Orchids, critters, and wildflowers along the Carolina Coastal Plain – Part 2 of 2 — 2016-10-29

The morning broke clear and mild, quite unlike some of the late October mornings along the Carolina Coastal Plain where I had to scrape the frost off the windshield. Walter Ezell and I were looking forward to meeting our good friend, Kelvin Taylor aka KT and his photography buddy, Jackie Tate aka JT, both from North Carolina. Today’s adventure would include visits to a couple of the island savannahs in the Green Swamp, Brunswick County, North Carolina as well as a few areas in nearby Boiling Spring Lakes. These areas reliably produce a number of fine wildflowers for study and photography.

Walter and I finished our customary continental breakfast at the motel and headed east toward our agreed upon meeting spot at the “pond” which is slap in the center of the Green Swamp Preserve. For those who are not familiar with the location, the “pond” is a several-acre borrow pit that was created when the highway which splits the preserve, Hwy. 211, was constructed. The dirt and sand that was “borrowed” from the site was used to raise the highway above the elevation of the already high water table. Proof of the high water table is shown by the level of water that is constantly in the borrow pit.

Anyway, as we were entering the sandy parking lot, KT and JT were just getting out of their car — great timing! We made our hellos and discussed the plan for the day’s activities. We decided to first check out the nearby location for Parnassia caroliniana or Carolina Grass-of-Parnassus. This is a rare species in North Carolina, having the state rank of S2, meaning that there are between 6 and 20 extant populations in the state. It is imperiled in the state because of rarity or because of some factor(s) making it very vulnerable to extirpation. Because of the proscribed burn rotation in the longleaf pine savannah where we usually find it, the plant is fairly reliably in its appearance.

Today, however, we found fewer plants than in previous years, and apparently we were too early in the season to find them all in bloom. We found only two open flowers, but there were dozens of buds that were beginning to open. Here is a shot of an open flower and one of an opening bud:

Carolina Grass-of-Parnassus.
Carolina Grass-of-Parnassus

Carolina Grass-of-Parnassus bud.
Carolina Grass-of-Parnassus bud

We were somewhat disappointed in the meager showing, but Jackie was excited to see them for the first time.

There were a number of other colorful wildflowers in bloom within just a few feet of where the Parnassia were growing. One, in particular, caught my eye with its bright pink coloration. It is Agalinis tenuifolia or Slender false foxglove also known as Gerardia. Its fuzzy flower petals and deep pink color always make it a favorite fall flower to photograph:

Slender false foxglove, Gerardia

Near the Slender false foxglove were two, yellow composites whose identification can be easily confused:

Coastal Plain Tickseed Variableleaf Sunflower

On the left is Coreopsis gladiata or Coastal Plain Tickseed. On the right is Helianthus heterophyllus or Variableleaf Sunflower. Technical stuff: Composites are composed of disc flowers and ray flowers. The bright yellow ray flowers form a circular border around the dark brown disc flowers. Only the disc flowers or florets are the true flowers with reproductive organs. While it may look very much like one, a ray flower is not technically a “petal”. What we most commonly refer to as a petal (or sometimes tepal) is the usually brightly colored part of the corolla immediately adjacent to but not part of the reproductive organs. Or in other words, only a part of a flower.

The easiest identifiable difference between the flowers in the above images is the shape of the ray flowers. The Coastal Plain Tickseed has ray flowers that are three-lobed whereas the Variableleaf Sunflower has a ray flower that has a split single lobe. There are many other identifiable differences which you can’t see in the above images, one of which is leaf shape.

Hidden in the tall savannah grasses were the tiny purple flowers of the Lobelia canbyi or Canby’s Lobelia. There are several Lobelia species in the region, and they are somewhat difficult to differentiate, but I think I have this one correctly identified. In any case, this one was growing in the shade, and the dew was still on the petals:

Canby's Lobelia

We also photographed several of the many 3-foot (1 meter) tall Prenanthes autumnalis or Slender Snakeroot plants. The light pink flowers of this species bloom from the top downward, and they dangle loosely from the thin stem:

Slender Snakeroot

We had a number of other sites to visit, so we began making our way back to the parking lot. A short distance down the trail, we saw slender white spires waving in the breeze above the savannah grasses. This plant with tiny white flowers is Tofieldia glabra or Carolina Bog-asphodel. There are several “asphodels” in the Carolinas, and I was curious as to the origin of the name. Wikipedia states,

In Greek legend the asphodel is one of the most famous of the plants connected with the dead and the underworld. Homer describes it as covering the great meadow (ἀσφόδελος λειμών), the haunt of the dead. It was planted on graves, and is often connected with Persephone, who appears crowned with a garland of asphodels. Its general connection with death is due no doubt to the greyish colour of its leaves and its yellowish flowers [this pertains to another asphodel species which grows in the northeastern U.S.], which suggest the gloom of the underworld and the pallor of death. The roots were eaten by the poorer Greeks; hence such food was thought good enough for the shades. The asphodel was also supposed to be a remedy for poisonous snake-bites and a specific against sorcery; it was fatal to mice, but preserved pigs from disease. The Libyan nomads made their huts of asphodel stalks.

Here are a couple of shots of the flowering spires:

Carolina Bog-asphodel Carolina Bog-asphodel

About halfway back to the truck, I noticed a splash of blue to the side of the footpath. It was the electric-blue flowers of Gentiana autumnalis or Pine Barren Gentian. We didn’t see it on our way in, because the flowers do not open until mid-morning. Here they were, scattered along the ground under the longleaf pines:

Pine Barren Gentian Pine Barren Gentian

As you can see, the flowers are blooming at ground level. The thin, lax stems have difficulty supporting such a large, 2 inch (5 cm) flower. Sometimes, the stem grows next to a supporting shrub so the flowers can be held several inches to a foot off of the ground.

We made it back to our vehicles and decided to head next to Big Island savannah, just up the road a bit. When we arrived, the gate was locked, so we hiked in on foot. What I was hoping to find at this location was Spiranthes longilabris or Long-lipped Ladies’-tresses orchid also known as Giantspiral Ladies’-tresses orchid. We had not been able to find it at this spot for the past several years although it was fairly reliable prior to that. We made our way out into the grassy savannah and spread out to cover the rather large area where the plants were known to grow. After a few minutes, I finally spotted one! I was really excited to see that they had returned to this part of the savannah. They are very difficult to see in the tall grasses because they are a few inches shorter than the top of the grass.

We ended up finding about 8 or 9 blooming plants, but they were not in such great shape. The inflorescences were either malformed or showed signs of insect damage. This species is super rare in North Carolina having the state rank of S1, which implies only 1-5 known populations in the entire state. So, I was still excited even though the plants were not in such great shape. Here are a few images of the plants we found:

Long-lipped Ladies'-tresses orchid Long-lipped Ladies'-tresses orchid
Long-lipped Ladies'-tresses orchid Long-lipped Ladies'-tresses orchid

Photographing the plants in the tall grass required getting down to their level. Here is an image of Walter getting down and dirty with one of the orchid plants:

Walter Ezell photographing orchids on Big Island in the Green Swamp Preserve

Kelvin had finished photographing the orchids, and he spent a little time getting some panoramic shots of the savannah:

Kelvin Taylor photographing on Big Island savannah

It was now about lunch time, so we made our way south to the SUBWAY shop at the intersection of Hwy. 211 and U..S. Coastal Hwy. 17 in the village of Supply, North Carolina. As we ate, we made plans to head east toward Boiling Spring Lakes, where we hoped to find another Ladies’-tresses orchid in bloom. Our long-time friend, Skip Pudney, currently a resident of east Texas, used to live in the area near Boiling Spring Lakes, and he would scout out some promising areas for us to visit during our Spring, Summer, and Fall forays into the Carolina Coastal Plain. One day, he found a fabulous collection of Spiranthes cernua or Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchid growing in a shallow ditch along a road in a defunct housing development in Boiling Spring Lakes. We have revisited that place every year since, usually with great results. Today’s visit was exceptional, because the orchids were not only plentiful, but they were much larger and more robust than what we expected to see. Thank you, Skip!

Here are some shots of those fine plants:

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid with Silver-spotted Skipper

In the image above, you can see a Epargyreus clarus or Silver-spotted Skipper sipping nectar from one of the orchid flowers. I don’t believe it is considered a pollinator of this orchid species. In any case, we didn’t see any skippers with pollen attached to their proboscis parts.

Here is a shot of Walter photographing orchids in the shallow ditch with Jackie bent over in the background:

Walter and Jackie photographing orchids in the ditch

More Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchids:

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid with Hoverfly and Crab Spider Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid with Hoverfly and Crab Spider

In the above two images, you can see some drama about to be played out. There is a Hoverfly perched on the edge of one of the flowers with a Crab Spider approaching to its right. I didn’t wait around to see if the Crab Spider had the Hoverfly for lunch… but I would not be surprised if that is what happened.

Close-up of Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid

There were numerous Lerema accius or Clouded Skippers flitting about the plants. I saw as many as three on a single inflorescence, but managed to get a photograph of two on a single inflorescence:

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid being visited by Ocola Skippers

Update: A very informed reader has caused me to rethink the identification of the Skipper in the above image. I’m replacing the name with Panoquina ocola or Ocola skipper also known as Long-winged skipper. Thanks for the help. It’s tough identifying critters if all you know is orchids and a few wildflowers… 😉

Again, I don’t think Skippers are included in the pollinator cohort of Ladies’-tresses orchids — at least not in region of the Carolina Coastal Plain. I was amused, however, by the number of Skippers visiting the plants. Their flitting around and almost territorial (if you can call it that) behavior was amazing to watch. There is always something new to see every time I visit these wonderful orchid habitats.

Well, this brings to a close a memorable visit to some of my favorite orchid locations. The Coastal Plain of the Carolinas always provided ample opportunity from late February to mid-November to photograph native orchids and other colorful wildflowers. What made it even more special was to hang out with like-minded photographer friends and to share the moment of exploration and adventure. It just can’t get any better than that.

Until next time…



  • Virginia Craig

    Spectacular!!!!! Always look forward to your blogs.
    Have also been observing lots of longtailed skippers nectaring on Spiranthes odorata.

    October 31, 2016
  • Skip P

    Ah, fun stuff! Thanks for the memories. Glad to see the S. longilabrus back in it’s familiar spot. Those S. cernua! Glad to hear they are great shape. Thanks for sharing.

    October 31, 2016
  • Penny Firth

    Extraordinary! What a wonderful blog post.

    October 31, 2016
  • Michael Drake

    Hi Jim,

    Wonderful photos. The skippers in the last photo appear to be Ocola (Panoquina ocola). The very long forewing is their signature.

    Michael Drake

    October 31, 2016
  • Laurie

    Just goes to show what I know….I thought the fly and spider were sharing! HaHa!

    That Carolina Grass flower is slap gorgeous! 😉

    And as usual, your photography makes me drool!

    October 31, 2016
  • David arbour

    Very nice! Note the Ambush Bug (Phymatidae), hiding in the asphodel.

    October 31, 2016
  • Dave

    Jim – these are better and better! I love reading them and “bathing” in the images – they’re so lush. LOVED the Pine Barrens Gentian images in particular…but the skipper shots were an education. I’ve seen my share of sulfurs on late flowering cernua-s, always figured that plant was the only game in town for these butterflies, but I’ll need to look more closely.

    November 01, 2016
  • I just love your photos…I have learned so much!

    November 01, 2016
  • Spectacular! Thank you for sharing these!

    November 02, 2016

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