Flowers on the SE North Carolina Shore

By Paige Brown |

August weather turns the air into a sweltering, wet blanket that sends thousands to the shore to play in the cool water. We can float on our backs at the swimming hole and stare at clouds, frolic in the surf or ride the waves at the beach, ski on the river or lake, and kayak just about anywhere. These are but a few of the ways we enjoy the waters that make the Cape Fear Region such a magical place to live.

blanket flowers

While immersing yourself in summer fun time, take the opportunity to get to know the thriving plant communities along the shore. As you walk along the pathway between the dunes, hauling beach chairs, umbrellas, coolers, and beach bags, take note of the brilliant red, orange, and yellow flowers dotting the sandy fields along the way. Shaped like a daisy, the Indian blanket (Gaillardia pulchella) displays bright red petals tipped with yellow. In their native, windblown habitat, the plants appear somewhat bedraggled, but plant one in your garden and prepare to enjoy a lush, robust perennial for many years to come.

Blanket Flowers on Beach-1

Along our beaches and barrier islands, it is impossible to miss the stately yucca plant (Yucca filamentosa) as it sends its massive flower stalks soaring to six-foot heights. The masses of fragrant white bell-shaped flowers bloom from June through September. Also called Adam’s needle, the yucca was an important source of fiber, food, and soap for Native Americans. The tough fibers – often fraying from the sword-shaped leaves – were used to make fabric and rope. Flowers and fruits were eaten fresh and cooked. And the root was an important ingredient in soap. Yucca requires a dry environment and minimal care but provides a lot of ‘bang for your buck’ in the home landscape. The leaves of this dramatic ornamental have very sharp points, however, and should not be planted in areas where children and animals play.

Lovely as they are, the sparsely growing flowers along the beaches pale in comparison to the lush habitats along the edges of our rivers and lakes. Perhaps our biggest native showstopper is the swamp rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), a deciduous shrub found in swampy areas along the edges of the fresh water. From May through September, large five-petal flowers unfurl, lending a tropical appearance to these riparian habitats. After all, the mallow is a cousin to the Hawaiian hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis). Native in shades of white and pink with a ruby center, blossoms can reach seven inches across. The rose mallow (Hibiscus coccineus) is another stunning member of the same genus. Six to eight-inch brilliant crimson flowers with bright yellow pistils and stamens float atop tall (up to 10’) slender stalks. Both species of mallow perform beautifully in wet areas or rich loamy garden soil and full sun.

Swamp Hibiscus flowers

Along with our native mallows, you may see the cone-shaped masses of yellow ray flowers as brilliant as the sun belonging to the swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius). Each flower stalk can have as many as 20 three-inch flowers and clumps of plants may have dozens of flower stalks; a truly impressive display as evidenced by the bees, butterflies, and other insects that are drawn to it. This moisture and sun-loving native perennial grows three to six feet tall, an excellent choice for the back of a perennial border, along a fence line, or against a wall.

Just like our state bird, the cardinal, the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is a handsome deep red. Atop two to four foot plants, eight-inch spikes are covered in small tubular flowers whose primary pollinator is the hummingbird. Three lower petals and two upper petals extend from each little ‘tube’. The cardinal flower is a perennial that grows in very moist areas, ideal for bog gardens, wet areas, and along streambeds and water gardens.

So attractive is the cardinal flower that over picking plants from the wild has caused it to be scarce in some areas. Never remove plants from their native habitats, as this damages an entire ecosystem. However, harvesting a handful of seeds – only from private lands and only with permission – has very little impact. You can support local wildlife, both flora and fauna by purchasing nursery grown plants, as well. Check with your local garden centers or online native plant nurseries to purchase these plants.

For more information on these and other flowering plants native to our shores, contact your local cooperative extension service at for New Hanover County and for Brunswick County.

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