Part 1 of 2 – Orchids and wildflowers in the Pisgah National Forest – 2017-07-26

As I mentioned in my previous post about the Three-birds orchids in the Pisgah National Forest, I had been in the area the day before and had photographed wild orchids and other wildflowers in the Pisgah NF and along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. Today’s blog discussion will cover those species I saw and photographed in the Pisgah NF near Brevard, North Carolina.

Passing through the Pisgah National Forest on my way up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, I stopped to visit an area that is rich with Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis or Southern Slender Ladies’-tresses orchids as well as Platanthera ciliaris or Yellow Fringed orchids, both species growing within a few feet of each other along a half-mile (~1 km) of a gravel, forest service road. This year, the roadside grasses were especially plentiful, making it somewhat difficult to spot the delicate Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis hiding among the thick grass. Even so, there were more of this species than I had seen in previous years – many dozens. I may have missed a few of them, but the ones I saw were quite spectacular with their tiny, white, tubular flowers arranged in a vertical pattern along the slender stem. Right off, I spotted a bit of unusual color on one of the flowers. It was a crab spider, waiting patiently for a meal:

Southern Slender Ladies'-tresses orchid with crab spider Southern Slender Ladies’-tresses orchid with crab spider

Southern Slender Ladies'-tresses orchid with crab spider Southern Slender Ladies’-tresses orchid with crab spider

There were enough of this orchid species present, that I was able to see and photograph the full range of this species’ presentation of flowers along the stem. It ranges from almost secund (all of the flowers on one side of the stem) to tightly spiraling and everything in between. Here are two image perspectives of the same plant that shows the secund presentation:

Southeastern Slender Ladies'-tresses orchid Southeastern Slender Ladies'-tresses orchid

Those tiny orange thingies in the center of each flower in the image on the right are thrips, or tiny, sucking insects which, in large numbers, can do considerable damage to plants. In this case, they don’t appear to be doing anything but relaxing on the lip of the orchid flowers.

Next, we have the loosely spiraled orchid flowers:

Southeastern Slender Ladies'-tresses orchid Southeastern Slender Ladies'-tresses orchid

Then, we have more tightly coiled ones:

Southeastern Slender Ladies'-tresses orchid Southeastern Slender Ladies'-tresses orchid

And finally, the very tightly coiled ones:

Southeastern Slender Ladies'-tresses orchid Southeastern Slender Ladies'-tresses orchid

I know what you’re thinking at this point: Does the Coriolis Effect play a part in how the flowers coil around the stem? What? That’s not what you were thinking? Well you should have been… LOL! Apparently, it does not affect the direction of spiral in these plants. There seems to be an equal proportion of clockwise and counterclockwise spirals, at least in the plants I’ve observed at this location.

Nearby, I photographed a number of Platanthera ciliaris or Yellow Fringed orchids just coming into bloom. The large percentage of plants were still in tight bud, but several of them were in perfect bloom:

Yellow Fringed orchid Yellow Fringed orchid

Yellow Fringed orchid

Yellow Fringed orchid Yellow Fringed orchid

Yellow Fringed orchid

Across the gravel road at the edge of the woods were a number of plants with tiny white flowers. These were Euphorbia corallata or Flowering Spurge:

Flowering Spurge

Flowering Spurge

As I crossed back over the road, heading to the truck, I noticed some butterflies puddling for mineral nutrients at a puddling station. There were two distinct butterfly species here: Papilio glaucus or Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, and Battus philenor or Pipevine Swallowtail. Each of these species, by the way, is a pollinator of the Yellow Fringed orchid:

Puddling butterflies

Puddling butterflies

I finished with the photography at this location, packed up my gear, and headed back down the forest service road to the main highway which would lead me to the Blue Ridge Parkway. But first, I wanted to check on the status of the flowering of Triphora trianthophoros or Three-birds orchids that grows nearby. I had calculated that they would be in bloom tomorrow, July 27, but just in case… I should check on them now. As I suspected, they were in plump bud and quite ready to be opening in 24 hours. Here are a few images of what I saw:

Three Birds orchids Three Birds orchids

The following two shots show (left) the plump bud, from the side, with 24 hours to wait before opening. The rightmost shot, from the front, shows the open flower 24 hours later:

Three Birds orchids Three Birds orchids

And, of course, 6-8 hours after the flower opens, it will wither and not re-open. These are short-lived flowers with a strange but mostly predictable flowering pattern.

In the same general area, in fact just a few feet away, were numerous Tipularia discolor or Crane-fly orchids just coming in to bloom. This is a native species with a single, winter leaf. The leaf appears sometime in October when the leaves in the forest canopy are dropping. It manages to receive enough sunlight during the winter, when the light can filter down between the leafless branches, to produce enough energy for the plant to flower during the summer season.

This particular native orchid species is rather difficult to photograph properly due to several factors: 1. Its flower color blends in perfectly with the surrounding leaf litter. 2. Its flowers are all curiously tilted at strange angles on the stem. 3. Any breeze, even the slightest, sends the flowers weaving back and forth in the camera’s viewfinder. However, I managed to get a few fairly decent images of this interesting orchid species:

Crane-fly orchids Crane-fly orchids

In the rightmost image above, you can clearly see the sticky pad which is attached to the pair of pollinia at the end of the column. As I understand it, this orchid species has, as its pollinator, a night-flying moth. The flowers are supposed to have a nice fragrance, but only at night when the moth is out and about.

Crane-fly orchid

Finally, here are the flowers or Goodyera pubescens or Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchid. In the damp portions of the forest, there is found this orchid with a wonderful rosette of richly veined, evergreen leaves – another of our three native orchid species with leaves that survive the winter. The tiny white flowers are easy to spot against the dark brown colors of the forest’s leaf litter. Here are a couple of shots of the leaves and flowers of this orchid species:

Beautiful leaves of the Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchid

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchid Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchid

Time was wasting, and I had to get up the road to the Blue Ridge Parkway if I wanted any time to photograph the orchids and wildflowers along the way. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this day-long adventure in western North Carolina…

–Jim

11 comments


  • Amanda Rowe

    Are any of these flowers near Brevard at 276 and the Parkway? We haven’t seen any orchids but the Turk lilies are lovely in places. My husband found a beautiful specimen near The Skinny Dip overlook complete with butterflies.
    Beautiful pictures by the way!

    August 01, 2017
    • Jim

      Amanda, Part 2 will cover the Hwy. 276/Parkway portion of the trip. I did see many Turk’s-cap lilies, and, in fact, I believe I photographed the ones you mentioned at the Skinny Dip overlook.

      August 01, 2017
  • Ryan

    Great photos Jim, keep up the good work!

    August 01, 2017
  • Carol

    Could those thrips be polllinating the Sprianthes? It is not unheard of in other species of plants. Your images are breathtaking as usual!

    August 01, 2017
    • Jim

      Probably not, Carol. The orchid’s pollinia are about the same size as the thrip, and I doubt that one of them could carry it from flower to flower. Thanks for the good words!

      August 01, 2017
  • Becky Kessel

    Thanks for sharing- what a gorgeous collection of orchid photos. A feast for the eyes!

    August 01, 2017
  • tom sampliner

    Jim: is it known what attracts the thrips to the orchid flowers in the first place. is it pheromone? Could that possibly signify a historic role the thrips might have played in being a former pollinator?

    August 02, 2017
  • Phil Draper

    You are obviously in the right place at the right time. Awesome. Nature is your friend. (Me, too.)

    August 02, 2017
  • Penny Firth

    Wonderful photos and narrative. Coriolus effect made me laugh!

    August 03, 2017
  • Kenneth Hull

    Jim, I have read for the 10th time Philip Keenan’s Wild Orchids Across North America: A Botanical Travelogue. If you were to put your website articles in hard copy, I’d be the first to buy one. Your pictures and stories are wonderful and worthy of seeing and reading over and over. Thank you for allowing me to visit your website. Ken

    August 03, 2017
  • Bob Curry

    Your plant photos are the absolute best Jim and an inspiration. My wife Glenda and I just returned from a two-day trip to Michigan where we photographed two lifers – P. ciliaris and T. trianthophora. We loved our experience and our souvenir photos but yours are nonpareil.

    August 03, 2017

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