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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Fringed Gentian in Northeast Georgia – Blue, Blue, Blue!– 2018-10-04

Because of its intensely vibrant blue (some would say “electric blue”) color, this beautiful Gentian species has evoked an emotional response from a number of writers/poets over the years. Here are two poems that come to mind:

Fringed Gentian

God made a little gentian;
It tried to be a rose
And failed, and all the summer laughed.
But just before the snows
There came a purple creature
That ravished all the hill;
And summer hid her forehead,
And mockery was still.
The frosts were her condition;
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North evoked it.
“Creator! shall I bloom?”

To the Fringed Gentian

Thou blossom bright with autumn dew,
And colored with the heaven’s own blue,
That openest when the quiet light
Succeeds the keen and frosty night.

Thou comest not when violets lean
O’er wandering brooks and springs unseen,
Or columbines, in purple dressed,
Nod o’er the ground-bird’s hidden nest.

Thou waitest late and com’st alone,
When woods are bare and birds are flown,
And frosts and shortening days portend
The aged year is near his end.

Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye
Look through its fringes to the sky,
Blue-blue-as if that sky let fall
A flower from its cerulean wall.

I would that thus, when I shall see
The hour of death draw near to me,
Hope, blossoming within my heart,
May look to heaven as I depart.

For the past few years, I’ve set aside some time in early October to make the trip to northeast Georgia to see and photograph a large population of Gentianopsis crinita or Greater Fringed Gentian. This population, on private property, is the largest in Georgia, and it is possibly the southern-most population of this Gentian species in North America. There are only a couple of populations in North Carolina and a couple in Virginia — this is a northern plant. For me, it was important to visit the site this year, because I understand that the property is up for development. In fact, I did see a “For Sale” sign at the edge of the property, but it was mostly covered up by the weedy growth that makes up the preponderance of vegetation in the gently sloping, mountain meadow.

Greater Fringed GentianGreater Fringed Gentian

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