Included in this category are all flowering plants (botanically, Angiosperms) that grow naturally without cultivation. Although most wildflowers are herbaceous (non-woody), flowering vines, shrubs, and trees may also be included. Most Tennessee wildflowers are native; however, many, perhaps one-fourth, are alien. Many of the nonnative species are of Eurasian origin and are considered weeds.
Considerable diversity occurs among the approximately three thousand species of wildflowers found in the state. Botanists classify them into two grand groups–Monocots and Dicots–based on their vegetative and reproductive parts. Monocots are generally recognized by their parallel-veined leaves and flowers with parts based on the number three. An example is an iris with these floral parts: three sepals, three petals, three stamens, and a pistil with three divisions. Besides the iris, the Monocot group includes the grass, orchid, lily, and other families.
Dicots have net-veined leaves and floral parts in fours or fives. Among the large, important Dicot families are the buttercup, rose, legume, heath, mint, honeysuckle, dogwood, bluebell, and the huge aster or composite family (sunflowers, coneflowers, goldenrods, and ragweeds, among others).
Tennessee wildflowers reflect the geography of the state with its variations in soil, climate, topography, and altitude. The flora of West Tennessee is much like that of the Coastal Plain region to the south, while plants of Appalachia include many with ranges that extend northward into eastern Canada. Wildflowers of Middle Tennessee are similar to those of western Kentucky and northern Alabama. Of special interest in Middle Tennessee are the cedar glades, a special ecosystem where thin soils over limestone have produced a unique assemblage of wildflowers; a dozen or so species are of global significance.
In addition to adding color and variety to the landscape from early spring to frost, wildflowers also have scientific and practical value. Botanists study plants to better understand ecological and evolutionary processes. Wildflowers of Tennessee, like plants everywhere, are a resource from which new foods, medicines, and industrial chemicals may be developed.
Conservation biologists are concerned when any plant or animal species is threatened with extinction. Many Tennessee species of wildflowers are on state or federal lists for special protection. The Tennessee coneflower, a cedar glade endemic of the aster family, was the first plant species listed as endangered by the Environmental Protection Agency. Rare species should never be picked or transplanted into wildflower gardens. Plants which have been propagated, rather than collected, can be obtained from reputable nurseries.
In addition to those with wildflower gardens, many people learn the identification and range of wildflowers over the state, and others photograph plants, a practice which is favored over collecting. The Tennessee Native Plant Society at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, offers opportunities for the public to learn more about Tennessee wildflowers.
Thomas E. Hemmerly, Wildflowers of the Central South (1990); R. W. Hutson, W. F. Hutson, and Aaron J. Sharp, Great Smoky Mountains Wildflowers (1995); Arlo I. Smith, A Guide to Wildflowers of the Mid-South (1979)