Autumn Coralroot orchid and other botanical treats in upstate South Carolina — 2014-09-09

While waiting a couple of weeks for the local Spiranthes orchid species to begin to bloom, I decided to make a visit to a nearby state Heritage Preserve known as Ashmore Heritage Preserve. It is in upstate Greenville County, South Carolina, and just about 45 minutes from home. The day started out with a heavily overcast sky. Since there was only a 10% chance of rain, I decided it was perfect lighting for photography.

For the past ten years or so, I’ve visited a certain spot in that Heritage Preserve for Corallorhiza odontorhiza or Autumn Coralroot orchid. Some years it comes up in good numbers and some years I cannot find it at all. That’s just the way that mycoheterotrophic orchids respond to varying environmental conditions. Although there appears to be chlorophyll in Corallorhiza odontorhiza, apparently it cannot use it efficiently enough to produce its own food, so it depends on a fungus to provide the nutrition to sustain life. I suppose that if the fungus is having a tough go of it, then so will the orchid, and it may remain underground in a semi-dormant state until it builds up enough strength to flower.

If you’ve never seen this orchid in bloom, then you are not missing a whole lot… It comes in two flavors: open flowers and closed flowers and no leaves. I have never seen open flowers on the ones in our area until this year. The open-flowered variety is called Corallorhiza odontorhiza var. pringlei and as far as I know, it does not occur in South Carolina. In fact, it has been reported from only one mountain county in North Carolina, on its border with Tennessee. So, what am I witnessing? Is it just a fluke that some of the flowers on each stem are open (although not fully open) while most of the flowers remain shut? Quite the puzzle to me…

Here is an example of a plant with open and closed flowers:

Autumn Coralroot orchid

In the past few years, I’ve found about a dozen plants at the site, and that’s exactly what I found on this visit. The difficulty in locating the plants is due to the heavy ground cover of Diphasiastrum digitatum or Southern Ground Cedar. The orchid plants are only about 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) tall, only slightly taller than the Southern Ground Cedar. To make matters worse, the Southern Ground Cedar had produced strobili which closely resemble the form and color of the orchid plants. I’m sure there were some orchid plants that I overlooked.

Here are some additional shots of the Autumn Coralroot orchids:

Autumn Coralroot orchid

Autumn Coralroot orchid

By the way, that swollen part just behind the flower is the ovary, already forming seeds. This is a self-pollinating orchid (it is autogamous), which means that it does the job without the need for a pollinator. So, you see that it doesn’t really matter, in this case, whether the flowers are open or not…

Autumn Coralroot orchid Autumn Coralroot orchid
Autumn Coralroot orchid Autumn Coralroot orchid

I did manage to find a pair of rather large Autumn Coralroot orchids that rose well above the Southern Ground Cedar:

Autumn Coralroot orchid

Nearby and underneath some of the Southern Ground Cedar, I spotted a tiny mushroom, Conocybe apala or White Dunce Cap which resembled a parasol. The fuzzy stem was hair-like and couldn’t have been more than 1 mm in width:

White Dunce Cap mushroom

[Thanks to my friend, Bob Ferry for identifying the mushroom for me!]

Having finished with the orchid photography, I headed back up the trail to my truck, keeping an eye out for other interesting botanical stuff. Just up the trail, I came upon a group of Lobelia puberula or Downy Lobelia. The flowers were perfectly open and provide a few good photographic opportunities:

Downy Lobelia Downy Lobelia

Here and there, were scattered a number of lanky, Euphorbia corallata or Flowering spurge. This is a strange plant in that the individual flowers on a particular plant are either male or female, with the male flowers reduced to only the stamen, and the female flowers to the pistil. In the image below, it is easy to spot the female flowers with their swollen ovary. This plant has three female flowers and two male flowers. These flowers have no actual sepals, petals, or other parts that are typical of flowers in other kinds of plants. Structures supporting the flower head and beneath have evolved to attract pollinators by providing nectar, and have shapes and colors that function the way petals and other flower parts do in other flowers:

Flowering spurge

On up the trail, the ground was literally blanketed by the shiny green leaves and the bright red berries of Mitchella repens or Partridge Berry. The fruit is edible, but I find it quite pithy and tasteless. I suppose I could eat them with gusto if I needed survival food. I’ve written before about the odd characteristic of the red berries: They have two navels. Turns out that the two, white, spring flowers (first image below), share a single ovary and therefore produce a single seed with a pair of navels:

Partridge Berry flowers

Partridge Berry

As I continued to walk the trail back to the truck, I noticed a 1/2-inch (1 cm) red and yellow spider, Verrucosa arenata or Triangulate Orbweaver also known as Arrowhead Orbweaver lurking between two tree branches. I’ve never seen such a weird creature. It remained still enough for me to get shots from both sides. The left image is the top of the spider, and the right image is the bottom of the spider:

Red and Yellow Spider Red and Yellow Spider

[My thanks to knowledgeable reader, Dayle Hoyt, for the spider identification.]

Just underneath the spider were a couple of Cypripedium acaule or Pink Lady’s-slipper orchid plants. One had been lucky enough to have been pollinated, and it was sporting a swelling seed capsule. That disgusting thing on the end of the capsule (right image) is the remains of the beautiful flower that I photographed this past spring (left image below):

Pink Lady's-slipper orchid Pink Lady's-slipper orchid seed capsule

As I am nearing the truck, I see bright orange and pink out of the corner of my eye. It is the ripe fruit of the Euonymus americanus or Hearts-a-bursting also known as Strawberry Plant. Although these look like they might be flowers, they are not. The flowers are very unassuming, and appear in the spring (first image below). I took two images of the fruit — one with flash and the other with ambient light only — I wanted to see what difference the flash would make:

Euonymus americanus flower

With flash:

Fruit of Euonymous americanus -- taken with flash

With ambient light only:

Fruit of Euonymous americanus -- taken with ambient light only

As is usual for me, I start out with one photography agenda, and I end up with much more, never knowing just what I will find. The purpose of this trip was to photograph a homely little fall-blooming orchid, but I managed to find other flowers and critters which made my day. As I have said before, I really am grateful that South Carolina has thought ahead enough to set aside these areas of rich botanical diversification. Had it not been for this forward thinking, many of these areas would have already been destroyed by residential construction or agricultural usage. Not many people even know about our state Heritage Preserves. I’ve got mixed feelings about exposing these fragile areas to a lot of foot traffic from some who may not appreciate their fragile nature. But, after all, these natural wonders belong to all of us, and who am I to pick and choose who can enjoy them…

–Jim

8 comments


  • sonnia hill

    Such beautiful, bright fruit you saw. The tiny mushroom is adorable. Your Autumn coralroot is so dainty and how lucky to get to see an open one. I gasped as I went from one photo to the next. Such a treat to have your blog to brighten the day.

    September 10, 2014
  • Lorne & Joan

    Fantastic photography – as usual.

    September 10, 2014
  • Kenneth Hull

    Jim, I found Corallorhiza odontorhiza here in NYS in Chenango Valley State Park on August 24th. My orchid buddy and I have since found about 130 of them and I had the same question as you. When does it become var. pringlei. I e-mailed a botanist friend of mine, David Werier, who also authors the NY Flora Atlas. He assured me it is most likely var. odontorhiza. I can send you his reply plus a link to a monograph on Corallorhiza, if you provide me an e-mail address. I love your pictures. Ken

    September 10, 2014
  • John Fowler

    Excellent work, as always.

    September 10, 2014
  • The spider is a Triangulate Orbweaver, Verrucosa arenata. We sometimes find them on our rambles in the Georgia piedmont. We use an excellent book to identify our local spiders: Spiders of the Carolinas by L. L. Gaddy. Your photos are beautiful!

    September 10, 2014
  • Glenn Duncan

    Hi Jim,
    Beautiful photos – I especially like the picture of the mushroom. It’s wonderful.
    Glenn

    September 10, 2014
  • Skip Pudney

    Fun read and the normal excellent photography. That ‘shroom is amazing!

    I definitely gravitate more towards the naturally photographed version of the Hearts-a-burstin’. Both are good, of course.

    September 10, 2014
  • Dorothy Beling

    Wonderful pictures and fascinating botany discussion. I’ve seen partridge berry countless times but never knew two flowers share one ovary. Fascinating. Do you know of any other cases of this? I wonder if technically the “two” flowers are actually one since there’s only one ovary/seed. I will surely be looking for the two navels.Where is this preserve ? I wanna go?

    September 12, 2014

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