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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