Annual Blue Ridge Parkway Adventure — 2017-06-23

I’m writing this blog entry from the conference room of the Admissions Office at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, North Carolina. Walter Ezell and I are currently staying at our mountain cabin which does not have internet service, so I had to find a place where I could sit and write for a couple of hours. Lucky for me that the college is only a 20-minute drive from the cabin. School is out for the summer, so they graciously let me in to work on my blog.

The end of June is always a fine time to visit the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina — especially for the summer orchids. It seems that they are blooming earlier each year. It used to be the case that the Purple Fringed orchids would be at peak on the 4th of July, but now, the third week in June appears to be the best time to catch them at peak bloom. In our area, Platanthera grandiflora or Large Purple Fringed orchid is at peak about 1 week ahead of Platanthera psycodes or Small Purple Fringed orchid. It’s also the case that there are many fewer of the former, and one has to really search hard to find them. They are usually in the ditches bordering the Parkway, just above the mow line. It makes me wonder just how many we could find if they didn’t mow the roadside until later in the year.

However, the first place Walter Ezell and I stopped was at a Parkway roadside site for Liparis loeselii or Loesel’s Twayblade orchid. Thanks to my photographer friend, Meng Zhang, for pointing it out to me, this site will always be a sure bet to photograph this species. In addition, there were more flowering plants at this roadside site than there were last year. I suspect that we were about 4-5 days late, because most of the flowers were just past peak and already producing seed capsules. That’s OK, though. I was very happy to see them again all nestled in their mossy bed:

Loesel's Twayblade orchid Loesel’s Twayblade orchid

There was plenty of opportunity to photograph them, because there were hundreds of plants — mostly in scattered groups of dozens of blooming specimens. Actually, finding single plants was the difficult part, since the ones at this location like to clump. Here are a few more shots:

Loesel's Twayblade orchid

They don’t look like much more than little bunches of yellow-green knots on a stem until they are seen close-up:

Close-up of Loesel's Twayblade orchid

Loesel's Twayblade orchid Loesel's Twayblade orchid

The large clumps were a bit difficult to photograph due to the density of the plants. But here are a couple of shots to give you an idea of the size of a few of the clumps:

Clump of Loesel's Twayblade orchids

Clump of Loesel's Twayblade orchids

Loesel's Twayblade orchid Loesel's Twayblade orchid

We finished with the Liparis loeselii, packed our gear and headed north to a site for Platanthera orbiculata or Pad-leaf orchid. This particular site is probably the southern-most site for this species. It is on the southern flank of Grandfather Mountain — an exceptional tourist attraction and a richly diverse part of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. I had photographed them in full bloom around this time of year, but I really didn’t know if they followed a strict bloom schedule. It’s about a 1-mile (1.6 km) hike from the Parkway’s Boone Fork Overlook to the location for the orchids. In the past, I’ve seen only four plants with as many as three in bloom. Last year, I found the four plants, but none were in flower. This year, there were three plants and only one of them was in bloom. To be truthful, it was not in bloom, but it was in full bud:

Pad-leaf orchid

Not being intimately familiar with this northern orchid, I am not sure when the flowers will open, but I suspect it will be at least another week. I will, however, show you what this orchid looks like in full bloom (taken three years ago):

Pad-leaf orchid Pad-leaf orchid

In the not-so-good picture on the left, that is Walter’s hand attempting to cover just one of the two, large leaves of this plant. The flower stem is about 18 inches (45 cm) tall and contains about two dozen flowers. We recently saw this species in bud in Manitoba, Canada, so it is easy to say that it has a wide range in North America.

I was more than a little disappointed, but at least I know that there will be one blooming plant this year. I hope I can come back to see it in its full glory.

Coming back down the mountain, I took the opportunity to check under the low-hanging branches of the Rhododendron maximum or Rose Bay Rhododendron lining the trail. It is quite easy to find a number of Neottia smallii or Appalachian Twayblade orchids in bloom this time of year. They prefer to grow in the dark and damp recesses under the thick Rhododendron leaves. They are actually quite plentiful, it’s just that most people don’t get down on all fours and crawl under the branches to look for them. Here are several shots of took of these tiny orchids:

Appalachin Twayblade orchid

Appalachian Twayblade orchid Appalachian Twayblade orchid

It was now time to head back south on the Parkway. About an hour or so away from our most recent stop, is the location for the largest population of Platanthera psycodes or Small Purple Fringed orchids that I know about. They grow in profusion on the west side of Mt. Mitchell (at 6684 feet or 2037 meters, the tallest peak east of the Mississippi River) and along the access road from the Parkway. I’ve known about this orchid location for many years, and I try my best to make it up there every year. It’s become an annual pilgrimage for me. I’m often asked why I continue to return, especially since I have so many images of this species. But, if you are a nature lover like me, you will understand that I can never get enough of these beautiful wildflowers.

Mt. Mitchell and many of the other nearby peaks that are above 5000 feet or 1525 meters in elevation, provide a taste of Canada, in that they are the last remaining refuge for northern plant species that survived the most recent ice age. Much of the Blue Ridge Parkway, especially in this section of North Carolina, traverses the ridgeline of these peaks and provides the opportunity to photograph many wildflower species which are otherwise rare in the region.

After a beautifully scenic drive south on the Parkway, we arrive at the entrance to Mt. Mitchell State Park. With much anticipation, I made the turn onto the access road and headed uphill toward the Mt. Mitchell State Park Restaurant. We were both hungry, but I was of a divided mind about whether to eat first or to stop and photograph orchids. Believe it or not, my hunger won out — this time. As is the custom, we did see quite a few blooming plants in the roadside ditches leading up to the Restaurant.

After my “usual” meal consisting of a yummy, crisply grilled, ham and cheese sandwich chased with a large Barq’s root beer, I was ready to tackle the photography. What we had seen on the hillside below the Restaurant was quite amazing. I had seen numbers of flowering orchid plants on the hillside in previous years, but not to the extent they were present this year:

Large population of Small Purple Fringed orchids

This is merely a small section of the hillside. This year, the plants were larger than in previous years, and I wonder what aspect of the weather controls the vigor of these orchids on Mt. Mitchell. The region had a very wet spring, but the previous winter was considerably milder. There was a hard freeze in very early May as is usual up there, but apparently not enough to do damage to the plants. In any case, they seemed to be very happy.

We spent a bit of time with the orchids on the hillside, but I really wanted to check out those that were farther up on the access road to the top of the mountain. There is one section of roadside that always provides good photography opportunity. This year was no exception. Although I still have not found the very elusive white form of this species on Mt. Mitchell, I was quite pleased with what we did find:

Small Purple Fringed orchid Small Purple Fringed orchid
Small Purple Fringed orchid Small Purple Fringed orchid
Small Purple Fringed orchid Small Purple Fringed orchid
Small Purple Fringed orchid Small Purple Fringed orchid

Small Purple Fringed orchid

Small Purple Fringed orchid

Wow! What a show this year! Now I’m convinced (as if I needed convincing) that I’ll be back again this time next year!

It was time to move on to our final set of stops along the Parkway. As I mentioned earlier, Platanthera grandiflora or Large Purple Fringed orchid is an elusive orchid. It does not provide large groups of plants, but rather single plants and groups of three or four scattered along the ditches at higher, north-facing roadside elevations. In past years, I’ve managed to find as many as 6 plants in bloom along a 10-mile (16 km) stretch. I figured that since we were just a bit earlier in the season than usual, any blooming plants we found should be in good shape.

We got to the first area where there are usually a couple of Large Purple Fringed orchids, but there were none to be found. They had not been mowed over — they just didn’t show up at the location this year. So, we drive a few more miles south to check on the next site. There, we found 5 blooming plants. And they were in great shape. I had to drive by them before I could turn around and find a suitable parking spot on the roadside. That is one problem with botanizing along the Parkway — parking. The roadside shoulders are very narrow and very deceptive. You might think there is solid ground under the edge of the shoulder, but as often as not, the shoulder slopes off at a steep angle although the grass is mowed at a consistent height — dangerously deceptive. I believe it was last year that one member of the park service mowing crew was killed when his mower slid off the shoulder and careened down the mountain. That almost happened to me and y SUV a number of years ago, but that’s a story for another time…

This group of Large Purple Fringed orchids was in perfect shape. As I have mentioned in previous blog posts detailing this species, the easy way to differentiate this species from the Small Purple fringed orchid is by inspecting the nectary opening, which is in the center of the flower. The Large Purple Fringed orchid flower will have a round nectary opening while the Small Purple Fringed orchid flower will have a barbell-shaped or pinched nectary opening. There are other differences such as the size and placement of the pollinia, but although it seems like it might be the case, the size of the flowers is not a good indicator of species. I did notice that the flowers seemed to be a shade or two lighter this year, but I could be mistaken.

Large Purple Fringed orchid Large Purple Fringed orchid
Large Purple Fringed orchid Large Purple Fringed orchid
Large Purple Fringed orchid Large Purple Fringed orchid

We were finishing up at this last roadside site when a couple of butterflies appeared out of nowhere. They were visiting the flowers for nectar and not spending much time on each flower before they flitted away. I’ve photographed an Epargyreus clarus or Silver-spotted Skipper pollinating the Small Purple Fringed orchid, but I had never seen a butterfly pollinate the Large Purple Fringed orchid. Due to the size and placement of the pollinia on the Large Purple Fringed orchid, only a large butterfly such as the Battus philenor or Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly would be able to transfer pollinia from one flower to another. I am loath to publish images that are of such low quality as the next one, but at least it demonstrates the active pollination strategy of this orchid species:

Pollination of Large Purple Fringed orchid by Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly

The butterfly was just too fast, and I was too slow to do it justice. Walter did get a much better shot of the same butterfly on another plant:

Pollination of Large Purple Fringed orchid by Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly

What I’m very pleased with, however, are some images of the resulting pollination:

Large Purple Fringed orchid after pollination by Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly

Large Purple Fringed orchid after pollination by Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly

If you look closely, you can see two important things: First, check out the pollinium on the right side of the orchid’s round nectary opening. It has become partially detached from its protective sheath. Once it is completely removed after being stuck to the butterfly’s proboscis, it faces forward so that it will come into contact with the flower’s stigma (receptive female part), which is just above the nectary opening. Looking even closer, you can see evidence of the crumbled pollen grains on the sticky stigma. Once the pollinium is removed from its protective sheath (they are situated on either side of the nectary opening), the waxy, cohesive pollen begins to loosen and crumble so that it can be placed on the receptive stigma. I think it is wonderful how orchids and their pollinators have evolved in such a way to be a win-win strategy for both parties! Here is a crude drawing I made of a pollinium with its important parts labeled:

Orchid pollinium

We ended up finding about a dozen blooming Large Purple Fringed orchids at those couple of sites along the Parkway. That’s a record for me! I’m happy to report that they seem to be doing fine. I wanted to check out one final site for this species. It was about 10 minutes farther south, so we packed our gear and headed down the road. When I neared the location, I could see that the tall berm on the side of the road where the orchids grow had recently been mowed. I’ve seen as many as a dozen orchid plants in bloom on this berm in the past. The only remaining blooming plant was an undersized one that had managed to escape the mower by growing in the ditch. I’m going to report my finding to the Park officials in hopes that the berm can be spared from close mowing in upcoming years.

Well, it was getting late in the day and time to head back to the cabin. On the way down to the last orchid site, I had seen a few plants that I suspected were Amianthium muscaetoxicum or Fly Poison, but I couldn’t be sure until I stopped and looked at them more closely. We arrived at the spot, and to our good fortune, there was an overlook pull-off just across the road from the plants. We parked, got our gear, and headed across the road:

Fly Poison plants beside the road

The flowers are held at the end of a 3-foot (1 meter) thin stem, and tend to sway in the slightest breeze. In order to get a close-up, I had to find a forked stick to stake the stem so that it wouldn’t move. Here is the result:

Fly Poison

All things considered, it was a great day for botanizing along the Blue Ridge Parkway. I will leave you with one last, cheesy shot of yours-truly amidst that large drift of Small Purple Fringed orchids… I just could not resist.

Jim in the orchid patch on Mt. Mitchell...

Until next time,

–Jim

15 comments


  • Ryan

    Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your forum….the photos of orchids are exceptional.

    Regarding your forum…I learned about this from Gary and Pamela Van Velsir. This is a great site! Keep up the good work.

    June 26, 2017
  • Dainty little things….just beautiful. You must have the most fun on your orchid adventures.

    June 26, 2017
  • Will Stuart

    Beautiful images, as always. Love the last shot!

    June 26, 2017
  • Chuck Ramsey

    Wonderful photos, as always. The macro shots of the Small Purple Fringed Orchids are amazing! Thanks for sharing.

    June 26, 2017
  • Spectacular! The small purple fringed orchids were especially beautiful. Thank you also for the educational text which helps us all learn.

    June 26, 2017
  • Penny Firth

    Super photos. And your writing is great too. My favorite nature blog.

    June 26, 2017
  • Rudy Riggs

    Thank you for sharing such excellent images of beautiful flowers that many of us just glance at as we travel the parkway. You live in my favorite part of the NC mountains.

    June 27, 2017
  • Karen S Lawrence

    I love seeing and reading about your flower adventures!
    Superb photography of these Purple Fringed Orchids, and the Fly Poison. I learn so much from your reporting and detailed photographs.
    Thanks so much!
    Karen

    June 27, 2017
  • Gena Todia

    What magnificent photography​. Your post makes me want to jump in the car and head for the Parkway. Thanks for sharing.

    I looked for Platanthera psycodes in bloom along the road to Mt. Mitchell last year with no success. Maybe I’m not looking in the right area? Are they along the paved entrance road between the parkway and the restaurant? Can they be seen from a vehicle?

    June 27, 2017
    • Jim

      Yes! There are not as many as last year along the road, but they are scattered in the ditch to the left as you drive in and before you get to the restaurant. There are some along the east edge of the restaurant parking lot, as well. Good luck!

      June 27, 2017
  • Gena Todia

    Doesn’t look like I can make it this season, but great to know for future trips. Thanks!

    June 27, 2017
  • Meng

    So happy to see there are much more Liparis loeselii this year!

    June 28, 2017
  • Becky Kessel

    So lovely- despite the connectivity issues, glad you found a way to share! We are headed to Cranberry Glades soon to see/photograph orchids there. There are 3 sections of the Appalachian Trail that have Platanthera orbiculata- was just on one of them Wednesday and finally caught them in bloom.

    June 30, 2017
    • Jim

      Wonderful, Becky! Wish I could have been there with you. You will absolutely love the Glades.

      June 30, 2017
  • sonnia hill

    Marvelous and gorgeous. I repeat Will’s comment: Love the last shot!

    July 01, 2017

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