Mid-September along the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina — 2016-09-15

Mid-September is usually a great time to visit the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina. This is not my first blog entry dedicated to the wildflowers that can be seen this time of year in this area, so you will probably see some repeats of the flora in this blog entry. Even if that is the case, each year brings a different perspective to how the flowers present themselves and some of the differing color forms for any particular species. If you like bright shiny objects, I think you will like this post.

One of the problems with labeling the images is the determination of the county location. The Blue Ridge Parkway, especially in North Carolina, follows a very winding path along ridges and saddles, and it meanders across county lines numerous times — often as many as a half-dozen or more times in just 1 or 2 miles (1.6 or 3.2 km). So, if you think I might have gotten the county location wrong, you are probably correct. It’s not that important, anyway; it’s just our penchant for pigeon-holing data.

My main goal for this trip was to reach Wolf Mountain overlook In Jackson County. It is located near Mile Marker 424 on the Parkway. I do not feel uncomfortable divulging the location of this site, because it is well known to photographers, botanists, and naturalists, alike. Wolf Mountain overlook is famous among local naturalists for its huge diversity of mountain flora. This time of year, one can expect to see a wide variety of colors up and down the wet cliff face as well as in the shallow ditch at its base. Here is a shot of the view from the parking area:

Wolf Mountain overlook.
Wolf Mountain overlook

The weather was exceptionally clear, providing a long-distance vista for those who just need to take a break from the drive. This overlook is one of my favorites for a number of reasons, one of which is the view. The other reason is for the exceptional flora. The first wildflowers most people see when viewing the wet cliff face is Parnassia asarifolia or Kidney-leaf Grass-of-Parnassus. As I have mentioned in previous blog entries, this species is not a grass, but rather a beautifully veined wildflower. It is a denizen of the Southern Appalachian Mountains as well as few disjunct populations in Arkansas and Texas. To me, its beauty is derived from the green veins that are prominent in the flower’s 5 petals. These dark green veins are not apparent until the flower is viewed at close range. Then, and only then, can its beauty be fully appreciated. There are two species of Parnassia in the region: Parnassia grandifolia and Parnassia asarifolia, and they can be easily confused except for the fact that P. grandifolia sports a dark green ovary where as P. asarifolia sports a rather translucent, ivory-colored ovary. Here is a comparison of the two species:

Parnassia asarifolia
Parnassia asarifolia

Parnassia grandifolia
Parnassia grandifolia

Usually, I spend a good bit of time selecting different groups of the flowers to photograph, but today, I concentrated on two specific groups. The flowers of the first group had managed, somehow, to evade the mowing equipment and came up just next to the road. The flower stems were stunted and only a 3 inches (7.5 cm) tall. The flower grouping was pleasing, so I photographed it:

Parnassia asarifolia

Among the thousands of blooming plants available to me to photograph — although many were up to 30 feet (~10 meters) above my head on crevices and ledges on the cliff face — I concentrated on a group of 15 or so at about eye-level. These were positioned in a line along a narrow ledge, and provided a great photographic opportunity. First, I photographed them in direct sunlight then waited for a cloud to diffuse the sunlight so that I could use fill flash to moderate the harsh shadows:

Parnassia asarifolia in bright sunlight

Parnassia asarifolia lit with fill flash

Water was constantly dripping onto the flowers, so it was difficult to get a good exposure without one or more of the flowers bouncing around.

Here are a few shots taken a bit closer to the group:

Parnassia asarifolia

Parnassia asarifolia

I never tire of visiting this site every year. Each flower lasts only a few days, and the entire population of flowers will be spent in a week to 10 days.

As I was photographing the Parnassia, I noticed a single, carnivorous plant of Drosera rotundifolia or Round-leaf Sundew seemingly growing straight out of the solid rock of the cliff face! I’m sure it had found a tiny crack to use as a foothold, but I have to admire its tenacity. How it survives the harsh winter exposed on that rock up on the Parkway is unimaginable to me:

Round-leaf Sundew

Nearby, were groups of one of the most beautiful of the Gentians: Gentiana latidens or Balsam Mountain Gentian. For many years, it was thought to be a form of Gentiana saponaria or Soapwort Gentian or perhaps related to Gentiana clausa or Bottle Gentian, but in 2009, James S. Pringle and Alan S. Weakley determined it to be a separate species endemic to the Balsam Mountains and nearby ranges in western North Carolina.

Typical of many Gentian species, its color is striking — there is no blue quite like the blue of Gentians:

Balsam Mountain Gentian

Balsam Mountain Gentian Balsam Mountain Gentian
Balsam Mountain Gentian Balsam Mountain Gentian

I was just about to leave this particular spot when a beam of filtered sunlight broke through the leaf canopy and highlighted a single cluster of flowers. That’s the image, above right.

The flowers are rather large compared to most of our Gentians, coming in at around 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) long. These particular plants were secluded under a tree in a depression between two sections of the cliff face. Their flower color and leaf integrity were being preserved by the protecting shade while those flowers in the open sunlight were beginning to fade.

There were a few specimens of Chelone obliqua or Red Turtlehead also known as Pink Turtlehead at the base of the cliff face, but they couldn’t hold a candle to the ones about 7 miles (11 km) north of the overlook, in Haywood County. I was awestruck at the profusion of these plants as I whizzed by at 45 mph (72 kmh), the posted speed limit on the Parkway. There was one section of roadside about 50 yards (~50 meters) at the base of another wet cliff face which was thick with flowering plants. The color of the flowers ranged form a bright pink to a deep, rosy-magenta. Here is a selection of a few of some of the many flower clusters at this site:

Chelone obliqua Chelone obliqua

In the above right image, note the legs of a crab spider poking out underneath the flower at center left of the flower cluster. I didn’t see this until I had processed the image.

Chelone obliqua Chelone obliqua

Here are a couple of the darker flower clusters:

Chelone obliqua Chelone obliqua

In order to show what the roadside population looked like, here are a couple of wide-angle shots:

Chelone obliqua

Chelone obliqua

There were more Gentian species to photograph and identify. In a secluded section of the woods just up the road in Transylvania County, I found Gentiana decora or Showy Gentian. There were several plants in full bloom:

Showy Gentian Showy Gentian
Showy Gentian Showy Gentian

I usually am able to recognize this species by its light color and blue stripes. This is not always a determining characteristic, though. One must examine the tiny, leafy structures (calyx lobes) at the base of each flower to be sure.

At another location along Hwy. 215, just south of the Parkway in Jackson County (maybe Transylvania County, I’m not sure), I found a small population of Gentians that continue to puzzle me. They have many characteristics of Gentiana decora or Showy Gentian, but they also have characteristics of Gentiana saponaria or Soapwort Gentian also known as Harvest Bells, a common species in the Carolinas so named for its resemblance to the Soapwort plant, Saponaria officinalis. I have photographed the flowers of this population on other occasions, but still I have not felt comfortable with an identification. For now, I’ll call it Gentiana saponaria even though I feel that it might be a hybrid form:

Soapwort Gentian or Harvest Bells Soapwort Gentian or Harvest Bells
Soapwort Gentian or Harvest Bells Soapwort Gentian or Harvest Bells

Soapwort Gentian or Harvest Bells

Another nearby location that I really look forward to visiting is another roadside site in Jackson County. It consists of a rather dry hillside that borders the Parkway. This hillside is about 0.10 mile (0.16 km) long and is quite “weedy” looking from the road. The first thing one notices is the large number and variety of a purple-flowered plant called Gentianella quinquefolia or Stiff Gentian. Yep, this is the fourth member of the Gentian family that was in full bloom on this particular visit to the Parkway. The plants are easy to see among the weeds because of their purple/lavender color. The flowers, which like many of the Gentian species remain closed, are relatively small at less than 1 inch (2.5 cm) tall. The color forms vary from very light pinkish-lavender to a deep, almost grape purple. There can be more than 200 flowers on some of the larger plants:

Stiff Gentian Stiff Gentian
Stiff Gentian Stiff Gentian

However, the hidden secret of this weedy hillside is the orchid that grows among the Gentians. This orchid is Spiranthes ochroleuca or Yellow Ladies’-tresses orchid. I have seen it appear in the hundreds at this site, but this year, the number has moderated. It does not form showy clumps but appears as single flowering stems or at most two stems, side-by-side. Since I know that they bloom on this hillside, I can spot them while driving by, but to the uninitiated or unobservant person, they blend in quite well with the rest of the unmowed flora and go unnoticed.

The common name, Yellow Ladies’-tresses orchid, is a misnomer of sorts, since the flowers are not bright yellow, but they are a very light, creamy yellow. This name was given to the flower because of the butterscotch-yellow stripe under the orchid’s lip. Here is a shot I took of a plant at this site a few years ago showing this butterscotch-yellow stripe:

Butterscotch-yellow strip under the lip

After seeing several of the flower spikes, it is obvious that there is no particular pattern for the arrangement of the flowers on the stem. In some cases, the “spiral” of flowers is arranged so that it forms almost vertical ranks of flowers, while in other cases, the flowers appear to have no obvious pattern at all. Here are examples of what I’m talking about:

Yellow Ladies-tresses orchid Yellow Ladies-tresses orchid

Although the pattern of flowers might appear rather random, upon close inspection, one can see that they are ordered in a tight spiral where the flower ranks are offset from each other as the spiral proceeds up the stem.

Here are a few more examples of this beautiful orchid species:

Yellow Ladies-tresses orchid Yellow Ladies-tresses orchid
Yellow Ladies-tresses orchid Yellow Ladies-tresses orchid

Yellow Ladies'-tresses orchid

For the “tree people” among you, I have some images of one of our most striking mountain trees, especially when in fruit as it was on my visit. The tree in question is Sorbus americana or American mountain ash. These trees are difficult to miss when they are carrying those large cymose clusters of brilliant scarlet berries. During other seasons of the year, the tree is rather unremarkable, but when fall arrives, they are decked out in stunning fashion:

American mountain ash

Believe me when I tell you that these images do not do justice to the stunning color of the berries. Here are a few additional shots of the American mountain ash at its finest:

American mountain ash American mountain ash

American mountain ash

American mountain ash

What a fitting way to end this Carolina adventure. The Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina never fails to amaze me. From the verdant green of its springtime foliage and colorful Spring ephemerals, to the vibrant spectacle of its late fall leaves, it is one of our most precious gems. I’m very fortunate to live close enough to its passage through our Southern Appalachian Mountains to visit whenever I get a hankering.

The next scheduled adventure will take us back to the Carolina Coastal Plain and the Lowcountry longleaf pine savannahs where there are some amazing late fall and early winter wildflowers just begging to be photographed.

Until then…

–Jim

14 comments


  • Tom Patrick

    Absolutely spectacular capturing of the gentian blue color!
    But I have never seen such sharp, perfect photos of Parnassia; venation remarkable, really outstanding, so crisp and fresh-looking…. Guess it’s time to check on fringed gentians.

    September 16, 2016
  • Deloris Smith

    Beautiful photos. Wildflowers are a particular interest. And the mountain ash is awsome. Thank you for such beautiful treasures.

    September 16, 2016
  • sonnia hill

    Enjoyed every photo.

    September 16, 2016
  • John Fowler

    Prize-winning quailty on the photos, as always.

    BTW, Google Earth will show county lines. (It might be an option that you need to turn on.)

    September 16, 2016
  • Penny Firth

    Fantastic photos! I love gentians, and your pictures and commentary are superb.

    September 16, 2016
  • Greg Peters

    Jim, nice job of capturing all the beauty of this spot. I agree that annual visits are essential!

    September 16, 2016
  • Jim, thanks for posting these outstanding photographs. The Wolf Mountain Overlook at this time of year is one of my absolute favorites.

    September 17, 2016
  • Daniel McClosky

    Parnassia is sooo cool! One of the wildflowers that got me into botany as a kid. You captured the fractal-like intricacy of those petals so well.

    September 17, 2016
  • Becky Kessel

    Hope to get out there within the short window to view. Absolutely breathtaking photographs!

    September 17, 2016
  • John Neufeld

    I never get enough of your photos.

    September 18, 2016
  • james young

    Beautiful shots. Mt. Ash was new to me– spectacular.

    September 20, 2016
  • Meng

    Remember your previous years posts showing the flowers and always love to see them! This time so surprised to see a sundew!

    September 20, 2016
  • Absolutely gorgeous, Jim!

    September 21, 2016
  • Rudy Riggs

    Fairly new to your blogs, but enjoy each and every one! I saw beautiful Mt. Ash at Craggy Gardens last week.

    September 21, 2016

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