Final visit to the Three-birds orchid location near Brevard, North Carolina — 2017-08-02

So many of you, dear readers, have asked me about my Three-birds orchids bloom predictions that I thought I’d give you a brief lesson. Please remember that this is not a perfect way of predicting the bloom. Although it has worked for me about 95% of the time, it may not work that well for you. So, here goes:

I did not come up with this scheme. I believe the original “discoverer” was the late Philip (Phil) E. Keenan, author of Wild Orchids Across North America – A Botanical Travelogue (1998, Timber Press). He was a resident of Dover, New Hampshire. I was never fortunate enough to meet Phil, but he is highly regarded and loved by everyone I’ve spoken to about him. I have modified his scheme to work for the Three-birds orchids in my area of the Carolinas. Here is what works for me:

Look for a two-day (or more) consecutive drop in the day’s low temperature (usually early each morning) of 3-5 degrees (F) or more. 48 hours after this, all of the “ripe” flower buds in the entire population will open. I mention “ripe” as a term to refer to plump, upright buds showing either white or some pink color around the edges. If the buds hang down or are still green, then they are not “ripe”.

Here are a couple of examples of “ripe” buds that opened the next day:

Ripe Three-birds orchid buds

Ripe Three-birds orchid buds

For my temperature measurements, I use one of several amateur weather station reports (showing daily values) that can be found in the online web site called, Weather Underground. The particular weather station I use is, which seems to match up well for my purposes. For your own purposes, you should choose a station that more closely represents the actual weather data in the area where the plants are found. On the web page, there is a summary table of data that shows, among other values, the Daily Low Temperature. Each day, I copy the value and plot it on graph paper. This is the graph for 2017, from July 12 through August 5:

Graph of daily low temperatures Graph of daily low temperatures

I realize that this looks a bit messy; my working graph has only the data points on it, but I have gussied up the graph by adding features to show you some of the things to look for in the data. For one, the green rectangles pretty much outline the temperature ranges that we are interested in. You will note the drop in daily lows followed by 48 hours to show the bloom event. You will also note that it is not always exactly a measure of 2 day’s drop in daily low temperature. If the measure of daily low temperatures drops precipitously, let’s say by 15 degrees (F) or more, then it may still be dropping when the flowers bloom. Usually, though, the scheme works as in the green rectangle labeled “Cycle 2”.

My experience shows that the second cycle in the season produces the largest number of open flowers. I have shown the bloom day events with + symbols signifying the intensity of the bloom; +++ being the largest. Keep in mind that on any given day before or after the bloom event, there may be one or two flowers open in the population — those that didn’t get the email… Life is not perfect.

The temperature predictions told me that August 2 would be a bloom day for Triphora trianthophorus or Three-birds orchids in the Pisgah National Forest. It had been 6 full days since there was a bloom cycle in the area. Sometimes, as many as 10 days to two weeks go by before the plants will flower again. The most recent cycle (the 2nd of a possible 4 or 5 cycles) was by far the largest of the season with about 75% of the plants showing open flowers. Today, about 15%-20% of the plants were in bloom. I know all of this appears fairly technical, and it is. It’s important for me to know when to expect the flowers, because the bloom site is about 1 hour 45 minutes from my home. Although there are other subjects to photograph in the Pisgah NF, I had set out with the intent to see the Three-birds orchids one last time for the season.

The drive north was uneventful. A good sign was my seeing a fairly heavy overcast sky. This overcast scatters the light and reduces the chance for strong light with harsh shadows. I parked along the highway near the site and gathered my camera gear. I had walked just a short distance when I saw the first of the flowers. Yes! I always do a mental fist pump (sometimes a physical one if no one is around to see me) when the plants I came to photograph are cooperating.

Wasting no time, I walked into the open woods and set up my camera and tripod in front of a plant with two open flowers:

Three-birds orchids Three-birds orchids

I cleaned up the background a bit and re-shot the scene. Here is the same group with the modified background. Apparently, I had brushed against the flowers, because this image shows them closer together:

Three-birds orchids

Enough of that… Let’s see some more orchid flowers. It didn’t take much time for me to find a good-sized group of flowering plants. The flowers were positioned so that I could photograph them from different perspectives and choose the best result:

Three-birds orchids

Three-birds orchids

In these and some of the subsequent images, it is easy to pick out the spent flowers from last week’s major bloom cycle. They are already forming seed capsules.

Here is a close-up of a portion of that same group:

Three-birds orchids

Three-birds orchids Three-birds orchids

Three-birds orchids

I didn’t see any of the dark pink ones on this trip. The flowers were mostly white with some pink blush on the petals and sepals:

Three-birds orchids Three-birds orchids

I wanted to check out an area back down the road about 1/10 mile (160 meters) where I had seen the orchids bloom in prior years. This area is somewhat different from the “classic” site in that the ground is partially covered by Diphasiastrum digitatum or Ground Cedar. So, instead of providing a brown background full of dead leaves, the background would contain mostly green colors. Here are some of the results:

Three-birds orchids and Ground Cedar Three-birds orchids and Ground Cedar

As I was finishing up and preparing to head back to the truck, I spotted an unusual group of blooming orchids blooming in the distance. I headed over and set up my camera gear for these final shots:

Three-birds orchids and Ground Cedar

Three-birds orchids and Ground Cedar

I thought this would be my final shot until I left the woods and began walking back toward the truck along the highway. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted this final, classically flowering Three-birds orchid plant with the requisite 3 flowers:

Three-birds orchids

I have previously posted the above image on Face Book, but I wanted to include it here in this blog report along with the other flowering plants I saw on this trip. It epitomizes the species with perfect composition as well as three flowers on a single plant — a sight not often seen even in a bloom cycle of thousands of plants.

This last shot shows a lone Three-birds orchid flower nestled in the depth of the leaves of Ground Cedar:

Three-birds orchids and Ground Cedar

Right now, I’m already looking forward to next year’s bloom cycles. It seems that they are coming earlier and earlier each year, probably due to climate change. Until last year, I don’t think I saw any open flowers until the first week in August…



  • Virginia Craig

    Thanks Jim for that wonderful explanation and fantastic shots. Particularly like the large grouping as well as the trifecta.

    August 05, 2017
  • Charles Garratt

    Great shots, Jim!

    I found a small population in bloom on August 3 here in Bath County. It was a new location for Bath, and an unexpected treat.

    I always enjoy your post. One of these days, I’d like to get south and join you on one of your sojourns.


    August 05, 2017
  • Don Hunter

    Wonderful images, Jim! With Bruce Robert’s help, I became a big fan of the TBOs this summer. We were mildly successful at finding and shooting them at the Coweeta Lab, in Otto, NC. LIke you, I’m already looking forward to next year’s experience.

    August 05, 2017
  • Marie Dufault

    New knowledge! Did not know this species existed. I appreciate the Orchid Society & their links to your beautiful images. Thank you.

    August 06, 2017
  • Helen

    A wonderful show of these beauties JIn

    August 06, 2017
  • sonnia hill

    I think my mouth was hanging open the whole time while looking at such perfect flowers and photos. Need to fave a few in flickr. Love your work.

    August 06, 2017
  • Karen S Lawrence

    Absolutely gorgeous images of the Three Bird Orchids!

    August 06, 2017
  • Ros

    Jim – Thanks for sharing your wonderful photos. My favorite it the triple bloom. I have not seen that yet and hope to next year! Thanks for the detailed information on blooming cycles.

    August 06, 2017
  • John Neufeld


    August 07, 2017
  • Meng

    Wonderful shots and great study! Thank you for showing the plot

    August 09, 2017
  • Daniel McClosky

    Thanks for the peek at your notebook! Such fantastic images.

    August 09, 2017

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