflower: Western Wallflower

Depending on your location in the US, this wildflower may be abundant and familiar, or rare and exciting.

In Tennessee, Western Wallflower is considered a rarity.

As its name suggests, it is a mainly Western species that occasionally pops up east of the Mississippi. In a few places, it managed to find its way into our state. Whether it found its way there naturally, carried by the elements, or was just some wayward escapee from Grandma's flower bed, there is one place in Tennessee where it is abundant: that happens to be right here in Dekalb County (and only 5 other counties), growing on the bluffs over the Caney Fork river valley.

Erysimum capitatum is arguably the showiest member of the mustard family, with its eye-catching orange blooms reaching 3 feet tall.

Notice that most of our photos are taken at a distance - they are VERY difficult to get close to without climbing equipment!
It prefers to grow in drier sites, and is known for its ability to cling to the most seemingly uninhabitable cracks and crevices, even vertical rock faces - hence the name "wallflower."

Despite its rarity in the East, Wallflower has a huge range, sweeping across western North America from British Columbia to Texas and California, at elevations up to 3,000 feet.

The bright orange blooms usually appear in late May, at least around here. They can be found blooming alongside Rose Verbena (Verbena canadensis), Yucca (Yucca filamentosa) and Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa) on the limestone bluffs along Center Hill Lake and the Caney Fork River, most of them high above our heads. The soil at these sites is thin and dry, creating essentially a desert environment.

As members of the mustard family (Brassicaceae), their blooms come with four petals in the shape of a cross.

Western Wallflower growing in Arizona
This plant family is quite expansive (78 species in Tennessee, alone!), and includes some of our most familiar vegetables like broccoli, kale, cauliflower, turnips and cabbage. There are no poisonous plants in this family, and all brassicas are nutritious - rich in calcium, potassium and B vitamins. Because of their cross-shaped flowers, they are also referred to as cruciferous vegetables - crucifer meaning "cross," 

Its genus name, Erysimum stems from the Greek word "eryomai" which means "help" or "save," referring to its healing properties. Capitatum is Latin for "head."

One of its most notable medicinal uses throughout history was as a sunburn preventative. The plant was ground, mixed with water and applied to the skin as a natural sunscreen.

A poultice of the whole plant was used to treat open wounds and arthritis.

Sniffing the crushed leaves was supposed to relieve a headache.

An infusion of crushed seeds was taken to treat stomach and bowel cramps.

A poultice of the warmed root was applied to relieve a toothache.

They are better known today as a popular nursery plant, enriching the yards of many a gardening enthusiast.

Western Wallflower holds a special place in my heart, and this time of the year my thoughts turn to it, as it rises out of its arid, rocky home.

Six years ago, our State Naturalist and my good friend, Randy Hedgepath, requested a boat ride to come and view the Wallflowers blooming on the bluffs at Center Hill Lake. The areas where they grow would take hours of strenuous hiking to reach on foot, and once you got there, you would have to do a little climbing or even rappelling to get closer. So why not take the park boat and view them from the water?

We had a whole pontoon boat to fill, so we invited along some friends and family for the trip.

We all had such a wonderful time, we decided to make it a week-long annual event.

And thus, Western Wallflower Week was born!

It has since become a very popular program, and is a near sellout every year.

The typical bloom time for our Wallflowers is the week before Memorial Day, and we are almost always blessed with sunny days and sparkling water. In addition to the Wallflowers, Prickly Pear, Yucca, Golden St, Johnswort, Verbena, Summer Bluets, Trumpet Vine, Carolina Spider Lilies and a host of other wildflowers are in bloom on the bluffs. Butterflies abound, birds are everywhere (including hummingbirds!), and the Eastern Fence lizards can be seen scurrying and basking all over the rock faces.

Some years we get to see Ospreys diving for fish. One year we saw a Timber Rattlesnake rafting across the lake. We almost always see migrating waterfowl, and there are usually huge numbers of Hackberry and Tawny Emperor butterflies flitting about, many of which land on you for a closer look.

... and a taste!
When I was a working park Naturalist, I would guide the tours and my husband would drive the boat (I miss those days!). This year I will be guiding again, at least for three days out of seven, so I am really looking forward to it!

Western Wallflowers, for me, represent the dawn of summer. They mark the beginning of long days and late evenings spent fishing or swimming under a full moon. They call to mind memories of warmth and water and being with those I love.

I'm glad these flowers found their way into our neck of the woods. It's been a long, cold winter, and I'm ready to get out there and see those rare, cheerful blooms.

Welcome, Summer!

You can learn more about Wallflower Week here.

Be sure to join us for next Wednesday's Wildflower!

Click here to read about last week's wildflower: Solomon's Seal

Medicinal information herein is shared strictly for anecdotal purposes. Do not attempt to self-medicate with wild herbs. Please consult a doctor first.

Next flower ->


Plants for a Future

Southwest Colorado Wildflowers

Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians - Dennis Horn & Tavia Cathcart

Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places - "Wildman" Steve Brill


  1. That is a very lovely and interesting wildflower- I believe I've seen this baby in the foothills of Colorado. I had no idea it was a brassica either. I just recently learned about this family from The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It book by John Seymour even though I'd been eating them for years. Doesn't that seem backwards? Either way, I'm so glad you are able to guide again- what a heavenly place!

  2. Beautiful! Thanks for sharing on the Homestead Blog Hop!