Summer wildflower adventure along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina — 2017-07-04

There is never a dull moment for anyone travelling during any season on the Blue Ridge Parkway. My intended goal on this brief trip was to photograph the flowering (I hoped) of an orchid that I had seen a week before beside a trail just off the Boone Fork overlook. This overlook allows easy access to several wonderful hiking trails in the area. The particular orchid I was revisiting, Platanthera orbiculata or Pad-leaf orchid is quite rare in the Carolinas, having its southernmost range just into the high mountains of North Carolina. It is more commonly found in each of the states bordering Canada, from Maine to Minnesota. As I have mentioned in previous blog entries, the high mountains of the Southern Appalachians provide remnants of the flora that existed before the last ice age, especially at higher elevations. Many species along the peaks and ridges of these mountains, are commonly found much farther north and into Canada.

Back to the orchid in question… I was anxious to photograph it, IF it was now in flower. Because I am not intimately familiar with this orchid species, I did not know how long it would remain in bud. But first, I had to get there. The past few days had been spent in our mountain cabin which is, fortunately, only about 40 minutes from the trailhead.

I got an early start, about an hour after sunrise, and headed to the intersection of Hwy. 221 and the Blue Ridge Parkway. One I reached the Parkway, I headed north, with the thought that I might very well be disappointed. Just after I joined the Parkway, I passed an overlook that offered a great view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the Southern Appalachian Mountain range. From this overlook, it is easy to see why they are called the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s also easy to see how the Smoky Mountains got its name, as well. Here is that view:

Blue Ridge Mountains Blue Ridge Mountains as seen in early morning from the Blue Ridge Parkway

As I drove to my destination, I was making mental notes of other colorful wildflowers I was seeing along the way so that I could stop to photograph them as I was backtracking. I really needed to get to the orchid site before the sun rose too high, because there would be harsh, dappled light to deal with, and I wanted no part of that.

In no time, I reached the Boone Fork overlook and saw that I was the only one in the parking lot. Great! No other hikers asking me questions about the rare orchid I was photographing. When that happens, I usually say that I’m just photographing wildflowers, and they usually nod and continue up the trail. So, I gathered my gear and headed up the trail. After being on the trail for a few minutes, I had to make a mental note to photograph the view from beneath the bridge that I had to cross to reach the orchid. The lighting was pretty good, and I wanted to try for a decent shot from under the bridge.

The trail was wet and muddy from the deluge we had the previous night, but I was determined to reach my goal. As I rounded a corner, I was stopped in my tracks by a large deer in the middle of the path. I’m not sure which of us was more surprised. Of course, it took off before I could retrieve my camera. But it was nice to come that close to a beautiful creature that somehow manages to avoid the local hunters.

As I continued up the trail, I looked under the branches of the large Rhododendron maximum or Rose Bay Rhododendron for the diminutive Appalachian Twayblade orchids that I had photographed the week before. Sure enough, I saw a number of them hiding in the dark, damp recesses next to the trail. But, I must not be diverted from my goal.

When I got close to the orchid site, my heart was racing — mostly from the steep climb, but also from being anxious to see if the orchid was in flower, while also hoping that no unknowing hiker had plucked it from beside the trail. There it was, although wringing wet and dripping rain water, all 18 inches (45 cm) of it was in perfect form:

Pad-leaf orchid in full bloom

Pad-leaf orchid in full bloom

Pad-leaf orchid in full bloom

The mountains do not give up their treasures easily. So as soon as I began photographing this special beauty, it began to rain. The weather report had predicted a 30% chance of precipitation, so I guess I hit the middle of the 30%. But that was OK, actually, because I had reached my goal. Naturally, after I had finished my photography and packed my camera gear, it quit raining, but the overhanging tree limbs began to shed extra rain drops when the wind picked up. I was wet, but I was happy!

Down the trail I plodded, dodging puddles of mud and slippery rocks. Something white poking out of the leaves on the forest floor caught my eye. It was Monotropa uniflora or Indian Pipes also known as Corpse Plant. According to Wikipedia, “Unlike most plants, it is white and does not contain chlorophyll. Instead of generating energy from sunlight, it is parasitic, more specifically a myco-heterotroph. Its hosts are certain fungi that are mycorrhizal with trees, meaning it ultimately gets its energy from photosynthetic trees. Since it is not dependent on sunlight to grow, it can grow in very dark environments as in the understory of dense forest. It is often associated with beech trees. The complex relationship that allows this plant to grow also makes propagation difficult.” A very interesting plant, for sure:

Indian Pipes Indian Pipes

While I was contorted like a pretzel under the Rhododendron branches photographing the Indian Pipes, I spotted some groups of a very tiny fungus growing on a dead limb. I thought these were pretty neat, but unfortunately, I don’t know their identification. I’m sure one of my knowledgeable readers will, though. Here are a couple of images of these tiny fungi:

Unidentified fungus Unidentified fungus

Update 2017-07-06: One of my dear readers has offered an educated guess as to the identity of the fungus: “The mushrooms appear to be in the Marasmiaceae, perhaps Marasmius sp. (pinwheel mushrooms). They shrivel up when it is dry, and reconstitute when it rains.” From the pictures available on the Internet, I believe she is correct. I’m thinking that they are Marasmius rotula. Thanks!

I finished with these strange specimens got back on the trail and finally, I reached the bridge. I calculated that I would not have soft light as nice as was before me if I waited until another visit. There was an “unofficial” path that wound down just past the edge of the bridge and, in places, the path became a large expanse of wet, mossy rock. As I get older, my balance seems to forsake me, so I was extremely careful as I descended toward the creek. Once at the creek, I knew that I would have to jump from large boulder to large boulder to reach the center of the creek. On that last jump, my boot hit a spot of wet moss and down I went, landing on my butt! I was OK, my padded camera bag took most of the blow, but I looked around to see if anyone had seen my clumsy attempt to reach the center of the creek. Recovering somewhat, I set up the tripod, fixed the camera on top, and took a couple of shots. Here is one I liked:

Bridge over Boone Fork Creek

I managed to get back onto the trail without any additional embarrassing moves, and I made my way back to the parking lot. By then, there were about a half-dozen cars in the lot, but I don’t remember passing but a couple of hikers on my way back down the trail. Anyway, I packed my gear in the truck and continued north for a couple of miles to another overlook where I have seen orchid species along the mossy bank next to the Parkway. As I turned into the parking lot at the overlook, I spotted a large Platanthera lacera or Ragged Fringed orchid in the center of the ditch. I wasted no time in parking the truck and retrieving my camera gear. Crossing the road, I saw that the orchid was, in fact two plants which were growing just next to each other. Here are some images of the two specimens:

Ragged Fringe orchids

It’s easy to see how it got the common name of Ragged Fringed orchid

Ragged Fringe orchid Ragged Fringe orchid

After photographing the two orchid plants, I walked the edge of the road to see what else I could discover. At the end of the embankment, there was a large Rose Bay Rhododendron branch bending down and touching the ground. It had two large clusters of pink and white flowers at the end of the branch. This, I thought, deserved a photograph:

Rose Bay Rhododendron

It was now time to head back to the cabin. Fortunately, I remembered where I had seen several other worthy wildflower specimens that I wanted to photograph. The first of these was directly across from another overlook, but I failed to record the name. Finally, here was something with a bit of color beside green and white. The clumps of bright red flowers of Silene virginica or Fire Pink were some of the largest I’ve ever seen along the Parkway. They were absolutely amazing, and I would have had to be almost blind not to have seen them. These belong to the same family as carnations, and would be worthy to be growing in someone’s garden:

Fire Pink

Fire Pink

Heading farther south, I spotted some tall spikes of Lilium superbum or Turk’s Cap lily. These 8-foot tall (2.5 meter) beauties vary in color from almost yellow to a vivid orange and sometimes scarlet red. The ones I photographed were a vivid orange with traces of red toward the tip of each petal and sepal. Wow! What an excitingly beautiful wildflower:

Turk's Cap lily Turk's Cap lily

Each of these flowers has a green stripe at the center of each petal that forms a green “star”. That’s the defining characteristic of the species when it is in bloom.

Turk's Cap lily showing green stripe in the center of each petal

Turk's Cap lily Turk's Cap lily

Turk's Cap Lily

A short distance down the road, I found a large population of Asclepias syriaca or Common Milkweed. The large, round flower clusters produce a heady fragrance that attracts bees, beetles, and ants. This plant is also a favored food source for the larval stage of Danaus plexippus or Monarch Butterfly. The following image shows only a small portion of the population of plants:

Common Milkweed

Common Milkweed Common Milkweed

Common Milkweed

In the ditch across the road, were a number of bright yellow, Impatiens pallida or Pale Jewelweed also known as Pale Touch-me-not. It got this latter common name because of the explosion of the ripe seed capsule when it is touched. It can throw seeds up to 6 feet (2 meters) away from the parent plant. This one is very difficult to photograph if there is any breeze at all. So the passing vehicles made for quite a challenge. I did manage to get a couple of shots, though:

Pale Jewelweed Pale Jewelweed

As I continued my trip back to the cabin, I spotted some tall plants with white flowers, growing on the roadside embankment. These turned out to be another Milkweed, Asclepias exultata or Poke Milkweed. The common name comes from the similarity of the large leaves to those of Phytolacca americana or Pokeweed also known as Polk sallet or Polk salad. This species of Milkweed also is the larval food source for Monarch Butterflies. Although not quite as showy as some of the other Milkweed species, it has its own special beauty:

Poke Milkweed Poke Milkweed

Poke Milkweed

Whew! Another great photography day just full of surprises. I wonder how many people pass by these wonderful plants and are impressed by their beauty. Not that many, I suspect. However, I’m grateful for the The Works Progress Administration which did some roadway construction; crews from the Emergency Relief Administration who carried out landscape work and development of parkway recreation areas; and personnel from four Civilian Conservation Corps who worked on roadside cleanup, roadside plantings, grading slopes, and improving adjacent fields and forest lands. Work on the Blue Ridge Parkway began in 1935 under the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, but the Parkway was not dedicated until 1987 when the amazing Linn Cove Viaduct was completed. The Blue Ridge Parkway will probably never be considered as “completed”, but what a wonderful way to spend a day or a week or just a few hours, enjoying the flora (and sometimes the fauna) along America’s longest National Park.



  • Ryan

    Great photos Jim….keep up the good work!

    July 06, 2017
  • David White

    Outstanding!! Thanks for sharing!!

    July 06, 2017
  • Liz

    Jim, what an amazing report you have given us! I feel as though I was with you the entire day – including the familiar step on wet rock and smack your bottom part :-). Glad you and the camera survived. Your photos are absolutely stunning and your narrative makes me ready to hit the road once more just to see what treasures are hiding in plain sight!

    July 06, 2017
  • Penny Firth

    Wonderful post and photos!
    The mushrooms appear to be in the Marasmiaceae, perhaps Marasmius sp. (pinwheel mushrooms). They shrivel up when it is dry, and reconstitute when it rains. See:

    As with so many mushroom groups, morphology-based IDs are undergoing changes as DNA evidence accumulates.

    So glad you were not hurt in your slip!

    Best wishes, Penny

    July 06, 2017
    • Jim

      Thanks for the educated opinion. From the link you provided, it looks like you must be correct. I know next to nothing about fungi, so I really appreciate your input.

      July 06, 2017
  • Hugh Nourse

    Wow! Stunning as usual. Your photo technique and craft are outstanding.

    July 06, 2017
  • Rudy Riggs

    Thank you!

    July 06, 2017
  • Beautiful words and photos! I’m glad you found your orchid in flower too.

    July 06, 2017
  • Kathy Murray

    Fabulous photos. Thanks for sharing.

    July 06, 2017
  • Meng

    The Blue Ridge picture is amazing! I also found some pad-leaf orchid in Shenandoah NP the past weekend but your shot is way prettier!

    July 06, 2017
  • Becky Kessel

    I saw dozens of Platanthera orbiculata last weekend- their range extends down to Yancey County NC- but I have never seen the Ragged Fringed Orchid. Wow- that one is spectacular and your images are gorgeous! Sounds like you are loving the cabin and being close to such beauty.

    July 06, 2017

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