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A Guide to the Plants & Animals of the Carolina Thread Trail Network

Life worth conserving in the Charlotte area

Our series of articles about getting outside in the Charlotte area to be active on the Carolina Thread Trail network and Catawba River is presented in partnership with local orthopedic-care provider OrthoCarolina.


Maintaining green spaces in urban areas like Charlotte and the surrounding towns increases the health benefits of all residents. Multiple studies have shown that urban green spaces give people the space for physical activity, relaxation, peace, and an escape from heat. They are also associated with better air quality, reduced traffic noise, cooler temperatures, and greater diversity — as well as providing a home for plants and wildlife to flourish.

Many organizations in the Charlotte area provide resources and carry out preservation efforts that work toward these maintenance goals, but few provide as many as the Catawba Lands Conservancy and the Carolina Thread Trail.

Catawba Lands Conservancy is a nonprofit that permanently conserves and manages land for public benefit in the Southern Piedmont of North Carolina. Its current conservation area includes 190 properties totaling nearly 17,000 acres of land — farmland, ecologically rich lands to protect wildlife habitat, and local drinking water, and public land — in Catawba, Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln, Mecklenburg and Union counties. Its goal is to conserve 50,000 acres by 2030.

CLC is the lead agency that oversees the Carolina Thread Trail, a regional network of trails, blueways and conservation corridors connecting 15 counties in North and South Carolina. Over 250 miles of the Thread Trail are currently open to the public and 14 active corridors are under development thanks to CLC’s partnership with Foundation For The Carolinas and other local partners.

Acquiring property is just the first phase of the CLC’s work to ensure that the region’s wildlife and plant species thrive and our natural systems function properly. Donations and grants not only help staff and volunteers care for and monitor these protected lands and the plants and animals that inhabit them, but also allow the CLC to defend conservation easements legally when necessary.

In order to better appreciate what it is that CLC is focused on conserving, we’ve put together a list of the most rare, endangered and otherwise interesting plants and animals that can be found on the Carolina Thread Trail.

Flora – Plants along the Carolina Thread Trail

Bigleaf Magnolia

South Fork Trail in McAdenville

Big Leaf Magnolia - Flora Carolina Thread Trail
Bigleaf Magnolia (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

With leaves 12 to 36 inches long and ivory-colored flowers averaging 8 to 10 inches across, the Bigleaf Magnolia has the largest simple leaf and flower of any native plant in North America. The tree grows about 30 to 40 feet tall, but its branches often bend under the weight of its heavy foliage.

Rocky Shoals Spider Lily

Catawba River Blueway/Landsford Canal State Park

Rock Shoals Spider Lily in Charlotte
Rocky Shoals Spider Lily (Photo courtesy of SB Photography)

The Rocky Shoals Spider Lily grows in the fast flowing, rocky shoals of rivers and streams, like those along the Catawba River. It blooms fragrant flowers from May through mid-June, with each blossom opening overnight and lasting for one day, and can grow up to 3 feet tall. The rocky outcroppings of the Catawba River are home to the largest known population of rocky shoals spider lilies, which are listed as a national species of concern and designated as endangered in some places.

Schweinitz’s Sunflower

Cane Creek Park

Schweinitz's Sunflower
Schweinitz’s Sunflower (Photo by John Flannery)

Schweinitz’s sunflower is a perennial that blooms from late August until frost and grows approximately 6-and-a-half feet tall, with thickened roots that store starch. It’s named after the North Carolina botanist who discovered it in the 1800s, though today it’s an endangered species and one of the rarest sunflowers in the United States.

Mountain Laurel

South Fork Rail Trail, Bakers Mountain Park and Morrow Mountain State Park

Mountain Laurel plant - Thread trail
Mountain Laurel (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

The shade-tolerant Mountain Laurel grows 10 to 30 feet tall and has flowers that bloom in late spring and early summer. They can range from white to pink and have distinctive symmetrical maroon or purple dots or streaks. All parts of the plant are poisonous to humans and several animals.


Little Sugar Creek Greenway, Hector Henry Greenway at Mills of Rocky River

Pawpaw - Flora - Thread trail
Pawpaw fruit (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Pawpaw is a small deciduous tree — growing to a height of 35 feet — that bears the largest edible fruit indigenous to the U.S. Fruit begins to ripen in late summer, peaks in September and October, and has a sweet, custard-like flavor similar to a banana, mango or pineapple.

Scarlet Bee Balm

Broad River Greenway

Scarlet Bee Balm - plants in Charlotte
Scarlet Bee Balm (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

An aromatic perennial herb and member of the mint family, Scarlet Bee Balm grows up to 1.2 meters tall in dense clusters along stream banks, moist thickets and ditches. It is known for its summer-blooming, bright red tubular flowers that attract hummingbirds.


Girl Scout Hornets’ Nest Trail, Salisbury Greenway and Pharr Family Trail

Trillium - plants Carolina Thread Trail
Trillium (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

There are 38 species of Trillium in North America and all belong to the lily family. They have eye-catching flowers with three petals and three bracts of various colors, and the bracts are often mottled (spotted). Flowers are either above the bracts or can be found hiding underneath them.

Common Arrowhead

Murray’s Mill Trail, Riverside Greenway

Common Arrowhead plant
Common Arrowhead (Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock)

Common Arrowhead is a colony-forming, aquatic perennial that grows in wet soils and even standing water, often reaching a height of 3 feet. Its leaves are arrowhead-shaped and small white flowers emerge on its stalk in mid to late summer.

Eastern Turkeybeard

Crowders Mountain Trail

Eastern Turkeybeard
Eastern Turkeybeard (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Eastern Turkeybeard is distinguished by its showy white cluster of flowers, which bloom late May or early June and can be almost a foot tall. They appear on top of a single, long vertical stalk that has many long, grass-like leaves in a dense clump at its base.


Rocky Creek Trail

Bloodroot plant in charlotte
Bloodroot (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Bloodroot is an herbaceous perennial flower that grows to about a foot tall and blooms white flowers in March and April in shady, moist conditions. Flowers open in full sun and close at night and, like most members of the poppy family, they last for a short time.

Fauna – Look for these animals on your next Charlotte hike

Pied-billed grebes

Forney Creek Trail

Pied Billed Grebe - carolina thread trail
Pied Billed Grebe (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Pied-billed grebes are small, stocky, and short-necked water birds that are mostly brown, which serves as camouflage in the ponds where they live. They rarely spend time in flocks or fly, ​​but frequently slow dive, especially when in danger. If they live in an area where the water freezes in the winter, they will migrate to a warmer climate.

Hooded merganser

Forney Creek Trail

Hooded Merganser in Charlotte
Hooded merganser (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

A type of migrating waterfowl like the pied-billed grebe, hooded mergansers are small, short-distance migrant ducks that live on ponds, rivers and wetlands, and hunt for their food while under water. Females are greyish brown and males are black with white markings, but both have crests they can raise or lower — the breeding plumage of the male is patterned and colorful. They winter in U.S. regions where temperatures allow for ice-free conditions.

Red cockaded woodpecker

Pee-Dee River Blueway

Red Cockaded Woodpecker
Red cockaded woodpecker (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Red cockaded woodpeckers have black and white ladder-striped backs and distinctive white cheeks. Males have an almost invisible red streak at the upper border of the cheek, which is how this small woodpecker gets its name. They do the majority of their foraging for insects, fruits and berries on large pine trees.

Bonaparte’s gull

Seven Oaks Preserve Trail

Bonaparte's Gull
Bonaparte’s gull (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

One of the smallest species of gull, adult Bonaparte’s gulls are just 11 to 15 inches long with a wingspan of 30 to 33 inches. They’re found along lakes, rivers, marshes, bays and beaches but unlike larger gulls, they nest in trees rather than on the ground and seldom scavenge in garbage. Their name honors French zoologist Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a distant cousin of Napoleon.

Black bear

Dan Nicholas Park Trail (in Rowan Wildlife Adventure area)

American black bear
American black bear (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Black bears are omnivorous and are normally found in forested areas, where they feed on ants, nuts, berries, acorns and other vegetation, as well as deer fawns and moose calves. The size of a black bear varies depending on the quality of food available, but adult males weigh around 400 pounds and females average 175 pounds. They are 5 to 7 feet tall when standing upright.

Fox squirrel

Mineral Springs Greenway

Fox Squirrel in Charlotte
Fox squirrel (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

The largest species of tree squirrel native to North America, the fox squirrel’s total length measures 20 to 30 inches, tail included. Its color varies depending on geography, but in most areas its upper body is brown-grey to brown-yellow with a brownish-orange underside. It’s usually found in open forest stands with little understory vegetation and makes its home in leaf nests or tree dens.

Painted turtles

Lake Whelchel Trail and Catawba Indian Nation Greenway Trail

Painted turtles on the carolina thread trail
Painted turtle (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Painted turtles are relatively small (5 to 7 inches) and colorful, with yellow stripes on their legs and spots on their heads, and smooth dark shells that may have red or yellow patterns on the edge. They live in slow-moving fresh water with muddy bottoms and are most active from March to November — frequently basking on logs or rocks.

Eastern meadowlark

Cowpens National Battlefield Trail

Eastern Meadowlark in Charlotte
Eastern meadowlark (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Eastern Meadowlarks are medium-sized songbirds with a short tail and a long, spear-shaped bill, which they use to probe the ground for insects. Breeding adults have a bright yellow chest with a black “V” and sing a flute-like whistle from treetops, fence posts and utility lines.

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