Rare, endemic wildflower in McDowell County, North Carolina — 2019-03-22

For years, I’ve been aware of a rare variety of Shortia galacifolia or Oconee Bells which grows in a single county (endemic to McDowell County) in North Carolina. This variety is known as Shortia galacifolia var. brevistyla or Northern Oconee Bells. Its preferred habitat is moist slopes, creek banks, and rock outcrops in humid escarpment gorges with high rainfall, and generally in deep shade under Rhododendron maximum or Rosebay Rhododendron at elevations of between 1150-1800 feet (350-500 meters). It is found only on tributaries of the Catawba River. It is disjunct from the less rare, Shortia galacifolia var. galacifolia by about 65 miles (100 km). Not a lot has been written about it, and there are very few photographs, so when the opportunity to see and photograph it presented itself, I did not hesitate to take that opportunity.

In early March, Lesley Starke, plant ecologist with the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program and manager of the small preserve in which these plants reside, set up an invitation workday for pulling invasive Hedera helix or English Ivy from around some of the patches of Northern Oconee Bells.

The preserve was dedicated in April, 2016, and is home to the largest population of this rare species variety. Thanks to donations raised by The Friends of Plant Conservation, a 501(c)(3) group headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina, this site was purchased and is now protected. There are only a handful of other sites for this variety — all within 5 miles (8 km) of this preserve. The other sites have small populations from 100 to 1000 plants, whereas this large site has upwards of 15,000 plants. This species has a Global Ranking of G3T2, which means that the species is “vulnerable” or at moderate risk or extinction, while the variety is “imperiled” or at high risk of extinction due to very restricted range or very few populations. In addition, it has a state rank of S2 or “endangered, exploited, and endemic”.

Here is a close-up image of this beautiful wildflower:

Northern Oconee BellsNorthern Oconee Bells

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Two days of botanizing with friends in the upstate of South Carolina — 2019-03-16, 17

Spring (the calendar date) is about a week away, but in the upstate of South Carolina, it has already arrived. We were expecting some friends from Georgia (Alan Cressler and Bruce Roberts) and from Virginia (Nate Miller) to arrive on Sunday for a visit to a few wildflower sites, so on Saturday, Walter Ezell and I visited a couple of the locations to make sure the timing was right.

The first place we visited was Peach Orchard Branch, an out-of-the way rich cove area loaded with Spring ephemerals. The target plant for this visit was Pachysandra procumbens or Allegheny Spurge. This site is the primary one in South Carolina for this species, providing lots of beautiful evergreen foliage and (hopefully) some of those strange-looking inflorescences. It’s about a 1-mile (1.6-km) hike into the cove from the parking area, and although there were numerous muddy areas on the old logging road, we had no problem getting to the “sweet spot”. I’ve featured this wonderful native ground cover in previous blogs, so this is probably nothing new to you. Here is an image of the plant in full bloom:

Allegheny SpurgeAllegheny Spurge

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Just Trout Lilies… — 2018-02-25

The Dimpled Trout Lily is one of the first wildflower species in our area to bloom. Walter Ezell and I decided to check out a couple of upstate South Carolina preserves to see if the Erythronium umbilicatum or Dimpled Trout Lily had come into bloom. I have seen it in bloom as early as late January, but that was far before its usual bloom date. So, we traveled about 1 hour away to one of our favorite spots for this wildflower. Here is an example of the flower:

Dimpled Trout LilyDimpled Trout Lily

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Symplocarpus foetidus (Eastern Skunk Cabbage) bonanza in the mountains of North Carolina — 2019-02-16

Back in the saddle again! I strive to have a post in January of each year, but this year, life got in the way a little bit. However, while all you northern folks are still snowed in, we in the south have flowers blooming. The plant which is the subject of this blog post is Symplocarpus foetidus or Eastern Skunk Cabbage. My good friend, Alan Cressler, met me at the house early Saturday morning, and we wasted no time in heading on our 3-hour trip to get to several bog sites along the Blue Ridge Parkway where we hoped to find Skunk Cabbage in flower.

This is a rather strange plant if nothing more than why it was named, Skunk Cabbage. Generally found in more northerly climes, Skunk Cabbage does make its way as far south as North Carolina and Tennessee (where it is considered endangered). It gets its common name from the malodorous “fragrance” it emits from its flowers and its leaves, when crushed – supposedly like a skunk. Thus the botanical epithet, foetidus, meaning “smelling extremely unpleasant”. To me, though, it smells more like burned rubber or plastic. In any case, it doesn’t take long to be overcome with disgust in its presence.

The 2 to 3-inch (5 to 7.5-cm) flowers are thick and leather-like. They are quite tough, but snap like celery stalks when bent or, heaven forbid, stepped on. Because this is my first occasion to study and photograph these mysterious flowers, I am amazed at the color patterns and color varieties that we found on our trip to the bogs along the Blue Ridge Parkway in extreme northwestern North Carolina. Here is an image of a typical Skunk Cabbage flower which we encountered in one of the several bogs we visited:

Skunk CabbageSkunk Cabbage

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A Fall visit to the Cedar Glades of northwest Georgia — 2018-11-04

The main reason I wanted to make this long trip was to photograph the uber fragrant Spiranthes magnicamporum or Great Plains Ladies’-tresses orchids. They are not found in the Carolinas, but they do appear in small numbers in the Cedar Glades and Limestone Barrens of two counties in northwestern Georgia. Little did I know, when I left home at 5:15 am, that I would see much more wildflower diversity than I had imagined, and I would also make a new field trip friend.

My good friend, Alan Cressler of Atlanta, Georgia had guided me to the sites for this orchid a few years ago, and I had asked if he would like to do so again. He readily agreed and mentioned that Henning von Schmeling, Senior Director of the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell, Georgia would like to join us. Great! Time to make a new field trip friend.

Great Plains Ladies'-tresses orchidGreat Plains Ladies’-tresses orchid

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Fall Gentians of the Southeast — 2018-11-02

Fall, having thrust itself on us in the Southeast, I thought it would be fun and maybe a bit instructive to write a blog post about the southeastern Gentians. According to Jim Drake in his illuminating, self-published book, Gentians of the Eastern United States, the plant family Gentianaceae contains 87 genera and more than 1600 species worldwide. But I will restrict myself to three genera, Gentiana, Gentianopsis, and Gentianella, each well represented in the southeast. Incidentally, they all bloom during the fall, September through November. I had actually planned to make a short field trip to the upper reaches of Greenville County, South Carolina to photograph a population of Gentiana saponaria or Soapwort Gentian aka Harvest Bells which I’ve been following the past couple of weeks from bud to bloom, but it is pouring rain as we speak. Maybe tomorrow… This is what they looked like in full bloom a couple of years ago:

Soapwort GentianSoapwort Gentian

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Fall orchids and other wildflowers – Francis Marion National Forest, Berkeley County, South Carolina — 2018-10-17

This mid-week trek had been put off and put off because of other commitments and then because of bad weather, but on Wednesday, I made the 4-hour trip down to the coastal plain and met my friend, Jeff Jackson in the middle of one of the Southeast’s most diverse national forests. The main target was two orchids, Spiranthes odorata or Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid and Ponthieva racemosa or Hairy Shadow-witch orchid. For the former, I would usually wait until late October, and for the latter, I would usually come down the first week of October. Splitting the difference would place me in sort of a no man’s land where I wasn’t sure I would see either orchid species at its best. Turns out, I was mostly correct in my assumption about the Hairy Shadow-witch orchid — it was mostly bloomed out for the season. We did find a few halfway decent plants to photograph, but the Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid was another thing altogether as you will see.

We met at our “usual” spot in the Wambaw Swamp Wilderness area where some of the best of both species can usually be found. Although the FMNF is most famous for its Longleaf Pine savannahs, this particular area is a wet, bottomland, hardwood forest that is calf-deep in water most of the time. Today was no exception. Luckily, I had brought along my rubber boots and was prepared for the standing water. This habitat is perfect for the orchids which prefer wet feet, especially the Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchids — I’ve seen them in bloom when the plant was fully submerged in several inches of water. On this visit, we were greeted with many dozens of plants – some in full bloom and some in tight bud. Their strong fragrance, not a light floral one, but a heavy, earthy, sensual one, was evident even from a great distance. Here is an example of one of the plants with the largest flowers, nearly 1/2-inch (12 mm) long:

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchidFragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid

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Fringed Gentian in Northeast Georgia – Blue, Blue, Blue!– 2018-10-04

Because of its intensely vibrant blue (some would say “electric blue”) color, this beautiful Gentian species has evoked an emotional response from a number of writers/poets over the years. Here are two poems that come to mind:

Fringed Gentian

God made a little gentian;
It tried to be a rose
And failed, and all the summer laughed.
But just before the snows
There came a purple creature
That ravished all the hill;
And summer hid her forehead,
And mockery was still.
The frosts were her condition;
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North evoked it.
“Creator! shall I bloom?”

To the Fringed Gentian

Thou blossom bright with autumn dew,
And colored with the heaven’s own blue,
That openest when the quiet light
Succeeds the keen and frosty night.

Thou comest not when violets lean
O’er wandering brooks and springs unseen,
Or columbines, in purple dressed,
Nod o’er the ground-bird’s hidden nest.

Thou waitest late and com’st alone,
When woods are bare and birds are flown,
And frosts and shortening days portend
The aged year is near his end.

Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye
Look through its fringes to the sky,
Blue-blue-as if that sky let fall
A flower from its cerulean wall.

I would that thus, when I shall see
The hour of death draw near to me,
Hope, blossoming within my heart,
May look to heaven as I depart.

For the past few years, I’ve set aside some time in early October to make the trip to northeast Georgia to see and photograph a large population of Gentianopsis crinita or Greater Fringed Gentian. This population, on private property, is the largest in Georgia, and it is possibly the southern-most population of this Gentian species in North America. There are only a couple of populations in North Carolina and a couple in Virginia — this is a northern plant. For me, it was important to visit the site this year, because I understand that the property is up for development. In fact, I did see a “For Sale” sign at the edge of the property, but it was mostly covered up by the weedy growth that makes up the preponderance of vegetation in the gently sloping, mountain meadow.

Greater Fringed GentianGreater Fringed Gentian

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Spectacular wildflower display on the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina — 2018-09-22

This is a rather lengthy post, so grab a snack and your favorite adult beverage, and settle in for the ride…

Just a few weeks after my last visit up there, the Blue Ridge Parkway roadsides in western North Carolina have provided us with a marvelous display of fall wildflowers! Each year that I visit this region, I am amazed at this colorful showing. On this trip, my good buddy and nature photographer, Alan Cressler, decided he would join me on a long (16 hours) day trip covering about 150 miles (240 km) of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, the 469-mile long (755 km) Blue Ridge Parkway is our longest National Park. In some places, it is only about 100 yards (100 meters) wide, but it snakes its way through some of the most beautiful mountainous sections of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Virginia. It is here, at altitudes of 5,000 to 6,000 feet (1,525 to 1,825 meters) that many plant species, usually found much farther north, can and do find a suitable home. During the trip, we both agreed that many of these species would probably not be found by anyone except for the fact that the construction of the Parkway had left its mark on the planet by winding its way through and over these craggy mountains, giving seeds and spores an open place to germinate and grow into our beautiful mountain flora. Many north-facing, vertical road cuts/cliff faces expose fractures in the rock which allow water to flow and provide the cool, wet substrate for some of the more northerly species, which are rare for these southern climes.

We began our trip leaving my home in Greenville, South Carolina, finding our way to the Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, North Carolina. Our first stop would be to check on the bloom status of Spiranthes cernua or Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchid at the impressive Cradle of Forestry facility just off of Hwy. 276 which transects the Pisgah National Forest and connects to the Blue Ridge Parkway. I had visited this site for the first time in the fall of 2017, after being told that there was a good showing of orchids in the spaces bordering the parking lot. I told Alan that we might be a bit early, because it was later in the month when I photographed them last year.

As we approached the entrance gate, I was prepared to pay the $5 entrance fee, even though we would not be entering the facility, proper, but just scouring the parking lot area for photographic opportunities. Imagine my surprise when the guard said that the fee would be waived that day since it was “National Federal Lands Day”, and that we could also volunteer our services by weeding, etc., but I declined the offer telling him that we were there to photograph the orchids. From that spot at the guard gate, I could see a few Spiranthes cernua at the edge of the parking lot — a sight that got my juices flowing!

We pulled in to the first available parking spot and were amazed to see that the orchids were at peak bloom. I don’t think Alan had ever seen so many Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchids in one spot! Although the ground next to the parking lot had been left unmowed and was a bit weedy, it didn’t seem to bother the orchids much, at all. Here are some shots of this spectacular display:

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchidNodding Ladies’-tresses orchid

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Early fall wildflower color on the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina — 2018-09-05

About a week ago, my good friend and photographer/naturalist, Liz Fox, visited some of my favorite wildflower spots on the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina. She advised me that I’d better get up there, because the wildflowers were already blooming and were in pretty good shape. Personal commitments and lousy weather prevented me from going until yesterday. Although my usual visit time up there is around mid-September, I knew that an earlier visit would allow me to see some of the flowers in early/peak bloom even though some of the species would not be showing blooms at their peak form.

So, the night before, I cleaned my lenses, charged spare camera batteries, and made sure I had some snacks and water for the trip. It’s about a two-hour trip, but I had planned to stop along the way to check out a few sites in the Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, North Carolina. Two orchid species I had in mind in the Pisgah NF are Spiranthes ovalis var. erostellata or October Ladies’-tresses orchid and Corallorhiza odontorhiza or Autumn Coral Root orchid. In good years, these can be found along the Davidson River near the Davidson River Campground. There is a trail along the river where these native orchids hide under the branches of Rhododendron maximum or Rose Bay Rhododendron.

October Ladies'-tresses orchidOctober Ladies’-tresses orchid

Autumn Coral Root orchidAutumn Coral Root orchid

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