Francis Marion National Forest and the Carolina Coastal Plains Fringed Orchids — 2018-08-12

It is my usual delight to visit the Carolina coastal plain during mid-August. The wildflowers, especially the fringed orchids are usually in abundance. What I would normally do is visit the Francis Marion National Forest (the majority of Berkeley County, South Carolina) and then head over to the Green Swamp (the majority of Brunswick County, North Carolina) the next day. However, this year, I did not have the luxury of spending two days along the coastal plain. So I decided to visit just the Francis Marion NF and call it a day.

I had recently been in contact with good friend, Jeff Jackson, resident of the city of North Charleston, South Carolina, which is just a hop away from the FMNF. I told him that I was planning to come down on Sunday and asked if he would like to join me on a field trip. I was pleased when he agreed. The weather forecast was for 50% rain, but sometimes the forecast is wrong. So at 5:15 am on early Sunday morning, I left Greenville and headed to our meeting place in the Francis Marion National Forest. It’s a 4-hour trip for me, but I had my thoughts of lots of orchids and other wildflowers to keep my juices flowing.

We met at Bonneau Ferry Wildlife Management Area, a SCDNR site which covers 10,700 acres (4,330 hectares) of pine savannahs, bottomland hardwoods, wildlife openings, wetlands, and reservoirs. The earliest known date of existence of the ferry crossing was 1712. Anthony Bonneau’s ferry landing was established here, along the banks of the Cooper River, by a legislative act. The ferry soon became a private enterprise and remained so until 1798. The nearby plantation house, Bonneau’s Ferry Plantation, was built around not long after the ferry was established. In 1742, Anthony Bonneau died willing the 3,020 acre (1,220 hectare) plantation, on which he resided, to sons Samuel and Benjamin Bonneau. It seems that Samuel and his wife Mary became sole owners at some point. So the name, Bonneau Ferry. In 2004, The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources acquired a 10,700-acre tract from MeadWestvaco which included the original Bonneau plantation property.

I was excited to finally visit this location, having passed the turnoff many times over the past dozen years or so of my time spent in the FMNF. Jeff had seen several Platanthera species down there over the years, and we had high hopes of seeing some good ones on this day’s visit. We ended up spending about an hour driving around and walking the pine savannahs, but did not find much worth photographing. One of the target orchids was Platanthera cristata or Crested Fringed orchid, but they are the earliest of the ones to flower along the coastal plain, and the ones we saw at Bonneau Ferry were pretty much done. I did photograph some other wildflowers there which I will mention toward the end the blog.

So, we decided to head on into the Francis Marion where we both knew there would be some good orchids to photograph. Jeff had done some scouting on a previous visit, and he knew the location for some Crested Fringed orchids in a bottomland swamp. But first, we headed to a site where I had seen Platanthera conspicua or Southern White Fringed orchids in previous years. I had visited the site in May of this year, and saw that it had been burned very recently prior to that visit. That was good news, because a winter burn or even a late spring burn will clear out much of the choking vegetation that might prevent the orchids from blooming.

We arrived at the spot and gathered our camera gear. It was just a short walk into the savannah before we saw the first sign of bright white orchid flowers. They were growing in a fairly open area surrounded by ferns. Here is a shot of the first Southern White Fringed orchid we spotted:

Southern White Fringed orchidSouthern White Fringed orchid

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Pollination of Platanthera ciliaris orchids in the Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina — 2018-07-27

I am not a scientist (in the strict sense), and I don’t play one on TV. But, I do like to observe things in nature and attempt to explain some of the things I see. Case in point: The subject of today’s blog post.

Being a nature photographer often presents me with situations that make me go, “Hmmmmmmmm”. While photographing the beautiful Platanthera ciliaris or Yellow Fringed orchid (more aptly called Orange Fringed orchid), I usually like to take my time and enjoy the moment. At my favorite site for them way back in a secluded part of the Pisgah National Forest, I often see butterflies flitting back and forth on the flowers, frantically working them to retrieve the sweet nectar hidden deep down in each flower’s long nectar tube. This appears to happen more often during the heat of the day around noon, especially on sunny days.

These butterflies will work their way down the roadside, visiting each flower scape along the way. They will then fly back up the road to the beginning of the population of orchids, and make their way back down the road, again. Over and over this happens. If you are patient and sit in front of a particular orchid scape, you will be rewarded by seeing the pollination action over and over again as the butterflies (the same one in many cases) continue to come back for more.

The butterfly in question is Battus philenor or the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly. These appear to be the workhorses when it comes to pollinating the Yellow Fringed orchid, at least at this site. I did see yellow and black Papilio glaucus or the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies flitting around, but none of them seemed the least bit interested in the orchids.

Some really botanically geeky stuff follows:

I shall digress a bit here for some background. Larvae of the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly and those of the other swallowtails belonging to the tribe Troidini feed on plants in the genus Aristolochia (of which the Pipevine or Dutchman’s Pipe is a member), and are commonly referred to as the Aristolochia Swallowtails. But, because “Pipevine” is easier to say than “Aristolochia”, we will call them Pipevine Swallowtails. Here is an informative article from www.gotscience.org about the life-cycle of the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly.

The following is a shot of one of the strange flowers of the toxic, Aristolochia macrophylla or Dutchman’s Pipe followed by an image of the vine and heart-shaped leaves which the larvae of the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly feed on. These vines often reach more than 30 feet (9 meters) into the canopy of the forest, and the flowers are almost always toward the top of the vine, making them somewhat difficult to photograph.

Dutchman's Pipe flowerDutchman’s Pipe flower

Dutchman's Pipe vine and leavesDutchman’s Pipe vine and leaves

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Wildflowers of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina — 2018-07-21 and 2018-07-22

On Saturday and Sunday, July 21 and 22, 2018, I visited the Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, North Carolina and the Blue Ridge Parkway in the western North Carolina mountains. The target species were Triphora trianthophorus or Three-birds orchid and Lilium superbum or Turk’s-cap Lily. By observing weather conditions on an online amateur weather station near the orchids, I had calculated that the orchids would be in bloom on either Saturday or Sunday. However, they might be a day or so late due to the immaturity of the plants; this being the first bloom cycle of the season. It used to be early August before the first wave of blooms, but due to climate change, they are blooming nearer to mid-July. As I had guessed, they orchids were ready to pop, but I was still a day early. So, I drove on up to the Blue Ridge Parkway to try to locate some good specimens of Turk’s-cap Lilies.

Well, that turned out not to be a problem at all. This year has brought an explosion of these Lilies along the Parkway. I could not drive a mile without seeing these towering (6-10 feet or 1.8-3 meters tall) plants, loaded with red-orange blooms, and they were being swarmed by large numbers of Battus philenor or Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies. What a spectacular sight to see these beauties arching over the lower-growing shrubs on the side of the road! Here are some examples of these lovely Lilies:

Turk's-cap LilyTurk’s-cap Lily

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Part 4 of 4 — A Texas wildflower adventure — Wildflowers — 2018-07-12 through 2018-07-15

One attraction of mine to west Texas was, of course, the stunning native orchid species that are found there. A side perk, though, was photographing the myriad other wildflower species as well as the unexpected wildlife that would insert itself, from time to time, in our presence. This is Part 4 of 4, and it includes the remainder of images that were not shown in the other 3 Parts of our Texas wildflower adventure.

I thought long and hard how to present these images and decided to just present them in some random order, because there was no good reason to group them in any other way.

So here goes…

After finishing our photography in the Davis Mountains, we headed back to Dallas, where we would catch our flight back to Greenville, SC. We had no sooner gotten on the road, when I spotted a flash of pink. Of course, I slammed on the brakes as I am wont to do in such a situation, and backed up the road until I was next to the pink flowers. Just so you know, this road is not frequently traveled, so I felt safe in doing so. I pulled off the road and gathered my camera gear. The sun was out brightly which is not the best of situations for wildflower photography, but it was what it was. Here is what I saw:

Skeleton plantSkeleton plant

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Part 3 of 4 — A Texas wildflower adventure — Western Milkweeds — 2018-07-12 through 2018-07-14

First, I must apologize for sending the previous post under this new title. Some of you got the older post and are probably wondering what happened. This blogging thingy is a complicated process which takes me anywhere from 6 to 8 hours to create each post. One of the first actions I MUST do when creating a new post is to make it a Private one while I edit it and get it ready to send out. The default setting is Public. I forgot to change the setting after I had changed the title… Again, sorry for the inconvenience.

Now, back to the subject of Western Milkweeds.

I will list the 8 Milkweed species we found in alphabetical order of botanical name. Each of these was a life-lister for me, having never seen them “in person” before this trip. My thanks, again, go to my friend Matt Buckingham and his wife, Carolina (Caro) Paez for taking the time to show us these wonderful and mysterious plants.

As you, Dear Readers, must already know, Orchids are my passion. But, I believe Milkweeds come in a close second or third. Texas boasts 25 different species of Milkweed species. We did not see them all because of either geographical or bloom-date constraints. Texas shares several species with the east coast, especially the Carolinas and Georgia, and I didn’t see a single one of those on this trip.

So, let’s get down to business:

1. Asclepias asperula or Antelope horns aka Green flowered Milkweed aka Spider Milkweed

Antelope horns Milkweed

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Part 2 of 4 — A Texas wildflower adventure — Giant Crested Coralroot orchid — 2018-07-13 and 2018-07-14

The first full day of our trip took us across the big state of Texas from Dallas to Ft. Davis, gateway to the Davis Mountains. Did I mention that Texas is BIG? Well, it seemed like we were driving forever. If it hadn’t been for stopping at a couple of Matt’s favorite wildflower spots, it would have been a heavy haul. In Part 1, I said that I hoped to add a number of Milkweed species to my life list. In Part 3, I’ll discuss the Milkweeds we saw — all of which were ones I had never seen. Yes, it was turning out to be a very good trip.

We spent the night in Abilene, Texas, which is just about halfway between Dallas and Ft. Davis where we had arranged to stay at something like an Airbnb — an apartment building that had been converted to rental units. We arrived in Ft. Davis after lunch, unpacked the rental vehicle and formed a two-car caravan with Matt and Caro. It is monsoon season, so huge thunderstorms were surrounding us. It was inevitable that we would be getting wet. Matt and Caro knew a retired biology professor whose property borders the Nature Conservancy’s 33,000 acre (~13,500 hectare) Davis Mountain Preserve. The professor’s name is Gary Freeman, and he owns around 500 acres (~200 hectares) in a private community. One special item that is found on his property is the bubble-gum pink, Hexalectris grandiflora or Giant Crested Coralroot orchid. Odd thing about this orchid is that it is neither “giant” nor is it “crested”, so how it got its name is beyond my reasoning.

So, we headed west from Ft. Davis to Gary’s property. On the way, Matt spots a pair of Antilocapra americana or Pronghorn Antelopes near the road. We stopped and figured which camera gear was needed. While Matt and Walter busied themselves trying to get some wildlife shots (here is Walter’s shot),

Walter's shot of Antelope

Caro and I walked the roadside where we found two Asclepias or Milkweed species that were new to me. Lucky we stopped at that very spot! More about the Milkweeds in Part 3. We soon resumed our trek to Gary’s place, and about 30 minutes later, we turned off onto his “driveway”. His driveway is a dirt road that has to be about 10 miles long, leading to the secluded community.

A few minutes after entering the driveway, we rounded a curve and saw that Matt had slammed on the brakes. Well, that is usually a good sign. What happened is that Caro had seen an orchid in bloom between two large boulders. I would soon find out that the orchids prefer to grow very close to large boulders, and getting close enough to them for photography is sometimes quite the physical challenge. Here is a shot of the orchid flowers:

Giant Crested Coralroot orchid Giant Crested Coralroot orchid

While I was doing my best to photograph this one, my first for this species, Walter was busy laughing and taking pictures of me contorting my body to get my head behind the camera’s viewfinder:

Me doing my best to get the shot...

We finally made it to the mountain house where Gary was on the porch waiting for us. Such a neat and funny guy I’ve not met in a long while. We spent some time getting acquainted with him and his wife, Claire. After discussing the target species, Hexalectris grandiflora, we left the house and found a foot-trail that led off into the rocky, wooded grassland. This habitat is a perfect habitat for the orchid species we were looking for. He had just seen some of them popping up across the dry creek bed, and he thought that chances were very good for us to find some in bloom.

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Part 1 of 4 — A Texas wildflower adventure – Texas Purple Spike orchid — 2018-07-11 and 2018-07-12

A few months ago, I viewed some images on Flickr which is an online photostream repository. These images included a couple of orchid species that I have wanted to see and photograph for quite a while. The photographer is someone whom I have followed for quite a while. His name is Matt Buckingham, and he lives in Lufkin, Texas. He doesn’t photograph just wildflowers, he also loves to photograph birds, insects, snakes, and anything else provided by nature.

Not too long ago, I asked him if he would guide me on a trip to photograph some of the wildflowers he has seen in Texas. Much to my surprise, he agreed to do so! My target orchid species were two Hexalectris species: Hexalectris warnockii or Texas Purple Spike orchid aka Texas Crested Coralroot orchid, and Hexalectris grandiflora or Giant Crested Coralroot orchid. In addition, Texas has about 25 different Asclepias species or Milkweeds, and those are also high on any list of target species I could come up with. So Walter Ezell and I made arrangements to pay a visit to Texas on July 11 through July 16, hoping we could find at least one of the target orchid species in flower as well as a few Milkweeds.

Matt and a Flickr friend and master naturalist from Tyler, Texas, Sonnia Hill, had told me that a good place to start looking for H. warnockii is Cedar Ridge Nature Preserve just south of Dallas, Texas. Sonnia and her husband, Bob were spending a few days in Dallas, but she couldn’t make it to the Preserve with us. But, they did ask us out for a delicious meal in Dallas’ Galleria shopping center. I’ve known Sonnia on Flickr for a few years and had never met her, so this “face to face” was especially nice.

The Cedar Ridge Nature Preserve, managed by Audubon Dallas, is quite disjunct for the Texas Purple Spike orchid, but it is fairly reliable this time of year. H. warnockii was originally found at the Preserve in 1986 but nothing much was done with the information. Then, in 2003, a botanical inventory was done and around 40 H. warnockii plants were found. This orchid species was better known from much farther west, particularly in the Big Bend and Davis Mountains area of western Texas and in the Chiricahua Mountains of extreme southeastern Arizona. So our plan was to fly into Dallas, look for the orchids, then drive into west Texas to look for other species in the Davis Mountains. Matt and his wife, Carolina (Caro) Paez would be our guides. Matt and Caro would have a several-hour drive to meet us, so we agreed to meet at the Preserve on Thursday morning, look around, then head west.

Walter and I flew into Dallas early on Wednesday but could not check into our rented Airbnb accommodations until 3:00 pm, so we decided to drive directly to the Preserve and see if we could locate the orchids on our own. Turns out, the local chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists monitors this orchid species in the Preserve during June and July. Fortunately for us, they mark the location of every plant they find by orange survey tape, so it was quite easy for us to locate a few good subjects to photograph. Here is an example of this gorgeous orchid species:

Texas Purple Spike orchid Texas Purple Spike orchid

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Part 2 of 2 — Purple Fringed orchids on the Blue Ridge Parkway, NC — 2018-06-24

In case you missed it, Here is a link to Part 1 of 2 for this weekend trip.

After traveling north on the Blue Ridge Parkway on Saturday, on Sunday, Alan Cressler and I made the trip south from the intersection of Hwy. 221 and the BRP near Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina. Our target location was Mt. Mitchell State Park. The access road from the BRP to the top of the mountain is populated with scores of Platanthera psycodes or Small Purple Fringed orchids. Around the last week in June each year, I try to make the pilgrimage to this location because these orchids almost never let me down. They come in a variety of shades from pure white (still have not found this one) to pink to deep rosy-purple. Here is one showing the typical color found in the large majority of plants at this site:

Small Purple Fringed orchid Small Purple Fringed orchid

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Part 1 of 2 — Summer comes to the BRP — 2018-06-23

This post is fairly long and loaded with colorful images, so fasten your seat belts!

On Saturday, June 23, 2018, my photography buddy, Alan Cressler met me at my North Carolina mountain cabin to get ready for a weekend trek along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. We each had a list of flowering plants we wanted to photograph, all of which should be blooming this time of year. The cabin is about 25 miles (40 km) from the closest section of the BRP, and it’s not a bad drive at all.

We loaded our gear in my truck and headed off to the Parkway. Our first stop would be at a site very near where we intersected the Parkway. It is a site I found out about just a couple of years ago. The target species would be Liparis loeselii or Loesel’s Twayblade orchid. My friend and photographer, Meng Zhang, had learned about this site from a volunteer at the Linn Cove Viaduct Visitor Center and had passed the directions on to me. This roadside site consists of several large clumps of orchid plants growing on a moss-covered hillside. Each time I visit, I am awed at both the number of plants as well as the collection of last year’s seed capsules remaining on the plants. I shouldn’t be, though, because this is a self-pollinating plant whose pollination efforts are aided by rain drops! Yes, the protective cap covering the pollinia withers away quite readily and allows the pollinia to drop (aided by rain) directly onto the stigma, resulting in pollination. In the image below, notice the flowers in the upper right and upper left. On the one in the upper right, the protective cap is still present, but it is loose enough to allow one of the pollinia to begin to fall from its original position. On the one in the upper left, the protective cap is gone, and one of the two pollinia has already fallen.

Loesel's Twayblade orchid Loesel’s Twayblade orchid

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Overnight trip to near Dayton, Ohio for the rare, Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid — 2018-06-19

On Tuesday morning, June 19, 2018, Walter Ezell and I loaded up a rental car and left Greenville, South Carolina for a special wildflower preserve near Dayton, Ohio where the rare, Platanthera leucophaea or Eastern Prairie Fringed orchid can be found. Historically, this orchid species was considerably more plentiful, but due to habitat degradation, it has become quite rare in all of the states where its presence had been recorded. This one site is fairly reliable in producing flowering plants, mainly due to the conservation efforts made to keep the population steady. We cannot thank those folks nearly enough for the difficult work in monitoring and taking care of these rare plants.

When considering the logistics of the trip, I decided to rent a vehicle, because the wear and tear on my 11-year-old truck would cost more than the rental fee. That’s the first time I’ve done this, and it seemed to make sense for the 8-hour drive. We had planned to meet photographer and close friend, Lee Casebere from Indianapolis, Indiana at the Comfort Inn motel and head out to the nearby site early the next morning. We had made arrangements with Lee a month or so ahead, and were reasonably sure that the orchids would be in full bloom on this date. Lee knew the person who was tasked to monitor this rare (federally Threatened and state Endangered) orchid, and had kept in touch with her about the up-to-date status of the plants at this site. The only thing we were not reasonably sure about was the weather.

A couple of days ahead of the trip, I consulted the Weather app on my iPhone, and I discovered that there was 40%-60% chance of thunderstorms on the following Wednesday, the day we were scheduled to visit the orchid site. Bummer! On the day we left Greenville on our trip, the forecast was upgraded to 80%-90% chance of thunderstorms. Big Bummer! But when you have only one choice; that’s the right choice, so we headed out with great expectation that we would be getting wet.

As we approached the Dayton, Ohio area, we drove through several heavy downpours. Checking the radar map again, we could see large areas of rain all around the Dayton area. We arrived at the motel around 6:00 pm and met Lee in his room. After discussing the miserable forecast for the next day, Wednesday, we decided to check the current weather radar one more time. It showed a break in the thunderstorms in the immediate area with heavy rain just north of Dayton. It was still sprinkling outside the motel, but the overcast would provide super light conditions. So we decided to brave it and head on out to the site, which was less than 10 miles (16 km) from the motel. Walter and I had brought rubber boots, so any accumulated water at the site would probably not be a problem.

We arrived at the site with a few sprinkles still dotting the windshield. Gathering our gear and applying generous amounts of mosquito spray, we found the path and headed down the half-mile (.8 km) trail to the sedge meadow where the plants prefer to grow.

Here is a close-up of the Eastern Prairie Fringed orchid:

Eastern Prairie Fringed orchid Eastern Prairie Fringed orchid

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