My annual walk through a winter woods… — 2017-02-12

This is supposed to be mid-winter, but it’s 80 degrees F (27 degrees C) outside! The plants still seem to be in winter mode though, and that is good because I suspect we do have a bit of cold weather ahead of us. We always have at least a couple of days of freezing temperatures in mid-April. But today’s walk is pretty much all about green. In our portion of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, there are a number of “evergreen” plants/trees whose leaves make them much easier to spot in the woods’ otherwise drab winter garb.

I did run across a single flowering plant, Erythronium umbilicatum or Dimpled Trout Lily. I figured some of them might be in bloom although it was just a bit early. Here is that little yellow beauty:

Dimpled Trout Lily.
Dimpled Trout Lily

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Orchids, critters, and wildflowers along the Carolina Coastal Plain – Part 2 of 2 — 2016-10-29

The morning broke clear and mild, quite unlike some of the late October mornings along the Carolina Coastal Plain where I had to scrape the frost off the windshield. Walter Ezell and I were looking forward to meeting our good friend, Kelvin Taylor aka KT and his photography buddy, Jackie Tate aka JT, both from North Carolina. Today’s adventure would include visits to a couple of the island savannahs in the Green Swamp, Brunswick County, North Carolina as well as a few areas in nearby Boiling Spring Lakes. These areas reliably produce a number of fine wildflowers for study and photography.

Walter and I finished our customary continental breakfast at the motel and headed east toward our agreed upon meeting spot at the “pond” which is slap in the center of the Green Swamp Preserve. For those who are not familiar with the location, the “pond” is a several-acre borrow pit that was created when the highway which splits the preserve, Hwy. 211, was constructed. The dirt and sand that was “borrowed” from the site was used to raise the highway above the elevation of the already high water table. Proof of the high water table is shown by the level of water that is constantly in the borrow pit.

Anyway, as we were entering the sandy parking lot, KT and JT were just getting out of their car — great timing! We made our hellos and discussed the plan for the day’s activities. We decided to first check out the nearby location for Parnassia caroliniana or Carolina Grass-of-Parnassus. This is a rare species in North Carolina, having the state rank of S2, meaning that there are between 6 and 20 extant populations in the state. It is imperiled in the state because of rarity or because of some factor(s) making it very vulnerable to extirpation. Because of the proscribed burn rotation in the longleaf pine savannah where we usually find it, the plant is fairly reliably in its appearance.

Today, however, we found fewer plants than in previous years, and apparently we were too early in the season to find them all in bloom. We found only two open flowers, but there were dozens of buds that were beginning to open. Here is a shot of an open flower and one of an opening bud:

Carolina Grass-of-Parnassus.
Carolina Grass-of-Parnassus

Carolina Grass-of-Parnassus bud.
Carolina Grass-of-Parnassus bud

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Fall trip to the Carolina Coastal Plain – Part 1 of 2 — 2016-10-28

I can hardly wait for fall to arrive, especially the last week of October, because that means photographing the last gasp of wildflowers along the Carolina Coastal Plain. There is a favorite spot of mine, the Wambaw Swamp Wilderness Area, where Spiranthes odorata or Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid can reliably be found. This is an area of the Francis Marion National Forest in Berkeley County, South Carolina, that is described by the US Forest Service as:

Wambaw Swamp Wilderness (4,815 acres) is thick with wild orchids, pickerel weed, sedges, lizard’s tail and ferns and is challenging to explore. There are no trails in the wilderness so those hardy enough to take on a slow-paced slog generally rely on orienteering skills to navigate. The wilderness is composed of bottomland hardwood forest and is edged with small pine stands. While it offers little dry land, the water level is usually too low for boating. Mature cypress and tupelo trees and relatively open understory, especially off FS road 154 near Coffee Creek, provide some easier hiking and an opportunity to explore a place where very few people go.

On Friday, Walter Ezell and I headed South toward the coast. We arrived at the Wambaw Swamp access road and were met immediately by a fierce swarm of mosquitos. This was not a big surprise for me, because this swampy location is ground zero for those pesky suckers. But I don’t think Walter was prepared for the onslaught. I had recently bought a mosquito hat/net for such purposes, and I happened to have a spare mosquito head-net in my camera bag for Walter to use. We gathered our camera gear and headed into the swamp.

It’s just a short slog through the swamp until we reach the subtle rises in elevation where the orchids love to grow. There they were — a couple of dozen flowering plants – some up to 30 inches (75 cm) tall. This particular species of Spiranthes has a rich, earthy fragrance that is unmistakable. Often times, the fragrance is noticed even before the plants are spotted. That was the case on our most recent visit. Even if I hadn’t known where to look for them, I would have had that clue to help me. Here is what a typical Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid looks like:

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

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Some colorful fall wildflowers in the South Carolina upstate — 2016-10-09

It is early fall in South Carolina, and even though the leaves have not yet taken on their glorious yellow, red, and orange colors, many of the fall wildflowers are already out for the show. This morning, I made the 45-minute trip north to visit one of my favorite state Heritage Preserves: Eva Russell Chandler Heritage Preserve in northern Greenville County. The many hundreds of forested acres of this mountain preserve range widely from wet depressions, cataract falls with rare cataract bog plants, xeric conditions on granite balds with prickly pear cactus and yucca plants, and mesic woods with several species of native orchids and numerous other wildflowers.

On the winding mountain road leading to the preserve, I saw a number of plants with purple flowers. I knew this to be Lobelia puberula or Downy Lobelia. It comes in many shades of blue/purple, and it has been in bloom for several months. Here is one of the plants I found along the trail leading in to the preserve:

Downy Lobelia.
Downy Lobelia

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Mid-September along the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina — 2016-09-15

Mid-September is usually a great time to visit the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina. This is not my first blog entry dedicated to the wildflowers that can be seen this time of year in this area, so you will probably see some repeats of the flora in this blog entry. Even if that is the case, each year brings a different perspective to how the flowers present themselves and some of the differing color forms for any particular species. If you like bright shiny objects, I think you will like this post.

One of the problems with labeling the images is the determination of the county location. The Blue Ridge Parkway, especially in North Carolina, follows a very winding path along ridges and saddles, and it meanders across county lines numerous times — often as many as a half-dozen or more times in just 1 or 2 miles (1.6 or 3.2 km). So, if you think I might have gotten the county location wrong, you are probably correct. It’s not that important, anyway; it’s just our penchant for pigeon-holing data.

My main goal for this trip was to reach Wolf Mountain overlook In Jackson County. It is located near Mile Marker 424 on the Parkway. I do not feel uncomfortable divulging the location of this site, because it is well known to photographers, botanists, and naturalists, alike. Wolf Mountain overlook is famous among local naturalists for its huge diversity of mountain flora. This time of year, one can expect to see a wide variety of colors up and down the wet cliff face as well as in the shallow ditch at its base. Here is a shot of the view from the parking area:

Wolf Mountain overlook.
Wolf Mountain overlook

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Fall orchids and other wildflowers in the Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina — 2016-09-10

Just the other day, one of my blog subscribers let me know that she had found Spiranthes ovalis var. erostellata or October Ladies’-tresses orchid near the Davidson River in the Pisgah National Forest. This area is in Transylvania County, North Carolina, and I am somewhat familiar with the site she described. So, this morning, I loaded the truck with some snacks and my camera gear, and headed up the road about 1 hour and 45 minutes to the site. The only other sites I know for this orchid species are much farther away in the central or eastern central portion of the state, so I was pleased that some had been found closer to home.

It was quite easy to locate the exact spot where the orchids were growing because she had gone the extra mile to give me detailed directions. When I arrived, though, there were throngs of kids preparing to go tubing in the river. In addition, there had been a stocking of trout recently, and the fishermen were out in droves trying to catch the last one. Some were lucky, proudly showing off their strings of foot-long trout.

I’m used to getting curious glances and questions from onlookers, it’s a professional hazard, and I do my best to determine if the onlookers might be a threat to the plants. The majority of the time, I tell people I’m photographing mushrooms or “wildflowers”, and they accept that as truth. Sometimes, they want to examine the plants/flowers, but since the plants/flowers are usually quite small, they soon lose interest. That’s fine with me.

Anyway, back to the orchids…

These particular ones were quite a bit smaller than others of the same species I’ve seen. These were from 3 inches (7.5 cm) to 10 inches (25 cm) tall. As you will notice, the flowers do not fully open. But opening is not necessary, since the flowers are self-pollinating, so the need for a pollinator such as a bumble bee is moot. I found 12 flowering plants and two leaf rosettes without flowers. Here is an image of the nicest one:

October Ladies'-tresses orchid.
October Ladies’-tresses orchid

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Pollination observations in the Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina — 2016-08-09 – 2016-08-16

Shortly after returning from my trip to attend the 2016 Native Orchid Conference symposium in Benson, Arizona, I joined a couple of new friends in the Pisgah National Forest. I had been in correspondence with John and Judy Kingston, residents of Beeston, Nottingham, United Kingdom even before I met them at the symposium. Like me, they are orchid enthusiasts and photographers. I was pleased to show them several orchid species in flower in the Pisgah NF: Platanthera ciliaris or Yellow Fringed orchid, Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis or Slender Ladies’-tresses orchid which were just holding on, and Tipularia discolor or Crane-fly orchid. The former two were new to them, and I could feel their excitement as they wandered around the roadside, remarking on the beauty and perfection of the flowers.

Toward the end of our visit to the Yellow Fringed orchids, we were honored by the appearance of several Battus philenor or Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies intent on getting the nectar of Yellow Fringed orchids, and at the same time, performing pollination of said flowers. The ones that I managed to photograph (not so clearly, I’m afraid) obviously had been quite busy with their activity, because their eyes were loaded with numerous orchid pollinia that were picked up from visits to other nearby orchid flowers. Here is an image of one of them feverishly at work on one of the orchid plants:

Pipevine Swallowtail pollinating Yellow Fringed orchids
Pipevine Swallowtail pollinating Yellow Fringed orchids

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Weekend orchid hunting along the Carolina coastal plain — 2016-08-12 – 2016-08-14

I was asked recently why I blog about my adventures in the field. I didn’t have a good answer then, so I have taken a while to think about it. With the posting of this, my 200th blog post, I’ve come to the conclusion that I want you, the reader, to like what I like; to feel the excitement that I feel upon discovering a group of blooming flowers that are on one hand, not unique, but on the other hand, never the same, no matter how many times I see them. That is my answer.

This past weekend fell in mid-August, the usual time for the fringed orchids to be blooming in the physiographic region of the Carolinas known as the Coastal Plain. These fringed orchids include Platanthera conspicua or Southern White Fringed orchid, Platanthera ciliaris or Yellow Fringed orchid, Platanthera cristata or Crested Fringed orchid, and Gymnadeniopsis (Platanthera) integra or Yellow Fringeless orchid. I know the latter is not a fringed orchid, but it blooms at the same time as the others, so I’m including it here. I also saw a large population of Habenaria repens or Water-spider orchid.

Although I visited several sites in both South Carolina and North Carolina, I will not distinguish between the sites in this post, but rather I will group them together by orchid species. At the end of this blog post, I will also picture some of the wildflowers I came across that are common to both states so that if you are visiting the Carolina coastal plain in the next couple of weeks, you might see some of them and be able to identify them.

The first of the orchid species I photographed on this trip is Platanthera conspicua or Southern White Fringed orchid. It differs from its northern cousin, Platanthera blephariglottis or Northern White Fringed orchid by several subtle characteristics, but I always rely on the position of the apex of the lip: it is generally shorter and tends to curl downward on the Northern White Fringed orchid while it is generally longer and tends to curl outward on the Southern White Fringed orchid.

Platanthera conspicua
Platanthera conspicua or Southern White Fringed orchid

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2016 Native Orchid Conference field trips — Malaxis porphyrea and Platanthera limosa — 2016-07-31 through 2016-08-05

The third and fourth native orchid species that we were introduced to at the 2016 Native Orchid Conference symposium in Arizona are Malaxis porphyrea or Purple Malaxis orchid and Platanthera limosa or Thurber’s Bog orchid. They could not be any more different in appearance from each other, as you will soon discover.

Malaxis porphyrea: As is typical of most of our Malaxis species, it has a single, clasping leaf and a non-branching stem. The species name, porphyrea, is the Greek word, porphyra, the purple-fish or the dye that was made from it. The tiny purple flowers circle the flower stem from about halfway up the stem to the apex. There may be as many as 100 flowers per plant. The small size of the flowers, the tendency for the plant to sway in even the slightest breeze, and the 3-dimensional aspect of the inflorescence makes it quite challenging to photograph. Here is an image of one of the larger plants we found, coming in at about 12 inches (30 cm):

Malaxis porphyrea
Malaxis porphyrea

Platanthera limosa: This species is a tall one, similar to other green-flowered Platanthera orchids. The species name, limosa, is a Latin word for “muddy” — describing the type of habitat in which the plants can usually be found. The plants we saw were about 3-4 feet (1-1.2 meters) tall and were part of a dense population of plants growing on a muddy slope. The plants were quite robust, having as many as 200 flowers on each stem. Its nectar spur is relatively long in comparison with other green Platanthera species of similar size and shape. Here is an image of a portion of the inflorescence of one of the plants I was able to isolate from the group:

Platanthera limosa
Platanthera limosa

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2016 Native Orchid Conference field trips — Malaxis abieticola — 2016-07-31 through 2016-08-05

The third native orchid species that we were introduced to at the 2016 Native Orchid Conference symposium in Arizona was found in the sky islands of the Chiricahua Mountain Range. It is Malaxis abieticola or Arizona Adder’s-mouth orchid. The species name, abieticola is made up of two Latin words: abiet => fir tree; cola => dweller, inhabitant. This makes so much sense, because the plants we found were “dwelling” in the shade of spruce (fir) trees. This is another one of those orchids which is relatively common farther south in Mexico but has been found in only two counties in extreme southern Arizona — Cochise County and Pima County. It grows at an elevation of 8,000-9,000 feet (2,400-2,700 meters).

As is typical of most of our Malaxis species, it has a single, clasping leaf and a non-branching stem with the flowers appearing at the apex. According to Ron Coleman’s book, The Wild Orchids of Arizona and New Mexico, Malaxis abieticola can have up to 40 flowers per plant. One confounding characteristic of this species is that the flowers can be seen pointing in every imaginable direction. This, coupled with the 3-dimensional aspect of the inflorescence, makes it quite the challenge to photograph. In any case, we did photograph a number of these orchids with differing results. Here is an image of two of the plants we found:

Malaxis abieticola
Malaxis abieticola

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