Fall trip to the Carolina Coastal Plain – Part 1 of 2 — 2016-10-28

I can hardly wait for fall to arrive, especially the last week of October, because that means photographing the last gasp of wildflowers along the Carolina Coastal Plain. There is a favorite spot of mine, the Wambaw Swamp Wilderness Area, where Spiranthes odorata or Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid can reliably be found. This is an area of the Francis Marion National Forest in Berkeley County, South Carolina, that is described by the US Forest Service as:

Wambaw Swamp Wilderness (4,815 acres) is thick with wild orchids, pickerel weed, sedges, lizard’s tail and ferns and is challenging to explore. There are no trails in the wilderness so those hardy enough to take on a slow-paced slog generally rely on orienteering skills to navigate. The wilderness is composed of bottomland hardwood forest and is edged with small pine stands. While it offers little dry land, the water level is usually too low for boating. Mature cypress and tupelo trees and relatively open understory, especially off FS road 154 near Coffee Creek, provide some easier hiking and an opportunity to explore a place where very few people go.

On Friday, Walter Ezell and I headed South toward the coast. We arrived at the Wambaw Swamp access road and were met immediately by a fierce swarm of mosquitos. This was not a big surprise for me, because this swampy location is ground zero for those pesky suckers. But I don’t think Walter was prepared for the onslaught. I had recently bought a mosquito hat/net for such purposes, and I happened to have a spare mosquito head-net in my camera bag for Walter to use. We gathered our camera gear and headed into the swamp.

It’s just a short slog through the swamp until we reach the subtle rises in elevation where the orchids love to grow. There they were — a couple of dozen flowering plants – some up to 30 inches (75 cm) tall. This particular species of Spiranthes has a rich, earthy fragrance that is unmistakable. Often times, the fragrance is noticed even before the plants are spotted. That was the case on our most recent visit. Even if I hadn’t known where to look for them, I would have had that clue to help me. Here is what a typical Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid looks like:

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid.
Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid

The largest Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid flowers I’ve seen measure just less than .5 inch (10-12 cm) long. Many of the ones we found on this trip came close to this measurement. Their bright white flowers made them quite easy to spot, even in the dark, swampy woods. Here is a shot I took with my finger tip for scale:

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid with finger tip for scale

What with nearly 2 feet (60 cm) of rain in two days from hurricane Matthew a few weeks prior to our visit, I expected to encounter unusually wet conditions, but I was surprised to find just a minor amount of additional standing water. The swamp acts as a buffer to severe flooding by absorbing an amazing amount of runoff. This is the same general area where we also find two other orchid species: Ponthieva racemosa or Hairy Shadow-witch orchid (blooms in early October) and Malaxis spicata or Florida Adder’s-mouth orchid (blooms in early August). Below, are images of these orchids in bloom; Hairy Shadow-witch orchid on left and Florida Adder’s-mouth orchid on right:

Shadow-witch orchid Florida Adder's-mouth orchid

On this trip, we found both of them in seed.

I spent a bit of time looking for one particular Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid plant that I had seen in previous years. It was special, because the morphology of the flowers was different than the typical flowers of the species. The lateral petals are recurved and stretch out horizontally to the sides of the flower. This gives an almost frilly appearance to the inflorescence. After searching for about 15 minutes, I finally found it. Here are a few images of this specimen:

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid

Below, note the tiny crab spider lurking between a couple of the flowers. It’s waiting for an unsuspecting insect to have for lunch:

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid with crab spider

Speaking of critters, here is a Bombus or Bumble Bee species that is one of the orchid’s pollinators. Upon very close inspection. there are a couple of pollinia attached to its long, pointed proboscis which is almost hidden behind the orchid flower’s lip:

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid with Bumble Bee pollinator

There is also a bit of the crumbly pollen on the plant just to the left of the bee’s left hind leg. The pollen is waxy and rather compact until it is pulled from the innermost reaches of the flower. Once it is removed from the flower, it begins to crumble, thereby making it possible to pollinate the next flower the pollinator visits.

Here are a couple of shots of a joined pair of pollinia (called a pollinarium) which have been stuffed into a flower from a visiting pollinator. What you are seeing is the back end of the pair of pollinia; facing opposite of how it is originally positioned in the throat of the flower. How it got stuck this way, I can only guess…:

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid with detached pollinarium Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid with detached pollinarium

In case you are wondering what the leaves of this orchid species look like, here is a full shot of one of the orchid plants we photographed. Notice the rosette of long, strap-like leaves at the base of the plant:

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid -- entire plant

In another portion of the swamp, I photographed a plant which had been under about 12 inches (30 cm) of water from the recent hurricane. Notice the sediment that remains on the strap-like leaves. I rubbed off the sediment from one of the leaves to show the shiny green leaf under the sediment:

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid leaves covered with sediment from recently being underwater

As I mentioned previously, some of the plants were quite tall. Here is one that had an inflorescence that was about 10 inches (25 cm) tall:

Large Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid inflorescence

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid

Despite the fierce mosquitos, we had a great time in the Francis Marion National Forest. It’s always nice when the flowers behave by reappearing in the same area each year. That is not what happens with all orchid species — some disappear for years at a time before miraculously showing up where they are expected. For me, these orchid forays are a bit like playing the lottery, because there is no guarantee of finding them. I suppose you could say it’s the thrill of the chase, but finding them in good shape is special, too.

Part 2 of this trip report will take us northeast along the Carolina coast to another of my favorite haunts: The Green Swamp in Brunswick County, North Carolina.

Stay tuned…



  • Skip P

    Wonderful! Amazing shots of the S. odorata. Wow…30 inches tall is pretty impressive!

    The next read is going to be tough 🙂

    October 31, 2016
    • Jim

      KT and I spoke kindly about you on Saturday… Wish you could have been there with us.

      October 31, 2016
  • Lee Casebere

    That Spiranthes sounds like a monster compared to Spiranthes tuberosa. And the fragrance must be intoxicating! Hope to see it someday.

    I thought maybe you’d not go to the coastal plain this fall because of hurricane Matthew, but obviously plants can survive such an event quite well.

    October 31, 2016
  • Laurie

    I love how this orchid takes on a spiral look. Isn’t nature awesome? Great photos,Jim!!

    October 31, 2016

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