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 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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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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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 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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