Spiranthes orchids along the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

I had just told myself that I would not be posting another blog entry until the first week in November when a group of us will meet in the Green Swamp, Brunswick County, North Carolina. However yesterday, I was up on the Blue Ridge Parkway visiting a few sites for Spiranthes (Ladies’-tresses) orchids. There were many excellent sites for these white beauties — some hosting butterflies and bumble bees, as well. I managed to catch a few actually pollinating the flowers. I’m always excited to be able to witness the pollination process.

While I was up there, running around in my truck, I came up on one of the many overlooks that are scattered along the Parkway, when I recognized a lady walking back to her car. I thought she looked familiar, and as I got closer, I recognized her as Becky, the wife of one of my flickr friends, Jim Petranka. How fortunate it was that they were there photographing flowers and butterflies. We spent a bit of time catching up and talking about retirement (Jim will be retiring at the end of May, 2014).

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. On the way to the Parkway, I had to pass by a tall, wet cliff face where I had previously seen Spiranthes orchids along the top of the cliff. When I pulled over, there they were — a line of white spires all lined up about 50 feet (15 meters) above the roadway. Last year, when I visited the orchids, I had found a way up the cliff face from just down the road. At that point, the top of the hill that makes up the cliff face slopes down and is at ground level. So, I grabbed my camera and proceeded to fight the cat briars and loose rocks until I made it to the top. Here is a shot of the cliff face:

Wet cliff face with orchids at top

The orchids are located just to the right of that large boulder at the top of the cliff. Once I made it to the top, I found the spot where I could photograph the orchids that were growing next to the edge…

Spiranthes orchids on the edge of the cliff

After photographing from this precarious spot, I made my way back down the hill and packed my gear in the truck. It was time to head on up the road to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Jim P. had given me pretty good directions to find the spot. I had chosen to get there via Hwy. 191 out of Hendersonville, NC. As I approached the intersection of Hwy. 191 and the Parkway, I saw that the Parkway was closed in the easterly direction – I wanted to go west, so all was OK. But, I did wonder if the government shutdown would affect my ability to access the Parkway in the near future. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a national park, and is managed by federal officials — thus my worry about its temporary closure.

As I reached the overlook that was mentioned in the directions, I was greeted by a gorgeous view of the Blue Ridge Mountain range to the south:

View of the Blue Ridge Mountains from an overlook along the Parkway

But, I had no problem finding the orchids. In fact, I passed by the site just before reaching the overlook that Jim had mentioned. I got a quick look at the many hundreds of orchid plants that were growing in a closely mowed area just next to the road. They were growing in singles and in clumps of as many as six or seven plants — something that I’ve never seen with the Spiranthes found in this region. I took this shot from the top of a gently sloping hill:

Field of Spiranthes

This is not a very good shot, because I have cobbled together a pano from about 10 hand-held shots. Anyway, it will give you a pretty good idea of the number of plants that were in bloom along the road. BTW, this is just a small portion of the orchids that were scattered all over this site.

So, I set about taking pictures of these orchids, all the while listening to the horns of passing automobiles as I got close to the road. There were many photographic opportunities present, and I chose this one group because the plants were lined up in a fairly straight row:

Group of Spiranthes all lined up in a row

Here is a closer shot of the flowers:

Close up of Spiranthes orchids

Aren’t they just gorgeous? I sat back to appreciate them more, and I noticed a tall plant at the bottom of the hill. Unlike most of the other inflorescences of flowers, this one had its flowers positioned in “ranks”. In other words, the spiral of flowers was perfectly twisted so that the flowers were positioned in three distinct rows. I’ve seen this before, but not very often. In fact, I found only four other instances of this perfect ranking of flowers at this site:

Close up of Spiranthes flowers

Here is a closeup of an inflorescence that seems to be more twisted that the ones above:

Close up of Spiranthes inflorescence

Although I didn’t witness any pollination going on while I was there, I did see instances of it the day before, about 15 miles (24 km) to the west along the Parkway. While I was photographing a dozen or so orchid plants grouped together nicely, I saw a large Bombus species (bumble bee) fly directly into the inflorescence. It was furiously and intently sticking its head into each flower on the stem. I tried to catch it backing out with pollinia attached to its proboscis, but just missed it each time I clicked the shutter. So, I figured out that I should be shooting bursts of shots so that at least one of them would be what I was looking for. Here are a couple of shots that I finally ended up with. The first one is of the bee about to enter the flower with its proboscis loaded with pollinia from previous visits to other flowers:

Orchid pollinator arriving at a flower

In about two seconds, it had pulled out of the flower, but it’s proboscis is now loaded with additional pollinia! The load of pollinia actually appeared to hinder the bee from fully entering the flowers.

Orchid pollinator loaded with pollinia

This circumstance seemed to really irrate the bee, because it immediately flew to the ground and rubbed its head aginst the grass. Then it used its front legs to wipe its face and mouth parts until the offending pollinia were dislodged. After the cleaning process, it returned to the inflorescence where it soon accumulated additional pollinia:

Orchid pollinator with pollinia attached to mouth parts

I was thrilled to be able to capture an act of pollination which I had only read about.

At the same time as the visit by the bumble bee, there was also another visitor to the flowers — an Agraulis vanillae or Gulf Fritillary butterfly:

At this time, I cannot verify that this butterfly species is an actual pollinator of this orchid species, since I did not see any pollinia stuck to its proboscis. Perhaps I didn’t stick around long enough…

So, back to today’s visit to the field of Spiranthes. What a wonderful thing to see. Somehow, they made it through a close mowing in the spring. Now, I’m hoping that they will be allowed to produce seed capsules before they are mowed again. If so, we may be greeted by even more blooming plants in a few years.

I finally came to the conclusion that I had gotten the shots I went there for and packed up my gear. Heading home, I drove back down the Parkway toward the access point I used to enter. Just before reaching the turnoff, I stopped at an unofficial pull off where I could see a magnificent building in the distance:

Western side of the Biltmore House as seen from the Blue Ridge Parkway

A closer shot shows some of the French inspired architecture of the Biltmore House, the largest privately owned home in the United States:

Biltmore House as seen from the Blue Ridge Parkway

What a way to end a wonderful day of botanizing. I’ll never tire of studying and photographing the flora of the Carolinas — especially the native orchids. As fall’s chill begins to fill the air, it’s a sign that there is still a chance to see many beautiful autumn wildflowers…

— Jim


  • David McAdoo

    I think that the Parkway closure to the east might be the result of the big rockslide that happened this summer. My impression is that there will take some time to get it fixed & reopened.

    October 09, 2013
  • Ali

    Interesting to hear that the Parkway is open. I’d heard that it was closed. thanks for the update.

    October 09, 2013
  • anita allsopp

    Hello Jim
    I love reading your blog and always wait in anticipation for your next entry.
    Amazing pictures as usual.
    Makes me want to jump on a plane and head over your way from the UK to see all your beauties.
    Best regards

    October 10, 2013
  • tom sampliner

    wonderful images of the pollination process. Great tip on how to try to get the shot too. as always, beautiful images. enjoy your commentary style too.

    October 10, 2013
  • Skip Pudney

    First – fantastic images of this lovely orchid! Thanks for sharing them…as well as the pollinator info.

    Second – the road enclosure you encountered appears to be related to natural erosion and not the erosion of common sense that emanates from Washington! http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20131008/NEWS01/310080034/Parkway-section-Asheville-closed

    October 10, 2013
  • Great experience well recorded.The pollination shots very nice. Have you thought of video ?

    October 12, 2013
  • Sylvain

    It seem S. ochroleuca, but may be S odorata. What do you think about this?

    October 20, 2013

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