Wildflower Planters in Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park Thornton Gap entrance planters

Learn about a unique volunteer opportunity at Shenandoah National Park, thanks to Jerry Hopkins!

Shenandoah National Park [SNP] has four wildflower planters along the 105 mile Skyline Drive.  One is located near the north entrance [Front Royal] at Dickey Ridge Visitors Center; one is at the entrance station at Thornton Gap; one is at the Big Meadows Visitors Center; and the fourth is at the entrance station at Rockfish Gap. 

The purpose of these planters is to showcase some of the wildflowers native to the SNP and to help educate the visitors of the different flowers and the pollinators they attract.  Many visitors are unable to see wildflowers up close and this provides them the opportunity.  

I volunteer to help with the Thornton Gap planters, along with seven other individuals, at the Thornton Gap Entrance Station.  This is located at the intersection of Route 211 and the Skyline Drive.  Rt 211 was built before the revolutionary war and was graveled before the Civil War thus providing better crossing of the mountains by both armies.  The colony of Virginia had the road built in 1746 to provide a route for farmers in the valley to access Mr. Thornton’s mill in Sperryville.  Francis Thornton built a mansion similar to Mount Vernon with its huge columns and his home can still be seen [not open to visitation] driving Rt 231 from Sperryville.

The wildflower planters are constructed of stone in the same manner as the stone walls that were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps lining most of Skyline Drive. Volunteers provide all of the upkeep to the planters throughout the Park.  The season starts in April when the beds are cleaned and plant ID labels are inserted. New plants may have to be added and some plants may have to be removed.  The replacement plants are propagated by the Park at the Luray Headquarters. To help conserve moisture the beds are mulched.  Last year we were able to add soaker hoses to provide drip irrigation to the planters at Thornton Gap.  Because these planters are in full sun and absorb the heat from the stone walls and the asphalt drive, they tend to dry out quickly in the summer.  The soaker hoses are meant to be kept in the planters year-around and are covered by mulch which helps keep the moisture in the planters longer and cover any unsightly hose.  Throughout the growing season there is maintenance to be done such as deadheading spent blooms, removing weeds, fertilizing, and cutting plants to a certain height.  Each planter location in the Park has its own requirement for plants.  

At Thornton Gap, plants have to be kept at a certain height so as not to block security cameras that cover the Entrance Station.  This prevents these planters from having the taller wildflowers such as the Joe Pye Weed, Milkweed and Cow Parsnip.  The plants are arranged so that there is always some blooming types through the growing season.  

Later this month, around March 19, the swallows will return to San Juan Capistrano, California, from their wintering grounds 6,000 miles away in Argentina. In early April, swallows will also return to Thornton Gap.  These swallows have a longer journey to reach Thornton Gap where they will nest to rear their young.  They have their nests in the Entrance Station roof.  It is always exciting to witness their return and to hear all the noise that over 100+ birds can make flying around the visitor entrance area.  It is a mixed blessing to those visitors who may enter the entrance area in convertibles with the top down and for the Park Entrance Staff as they have to hose down their windows each day until the swallows start their long migration back to South America.  This is the only area in the Park that I know of where swallows nest.  They are able to meet their big three at Thornton Gap:  shelter; food [there is no dearth of insects flying around]; and, water [an underground spring next to the entrance station has water bubbling to the surface that provides year-round water].  All of the luxuries of home so close to the nest!  Sometime in the fall, in September or October, they will gather in a large swirl and all of the families will be gone at one time, heading south.  One day they are here and the next they are all gone until next year. A void when they go as you know cold weather is coming soon and it is now time to start the wintering process of the wildflower planters. 

Wintering the planters consists of making them visibly pleasant to the fall and winter visitors.  This means cutting the plants to about an inch high, removing all plant debris, removing plant ID tags and fertilizing and mulching for the winter. The drip hoses are kept in place, hidden by mulch and the maintaince tools are cleaned and put away in the storage area for the winter.  

The Park is always looking for volunteers to help with these planters.  The Park provides you with a uniform and safety equipment [gloves, safety vest and safety glasses].  The uniform is required at any time you are working on the planters.  Many visitors will stop to ask you questions recognizing you as a representative of the Park.  If someone has an interest in volunteering at any of the four planter locations for the April through early November season they should contact me by text or phone [540-383-1079] or by email [gerald.hopkins [at] comcast.net].  Time requirements would mean one trip to the planter each month.  It may require a three hour stay each time you go depending on need.  It is fun, rewarding and educational.  And it gets you close to your next hiking trail.  Mary’s Rock can be seen from the entrance station and this walk provides what many experienced hikers claim is the best view in the Park!

Jerry Hopkins, Cohort I, March 2023