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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