Early visit to Persimmon Ridge Road in upstate South Carolina produces surprising results — 2018-04-06

Friday dawned with a high overcast — perfect for wildflower photography. On the spur of the moment, I decided to scout out one of my favorite mountain roadside locations in the upstate of South Carolina — Persimmon Ridge Road. This gravel road transects two of our most productive upstate Heritage Preserves: Ashmore Heritage Preserve and Eva Russell Chandler Heritage Preserve, both of them home to several rare plant species as well as a stunning array of wildflowers during the Spring and Summer months. After a near freeze the night before, I wondered if any of the Spring ephemerals would be up and blooming. I prepared myself to be disappointed, because just 10 days prior to this trip, I made the same visit and did not find a single plant in bloom.

As I turned off of Hwy. 11/276 onto Persimmon Ridge Road, thoughts of Spring Iris and several species of Violet filled my mind. It was not long before I saw the first splash of blue popping out of the leaf litter on the side of the road. Iris verna or Dwarf Iris was in full bloom! I had not expected to see it for another week or so, but here it was:

Dwarf Iris Dwarf Iris

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In search of Hexastylis minor [Asarum minus] or Little Heartleaf in South Carolina — 2018-03-24

For those of a sensitive nature, please be aware that I’m immediately jumping in to the brambles of some very geeky botanical stuff here. Disclaimer: Much of the following few paragraphs is my editorializing about taxonomy and such, so if you just want to look at the eye candy (pretty pictures), then skip ahead — my feelings won’t be hurt even one bit, but you do get extra points if you make it through the weeds.

There has been a move about to place the North American Heartleafs in the genus, Asarum. Currently, they are known by most botanists to be in the genus, Hexastylis. Taxonomy is the way that humans, according to their nature, order things so that they can better understand the world around themselves. The taxonomic way of classifying organisms is based on similarities between different organisms. A biologist named Carolus Linnaeus started this naming system; he also chose to use Latin words. Taxonomy used to be called Systematics.

The North American Heartleaf is ordered by discrete levels:

“Older” Taxonomy:

Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Magnoliids
Order: Piperales
Family: Aristolochiaceae
Genus: Hexastylis

or

“Newer” Taxonomy:

Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Magnoliids
Order: Piperales
Family: Aristolochiaceae
Subfamily: Asaroideae
Genus: Asarum
Subgenus: Heterotropa
Section: Hexastylis

From a fairly recent paper by Brandon T. Sinn, called, Asarum chueyi (Aristolochiaceae), a new species from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Tennessee and Virginia, USA, the following was written: “…the North American members of Asarum do not form a monophyletic group, but instead comprise two separate monophyletic groups. North American Asarum species with separate sepals, two deciduous leaves per node, and flowers that are autonomously self-pollinated via delayed stamen movement are found on both the east and west coasts, and form a clade that falls within Asarum subgenus Asarum. North American taxa that produce a single evergreen leaf per node and herkogamous flowers with connate sepals are restricted to the eastern portion of the continent and have been placed within Asarum subgenus Heterotropa (Kelly, 1997; 1998) section Hexastylis (Araki, 1937). Species of subgenus Heterotropa have showy, complex calyces that may mimic the sporocarps of basidiomycete fungi (Vogel, 1978; Lu, 1982; Sugawara, 1988; Leins and Erbar, 2010) and appear to have influenced the diversification of this subgenus (Sinn et al., 2015b). The North American members of this subgenus remained under-collected and under-described, most obviously due to their often restricted ranges, low growth habit, early flowering period, and the difficulty of working with the deformed flowers of pressed material (Ashe, 1897; Weakley, 2012).”

So…… I remain in the group of botanists/naturalists who have not bitten the taxonometric bullet and switched over from Hexastylis to Asarum. As Robin Sharma said, “Change is Hard at the Beginning, Messy in the Middle, and Gorgeous at the End.” Right now, I think that I am in the middle…

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Now, let’s get to the results of the field trip. Here is a typical example of Little Heartleaf with its 11 flowers tightly packed near the ground at the center of the plant:

Little Heartleaf Little Heartleaf

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First blog post of 2018: Visit to a state Heritage Preserve for Dimpled Trout Lilies — 2018-02-18

Finally! This winter’s Cabin Fever spell is broken! Lately, I’ve been quite envious of my photography buddies in Florida for their ability to photograph early season wildflowers, many similar to those that are found in our region.

This past Sunday, Walter Ezell and I drove 35 miles (56 km) to one of my favorite state Heritage Preserves: Eva Russell Chandler Heritage Preserve in upper Greenville County, South Carolina. Around this time of year, one of our earliest blooming wildflowers, Erythronium umbilicatum or Dimpled Trout Lily, sometimes called Dog-tooth Violet comes into bloom. This tiny, 3/4-inch (1.9-cm), bright yellow wildflower manages to poke its head through the leaf litter to grace the forest floor with its delicate beauty.

This particular location is not known for its masses of blooming lilies; rather the plants are scattered just off the trail and offer the opportunity to get full plant images separated from the other lily plants. At this site, the flowers bloom as soon as a month earlier than at other similar sites in the upstate of South Carolina. I’ve been to locations where getting a clear full-plant image is almost impossible due to the close proximity of other blooming plants. In another month or so, I will visit another location, Nine Times Preserve, in a neighboring county, where there are thousands of Dimpled Trout Lilies, crowded in and among themselves.

Here is an example of this wonderful flowering plant:

Dimpled Trout Lily Dimpled Trout Lily

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Annual fall visit to the Carolina coastal plain (with an unexpected twist!) — 2017-11-03

“So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” Macbeth, In Act I Scene 3 line 38 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. [More about this farther down in the blog…]

Winter is just around the corner for us in the Carolinas. Our nearby mountains have already gotten their first dusting of snow (although it didn’t hang around), and now it is time for my annual visit to the Carolina coastal plain for some fall botanizing. The last weekend in October through the first weekend in November brings the last of the orchids and wildflowers in the Francis Marion National Forest in Berkeley County, South Carolina as well as in the Green Swamp in Brunswick County, North Carolina — two of my favorite botanizing locations.

The previous week had brought some correspondence from a new FaceBook friend, Alex Patton. Alex helps run a family fruit farm in Utica, Ohio, and he wanted to come down to the Green Swamp to look for the following:

Spiranthes cernua or Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchid
Spiranthes odorata or Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid
Spiranthes longilabris or Long-lipped Ladies’-tresses orchid
Parnassia caroliniana or Carolina Grass-of-Parnassis
Gentiana autumnalis or Pine Barren Gentian
Nabulus (formerly Prenanthes) autumnalis or Slender Rattlesnake Root

…and anything else interesting that might be available. This may sound like a tall order, but it was one that should be easily knocked out in a day. Alex had also arranged to meet his friend, Eric Ungberg, in the Green Swamp. Eric is affiliated with Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. I was so looking forward to hanging around with a couple of photographers and botany nerds in one of my favorite places.

I had messaged Alex that I would be hitting the Francis Marion NF on Friday, spending the night near the Green Swamp in Shallotte, NC that night and meeting him and Eric at “The Pond” in the Green Swamp early Saturday morning. My objective in the FMNF was to photograph Spiranthes odorata or Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid in the Wambaw Swamp area of the National Forest. This is an area I’ve visited each fall for the past 10 years or more years.

So, early Friday morning, I head south on my 4-hour trip to the South Carolina coastal plain. I arrive at the usual spot on Victor Lincoln Road. This gravel road winds through the center of the FMNF, connecting Halfway Creek Road with Hwy. 45. The location for the orchids is in the 4,755-acre Wambaw Swamp Wilderness area. It is a forsaken place of bottomland cypress forest, mucky swamp land, and dense pocosin. I have used the following descriptive quote in a previous blog, but I think it deserves mentioning again:

Wambaw Swamp offers no trails and little dry ground. Here, in another of the four Wildernesses in Francis Marion National Forest, you’ll find river-bottom hardwood swamp edged with small stands of pine. Wild orchids, lizard’s tail, pickerel weed, sedges, and ferns dominate the understory. The water level is generally too low for canoeing. Insects, snakes, muck, and lack of dry campsites keep most humans away. This may be the least visited spot in South Carolina.

The above description makes only a general mention the hordes of mosquitoes, ticks, and chiggers that are always present. And I’ve seen a number of poisonous snakes there, as well. After having said all of this, I know it is still a great place to find Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchids as well as a few other orchid species in season. Here is a close-up that I took of an exceptional Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid on Friday while mucking around in the swamp:

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid

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Impressive display of Spiranthes (Ladies’-tresses orchids) in the North Carolina mountains — 2017-10-04

In keeping with my most recent post showing Gentiana and Spiranthes species along the Blue Ridge Parkway, I will be showing you some more (in fact, a lot more) Spiranthes images.

In an email a few days ago, a good friend, Rosemarie Knoll, happened to mention that the Spiranthes were blooming in the parking lot of the Cradle of Forestry interpretative Center off of Hwy. 276 in the Pisgah National Forest north of Brevard, North Carolina. If you have been following my posts for any length of time, you will know that the Pisgah National Forest continues to fascinate me with its many orchids and other wildflowers in season. Well, this happens to be the season for Spiranthes or Ladies’-tresses orchids.

Turns out, Rosemarie doesn’t use hyperbole in her communications, but she should have. When I arrived at the entrance gate, I informed the attendant that I had come to photograph the Spiranthes flowers on the margin of the parking lot. He said, “Oh, you mean those little white flowers?” I indicated what I was referring to by pointing to a couple of flowering plants on the shoulder of the access road just next to his gate shack. I had reached for my wallet to give him the $5 entrance fee, when he told me that I could go ahead without paying. I gladly thanked him and proceeded to the parking area, noticing the patches and groups of Spiranthes cernua or Nodding Ladies’-tresses along the way.

However, I was mouth-agape to see the huge numbers of flowering plants as I pulled into the first available parking space! There were thousands of flowering plants all along the grassy berms that separated different sections of parking area. It is difficult to show a wide-angle shot of such a display, but here is one attempt:

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchid

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More wildflowers along the Blue Ridge Parkway – Gentians and Spiranthes — 2017-09-29

I just returned from a wonderfully relaxing weekend in the mountains of North Carolina. The trip allowed me time to visit the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway, one of my favorite botanizing haunts. Recently, a friend, John Neal, had emailed me some locations for both Gentiana saponaria or Harvest Bells as well as Spiranthes cernua or Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchid, and I had hoped that they both would still be in good bloom on this trip.

Harvest Bells Harvest Bells

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchid

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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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