Huge Triphora bloom cycle in the Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, North Carolina – 2017-07-27

I don’t usually sequence my blog posts out of order, but in this case, I’ll submit this one ahead of the one reporting a trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway I made the day before. I’m doing this because the intensity of this bloom cycle of Triphora trianthophorus or Three-birds orchid was so exceptional that I want to share it with you right away!

According to Wikipedia:

Triphora trianthophoros is a small, terrestrial, semi-saprophytic orchid. The showiest member of its genus, T. trianthophoros has 1-8 (often 3, thus the name) nodding flowers that are roughly 2 cm in size and sit atop stems 8–25 cm tall. Leaves are small (~1 cm X 1.5 cm) and typically dark green to purple. The orchid blooms from July through September, but is infamous for its elusive nature, with ephemeral flowers lasting for only several hours on a few days of the year. It has further been reported that populations across a region synchronize blooming on specific days, making observation of flowering specimens even more difficult. Several forms of T. trianthophoros exist, including forma albidoflava (Keenan) with white flowers, forma caerulea (P.M. Brown) with blue flowers, and forma rossii (P.M. Brown) with multi-colored flowers.

Three-birds orchid Three-birds orchid

Three-birds orchid Three-birds orchid

The “elusive nature” referred to in the above description is quite evident when one is looking for the flowers of this orchid species. As I have mentioned in previous blog entries in which this species is covered, the flowering follows a very unusual pattern:

Once the flower buds are “ripe” and ready to open, there must be a drop of 3-5 or more degrees (F) of the daily low temperature over two or more consecutive days to prepare the buds to open. Then, and only then, after another 48 hours, all of the “ripe” buds will open in the entire population. The flowers will begin to open about 9:00 am and remain open for about 8-9 hours. The plant usually has 3-8 buds, and as many as 4 can open on the same bloom cycle. The remainder will have to wait until addition bloom cycles which are controlled by the temperature regimen stated above. There are usually 3-5 bloom cycles in a flowering season, but the second one is usually the most floriferous.

The plants found in the Pisgah National Forest begin their bloom cycles around the last week in July, and the last seasonal bloom cycle can be as late as the last week in August. Over the past few years, the first bloom cycle has been shifted earlier in the year, probably due to global warming. There is always the chance that if the cycle moves back too far, the flowers will open and find that the pollinators have not yet hatched. That might spell the doom for this species. However, it is said by some that this species is autogamous (pollination of the ovules of a flower by its own pollen; self-fertilization), but I have witnessed small Halicted bees transferring pollen from one flower to another. See the following:

Pollination of Three-birds orchids by halicted bee

The common name, “Three-birds orchid“, probably arose because its upward-pointing flowers resemble baby birds waiting to be fed, as well as the habit of the plant to have three flowers open at one time. It is my observation that three or four flowers open at one time on a single plant is rather uncommon. Most of the plants I observe have only one or two open flowers.

The range of flower color at the Pisgah National Forest locations that I visit is quite remarkable. The petals and sepals can vary from pure white to light pink to a deep magenta; the lip being white with two or three central rows of green ridges. Those flowers having deep magenta petals and sepals are the least common, though, at least in these sites. This year, I was fortunate to find a couple of groups of plants with this contrasting color scheme. Here are some images of these flowers:

Three-birds orchid Three-birds orchid
Three-birds orchid Three-birds orchid
Three-birds orchid Three-birds orchid

Three-birds orchids with dark magenta petals and sepals

I did manage to photograph a few plants with three open flowers:

Three-birds orchid Three-birds orchid

Three-birds orchid plant with three open flowers

Three-birds orchid plant with three open flowers

After searching in an area of open woods that covered many acres, I was startled to find a large group of these tiny beauties. It is a rather rare occurrence at this site. I’ve seen it only on a couple of other occasions:

Large group of Three-birds orchids

Large group of Three-birds orchids

While I was photographing this large clump, a friend, with whom I’ve corresponded but never met until then, hooted at me from the edge of the woods. She asked if I was “Jim”, and of course I said, “Yes!”. It’s always fun to meet people in the field and find out that they are subscribers to my blog. We talked at length about the plants and other wildflowers in the area. When I had finished photographing this large clump, it was her turn to do the same. I know she appreciated the remarkable sight as much as I did.

Here are some additional shots of the many hundreds (maybe thousands) of flowering plants I saw on this trip:

Three-birds orchid Three-birds orchid
Three-birds orchid Three-birds orchid

Three-birds orchids

Three-birds orchids

Three-birds orchids

With so many blooming plants to choose from, I photographed only a few plants having a single flower. I didn’t realize it until I processed the image, but this one happened to have a hitch-hiker on the dorsal sepal:

Single flowered plant with a hitch-hiker

Finally, I’ll leave you with a shot showing that it is possible to photograph wildflowers without having to hike a long distance into the woods. The older I become, the more likely I am to choose roadside photography over long hikes. This small stretch of highway was one where I had photographed a couple of other orchid species in different seasons. Last fall, I was photographing a fall-blooming species when I happened to notice a lone Three-birds orchid plant in seed just next to the highway. I made a mental note to come back to the spot when the other Three-birds orchids were in bloom at the larger site, about 3 miles (5 km) away. Sure enough, I managed to find about a dozen plants in bloom – scattered along the roadside for approximately 10 yards (10 meters). Flowers in foreground; truck in the background…

Roadside botanizing

Stay tuned for a Blue Ridge Parkway wildflower blog report.

Until then…

–Jim

24 comments


  • tom sampliner

    outstanding Jim. Thanks for sharing and keep up the great photography

    July 28, 2017
  • Note the beech leaves in the foreground on that last photo (the one with the truck) – one of the elements of finding the Triphora.

    July 28, 2017
    • Jim

      In our area, unlike the northeastern populations, Beech is not an important factor. Perhaps it’s using a different fungus for nutrition – one that connects to a food source other than Beech.

      July 28, 2017
  • David White

    The image of the bee w/ pollinia is especially amazing! Of course I loved all the images and the range of colors shown. Thanks for sharing!

    July 28, 2017
  • Ryan

    These are superb photos Jim and I wish we had this species in Ontario.

    July 28, 2017
  • diane

    Amazing! And right on the road!!!

    July 28, 2017
  • Tom Patrick

    Best explanation I’ve heard for cues to flowering; explains why there are buds remaining after a burst of flowering….
    Absolutely beautiful photos; what colorful, fancy pollinia!!

    July 28, 2017
  • Gena Todia

    Jim, your photography is always amazing, but you’ve outdone yourself with these! Love this little orchid. I saw it for the first time about three years ago in Graham Co., NC. Thanks for sharing!

    July 28, 2017
  • Elizabeth Fox

    Spectacular!

    July 28, 2017
  • Daniel McClosky

    Thank you! Such an astonishing series of images.

    July 28, 2017
  • Appreciate the detail on flowering cycle. Isn’t it amazing what nature can do if we can just leave it alone!

    July 28, 2017
  • sam

    Bewitched, bewildered, besotted! Love these. As for the person from Ontario wishing they were there, well, they are, just not that many.

    sam

    July 28, 2017
  • Chuck Ramsey

    Beautiful photography, as always–We’ll check these out tomorrow morning! Thanks!

    July 28, 2017
  • Michael Drake

    Great pix! I am dying to catch one of these blooms. There has to be a place closer to Philadelphia than this!!

    July 28, 2017
    • Jim

      Check your local university herbarium for locations. It’s been reported from all over Pennsylvania. Good luck!

      July 28, 2017
  • Rudy Riggs

    As always, beautiful photography. Now I understand why I have never been able to see these beauties in person.

    July 29, 2017
  • Cathy Bloome

    Beautiful photos Jim! One of these years I hope I will be able to catch these in bloom.

    July 29, 2017
  • This reminds me of the time years ago when a ginormous mass bloom of spring coralroot orchid (Corallorhiza wisteriana) occurred on an Atlantic barrier island. I had been watching an occasional bloom appear there each year for a few years, and then the mass bloom happened. I bet there were a million coralroot flowers that week on that island. So, after reading your account of the Triphora mass bloom, and because I now live in the exurbs of the little town of Pisgah Forest NC (not the national forest), I grabbed my camera and wandered around my entire forested lot. Sadly, not a single bloom was spotted. But, I enjoyed the walk anyway. Thanks for your post.

    July 29, 2017
  • edward

    wonderful!

    July 30, 2017
  • Lee Casebere

    As always, Jim, great narrative and photography! Your photos are always wonderful!! Based on this blog, I checked temperature info and went to a reliable site today (Sun. July 30th) to see if any were in flower. I thought that perhaps yesterday would have been the day, and turns out it was since everything was recently “spent.” Same thing happened last year. The “method” is not 100% reliable for me!! All the best to you.

    July 30, 2017
  • Julie Carville

    Hi Jim,
    These orchids are fabulous. I am thrilled to know they exist.

    BTW, as far as I know the bee pollinators are always female.

    Your website is a joy, I can botanize here in the California’s high mountains and in your neck of woods at the same time! Thanks 🙂 , Julie Carville from Tahoe

    July 31, 2017
  • John

    Such beautiful writing and spectacular images!

    August 03, 2017
  • David Arbour

    Fantastic! Absolutely beautiful!!!! I missed the 1st bloom this year on ours over here in AR/OK area.

    August 03, 2017
  • John Neufeld

    I love your blog, but today you have out performed even yourself. The photos and commentary were both outstanding. Magnificent!

    August 03, 2017

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