The Blue Ridge Parkway – Part 2 of 2 – Quest for Hickey’s Tree-Clubmoss — 2017-09-02

The subject matter for this post, Part 2 of 2, is quite limited and will probably appeal to only a few of you, but you never know. So that you are prepared, the subject matter is quite “geeky”, botanically speaking. As I mentioned in Part 1 of 2, my good friend, Alan Cressler had asked if I could point him to one of our little-known clubmosses, Dendrolycopodium hickeyi or Hickey’s tree-clubmoss. I was happy to oblige. Please join our adventure as we search an area along the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina for this denizen of the Appalachian Mountains.

But first, a little background: Lycopodiaceae or the family of clubmosses has always interested me. In fact, it was my passion before becoming acquainted with Orchidaceae. I was struck by their primitive nature and how they seemed to occupy a special niche in the natural order of things.

According to the Virginia Native Plant Society, “The common name ‘clubmoss’ is based on the premise that at first glance these plants resemble mosses (mosses are bryophytes and thus, non-vascular plants), and because they often have club-like structures [sporangia] that produce spores. Clubmosses are all perennial evergreen plants with numerous small leaves. Individual plants in many species are connected by horizontal stems that run above ground (runners) or below ground (rhizomes); the actual roots are rather shallow. None of the clubmosses are flowering plants, but all are vascular plants with an interesting strategy of releasing spores at a life stage that few people see—outside of a science lab.

Clubmosses or Lycophytes evolved some 410 million years ago as one of the earliest groups of vascular plants (plants with special tissues xylem and phloem to conduct water and food, respectively, in this group of plants). Some 300-plus million years ago, tree forms of both clubmosses and horsetails along with ferns dominated the great coal swamps of the Carboniferous geological period. Tree forms of tree clubmosses that once reached heights of 100 feet have left an excellent fossil record of the woody tissue of tree forms.”

Worldwide, there are 10 to 15 genera and 350 to 400 species of clubmosses. The following represents those species found in the Southeast:

Southeastern Clubmosses:

Dendrolycopodium hickeyi Hickey’s tree-clubmoss
Dendrolycopodium obscurum Common tree-clubmoss

Diphasiastrum digitatum Common running-cedar/pine
Diphasiastrum tristachyum Ground-cedar, blue running-cedar

Huperzia appalachiana Mountain fir clubmoss
Huperzia lucidula Shining clubmoss, shining firmoss
Huperzia porophila Rock clubmoss

Lycopodiella alopecuroides Foxtail clubmoss
Lycopodiella appressa Southern bog clubmoss
Lycopodiella caroliniana Slender clubmoss
Lycopodiella cernua Stag-horn clubmoss
Lycopodiella prostrata Feather-stem clubmoss

Lycopodium clavatum Running clubmoss

Phlegmariurus dichotomus Hanging clubmoss

This blog report will be focused, particularly, on the Dendrolycopodium or tree-clubmoss species. To give you some basis of visual reference, here is a shot of the most prevalent tree-clubmoss in our area, Dendrolycopodium obscurum or Common tree-clubmoss:

Common tree-clubmoss Common tree-clubmoss

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The Blue Ridge Parkway – Part 1 of 2 – Late Summer color — 2017-09-02

This is the time of year when we are all getting ready for fall. But in the meanwhile, we should not ignore the late summer color that is quite amazing. My good buddy, Alan Cressler, resident of Atlanta, Georgia called a few days ago and asked if I would show him the location of a particular Clubmoss, Dendrolycopodium hickeyi or Hickey’s tree-clubmoss. He has been wanting to photograph that species for years, and had not had the opportunity to locate it. I knew of a sure location for it, so I said, “Yes!”. Of course, I would never turn down a trip to one of my favorite places, The Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina.

For the time being, I am going to put off our search for the elusive clubmoss and point my attention to the other things we saw on that day-long trip – ones that add that late summer splash of color to the scenery. The Clubmoss search will be detailed in Part 2 of 2.

We began our trip by driving from my house in Greenville, South Carolina through northern Greenville County on our way to the Parkway. My preferred way of getting there is to pick up Hwy. 276 and head to Brevard, North Carolina – gateway to the Pisgah National Forest. Driving Hwy. 276 would take us by a roadside waterfall called Wildcat Wayside Falls. It is directly next to the highway and is a favorite of locals, and it is one of the very few waterfalls that is wheelchair accessible. We stopped in front of the falls and took a few shots of the cascades. The amount of water running over the falls varies considerably depending upon the rainfall in the preceding week. We had experienced a thunder-storm the day before our visit, so at least the falls were not as dry as they sometimes are. Here is my shot from in front of the falls:

Wildcat Wayside Falls Wildcat Wayside Falls

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The Green Swamp Preserve — Native Orchids and other Wildflowers, Brunswick County, North Carolina — 2017-08-13

The second part of this most recent weekend photography trip took me to one of my favorite spots: The Green Swamp Preserve in Brunswick County, North Carolina. It is comprised of around 16,000 acres of longleaf pine savannahs, dense pocosins, and flatwoods swamps. On this trip, I was joined by my good friends, Kelvin Taylor and Jackie Tate, both from central North Carolina. This meet-up has evolved into an annual event around mid-August of every year when the fringed orchids come into bloom. The previous day found me about 2 hours southeast in the Francis Marion National Forest where I spent the day photographing summer orchids and other wildflowers. You can access the blog report for that leg of the trip HERE.

The day began with a rather cloudy sky — good for photography. Kelvin, Jackie, and I met at the fire tower on Hwy. 130 just east of the sleepy coastal town of Shallotte, North Carolina. Just a short walk down the roadside, and there we found hundreds of Platanthera conspicua or Southern White Fringed orchids. Depending on the mowing regime, these beauties show up every year around mid-August. Last year, the entire roadside was mowed in late July, so no orchids could be found. Obviously, last year’s late mowing didn’t prevent the orchids from putting on a gorgeous display this year:

Southern White Fringed orchid Southern White Fringed orchid

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Summer bloom in the Francis Marion National Forest, Berkeley County, South Carolina — 2017-08-12

This past weekend, I made my annual mid-summer trip down to the Francis Marion National Forest, Berkeley County, South Carolina. It is a huge area (250,000 acres) on the South Carolina coastal plain, habitat for some of the best longleaf pine savannahs in the state. For that reason, there are myriad wildflowers and orchids inhabiting these savannahs and surrounding swampy pocosins, and I’ll present some of them to you in the following report.

I got a reasonably early start to the trip and drove the requisite 4 hours to my first stop off of Steed Creek Road. There was some expectation for bad weather, but for the most part, it was just cloudy until late afternoon. That’s a good thing, though, because clouds diffuse the sunlight and make for better photography.

Steed Creek Road splits the National Forest down the middle from north to south. I made my way down one of the well-known, gravel, forest service roads and noticed that there had been a large, prescribed burn in the recent past — I’m guessing in June. This is very good for the habitat, but not so good for orchids. That is just about late enough to keep them from blooming this year. The savannah I was driving through is one of the best down there for the fringed orchids: Platanthera ciliaris or Yellow Fringed orchid and Platanthera cristata or Crested Fringed orchid. From what I could see, there would not be any in bloom, at least in this spot, this year. Bummer… But there was a lot more area to cover; in addition, a ride through the forest under any circumstances was always a good thing.

I made my way around to the intersection of another well-known forest service road where I thought about checking on the presence of a very rare orchid, Gymnadeniopsis integra or Yellow Fringeless orchid. I haven’t seen it in bloom at this spot for a number of years, but I always look for it there every summer season. I parked nearby and gathered my gear. There has been much rain in the area all summer long, so I put on my rubber calf-high boots and crossed a water-filled ditch to the area where there are generally a number of wildflowers in bloom this time of year.

The first wildflower I saw was Lilium catesbaei or Catesby’s Lily aka Pine Lily. Because of the fact that it grows down in the savannah grasses, it is hard to spot unless you are right up on it. This lily is about 5 inches (12.5 cm) across and 12 to 15 inches (30 to 37.5 cm) tall, and is an unbelievably striking scarlet color. There were about a dozen plants in flower, and I proceeded to photograph a few of the best of them. Here is one of those images:

Pine Lily Pine Lily

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Final visit to the Three-birds orchid location near Brevard, North Carolina — 2017-08-02

So many of you, dear readers, have asked me about my Three-birds orchids bloom predictions that I thought I’d give you a brief lesson. Please remember that this is not a perfect way of predicting the bloom. Although it has worked for me about 95% of the time, it may not work that well for you. So, here goes:

I did not come up with this scheme. I believe the original “discoverer” was the late Philip (Phil) E. Keenan, author of Wild Orchids Across North America – A Botanical Travelogue (1998, Timber Press). He was a resident of Dover, New Hampshire. I was never fortunate enough to meet Phil, but he is highly regarded and loved by everyone I’ve spoken to about him. I have modified his scheme to work for the Three-birds orchids in my area of the Carolinas. Here is what works for me:

Look for a two-day (or more) consecutive drop in the day’s low temperature (usually early each morning) of 3-5 degrees (F) or more. 48 hours after this, all of the “ripe” flower buds in the entire population will open. I mention “ripe” as a term to refer to plump, upright buds showing either white or some pink color around the edges. If the buds hang down or are still green, then they are not “ripe”.

Here are a couple of examples of “ripe” buds that opened the next day:

Ripe Three-birds orchid buds

Ripe Three-birds orchid buds

For my temperature measurements, I use one of several amateur weather station reports (showing daily values) that can be found in the online web site called, Weather Underground. The particular weather station I use is https://www.wunderground.com/personal-weather-station/dashboard?ID=KNCPISGA2, which seems to match up well for my purposes. For your own purposes, you should choose a station that more closely represents the actual weather data in the area where the plants are found. On the web page, there is a summary table of data that shows, among other values, the Daily Low Temperature. Each day, I copy the value and plot it on graph paper. This is the graph for 2017, from July 12 through August 5:

Graph of daily low temperatures Graph of daily low temperatures

I realize that this looks a bit messy; my working graph has only the data points on it, but I have gussied up the graph by adding features to show you some of the things to look for in the data. For one, the green rectangles pretty much outline the temperature ranges that we are interested in. You will note the drop in daily lows followed by 48 hours to show the bloom event. You will also note that it is not always exactly a measure of 2 day’s drop in daily low temperature. If the measure of daily low temperatures drops precipitously, let’s say by 15 degrees (F) or more, then it may still be dropping when the flowers bloom. Usually, though, the scheme works as in the green rectangle labeled “Cycle 2”.

My experience shows that the second cycle in the season produces the largest number of open flowers. I have shown the bloom day events with + symbols signifying the intensity of the bloom; +++ being the largest. Keep in mind that on any given day before or after the bloom event, there may be one or two flowers open in the population — those that didn’t get the email… Life is not perfect.

The temperature predictions told me that August 2 would be a bloom day for Triphora trianthophorus or Three-birds orchids in the Pisgah National Forest. It had been 6 full days since there was a bloom cycle in the area. Sometimes, as many as 10 days to two weeks go by before the plants will flower again. The most recent cycle (the 2nd of a possible 4 or 5 cycles) was by far the largest of the season with about 75% of the plants showing open flowers. Today, about 15%-20% of the plants were in bloom. I know all of this appears fairly technical, and it is. It’s important for me to know when to expect the flowers, because the bloom site is about 1 hour 45 minutes from my home. Although there are other subjects to photograph in the Pisgah NF, I had set out with the intent to see the Three-birds orchids one last time for the season.

The drive north was uneventful. A good sign was my seeing a fairly heavy overcast sky. This overcast scatters the light and reduces the chance for strong light with harsh shadows. I parked along the highway near the site and gathered my camera gear. I had walked just a short distance when I saw the first of the flowers. Yes! I always do a mental fist pump (sometimes a physical one if no one is around to see me) when the plants I came to photograph are cooperating.

Wasting no time, I walked into the open woods and set up my camera and tripod in front of a plant with two open flowers:

Three-birds orchids Three-birds orchids

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