Summer bloom in the Francis Marion National Forest, Berkeley County, South Carolina — 2017-08-12

This past weekend, I made my annual mid-summer trip down to the Francis Marion National Forest, Berkeley County, South Carolina. It is a huge area (250,000 acres) on the South Carolina coastal plain, habitat for some of the best longleaf pine savannahs in the state. For that reason, there are myriad wildflowers and orchids inhabiting these savannahs and surrounding swampy pocosins, and I’ll present some of them to you in the following report.

I got a reasonably early start to the trip and drove the requisite 4 hours to my first stop off of Steed Creek Road. There was some expectation for bad weather, but for the most part, it was just cloudy until late afternoon. That’s a good thing, though, because clouds diffuse the sunlight and make for better photography.

Steed Creek Road splits the National Forest down the middle from north to south. I made my way down one of the well-known, gravel, forest service roads and noticed that there had been a large, prescribed burn in the recent past — I’m guessing in June. This is very good for the habitat, but not so good for orchids. That is just about late enough to keep them from blooming this year. The savannah I was driving through is one of the best down there for the fringed orchids: Platanthera ciliaris or Yellow Fringed orchid and Platanthera cristata or Crested Fringed orchid. From what I could see, there would not be any in bloom, at least in this spot, this year. Bummer… But there was a lot more area to cover; in addition, a ride through the forest under any circumstances was always a good thing.

I made my way around to the intersection of another well-known forest service road where I thought about checking on the presence of a very rare orchid, Gymnadeniopsis integra or Yellow Fringeless orchid. I haven’t seen it in bloom at this spot for a number of years, but I always look for it there every summer season. I parked nearby and gathered my gear. There has been much rain in the area all summer long, so I put on my rubber calf-high boots and crossed a water-filled ditch to the area where there are generally a number of wildflowers in bloom this time of year.

The first wildflower I saw was Lilium catesbaei or Catesby’s Lily aka Pine Lily. Because of the fact that it grows down in the savannah grasses, it is hard to spot unless you are right up on it. This lily is about 5 inches (12.5 cm) across and 12 to 15 inches (30 to 37.5 cm) tall, and is an unbelievably striking scarlet color. There were about a dozen plants in flower, and I proceeded to photograph a few of the best of them. Here is one of those images:

Pine Lily Pine Lily

Here’s a closer shot showing more petal detail:

Pine Lily

A few steps away were numerous groups of a carnivorous Pitcher Plant called, Sarracenia minor or Hooded Pitcher Plant. This particular species is quite common in parts of the National Forest along with several other Pitcher Plant species:

Hooded Pitcher Plant Hooded Pitcher Plat

There was also an odd-looking plant with a white “ball” on the end of a 12-inch (30 cm) long stem. This is Eriocaulon decangulare or Pipewort, Bog buttons, or Hat pins. The little, white “ball” is made up of hundreds of very tiny flowers that can be seen only close up:

Bog Buttons or Hat Pins

There were also other white flowers known as Rhexia mariana var. exalbida or White Meadow-beauty. Normally, I see this one as the typical, rosey-pink form, but this one was pure white – quite lovely:

White Meadow-beauty

This was turning out to be a good stop, after all. In great abundance was the low-growing, Polygala ramosa or Dwarf Milkwort. Its bright yellow flowers will remain on the stem but turn a dull blue-green upon aging:

Dwarf Milkwort

Another plant in large numbers at this site is Marshallia graminifolia or Barbara’s Buttons. BTW, I have no idea who Barbara was… These generally prefer wet places (which this definitely was) and can be found commonly in ditches and depressions:

Barbara's Buttons

Barbara's Buttons

I finished my photography and crossed the water-filled ditch on my way back to the truck. However, I noticed a tall plant with lots of flower clusters growing next to the water. I knew the plant was a mint of some sort — the flower shape and the square stem gave it away. I soon identified the plant as Hyptis alata or Clustered Bushmint. The plant is almost 4 feet (1.2 meters) tall and grows quite thickly next to the water:

Clustered Bushmint Clustered Bushmint

Also, just beginning to bloom (the flowers open from the top downwards on the thin stem), was Liatris spicata var. resinosa or Blazing Star. This is another wildflower that is quite common to the National Forest.

Blazing Star Blazing Star

Can you find the tiny, translucent spider in the above right image?

Finally, to wrap up this prolific wildflower spot, there was a brightly colored wildflower, swaying to and fro on a very tall and very thin stem. This is Asclepias lanceolata or Few-flowered Milkweed. The lance-shaped leaves give it the epithet, “lanceolata”. This is one of those wildflowers which is hard to miss when driving down those gravel forest service roads. Close by were some seed capsules of this species which were losing their seeds. This species blooms from early until late summer, providing splashes of color along the roadside:

Few-flowered Milkweed flowers Few-flowered Milkweed seeds

Next, I headed to my favorite spot for Platanthera conspicua or Southern White Fringed orchid. This particular orchid blooms in a damp depression next to a small stretch of one of the secluded forest service roads. I’ve been photographing it or its ancestors for almost a decade. About every three years or so, this area is set ablaze with prescribed burns which reduce the woody growth and other vegetation that competes with the slow-growing orchid plants. Without these prescribed burns, it would be a matter of only a few years when the orchids would be squeezed out of their tenuous foothold.

I arrived to find about a dozen plants in stages from loose bud to full, open flowers. It’s quite a sight to see — these snow-white flowers nestled among grasses and fern fronds. Here are a few images of the Southern White Fringed orchid:

Southern White Fringed orchid

Southern White Fringed orchid Southern White Fringed orchid
Southern White Fringed orchid Southern White Fringed orchid

On the other side of the narrow, forest service road, I could see some glimmer of a bright, golden-yellow flower which I knew would be Platanthera cristata or Crested Fringed orchid. I found this particular site quite by accident a few years ago while hunting for additional Southern White Fringed orchids. There were about two dozen plants in flower in the very wet depression, but only a few of them were fit for photography. The rest had reached their peak bloom more than a week prior. Here are a few of the images I made of this orchid species while getting my feet wet and swatting at hordes of hungry mosquitos:

Crested Fringed orchid Crested Fringed orchid
Crested Fringed orchid Crested Fringed orchid
Crested Fringed orchid Crested Fringed orchid

Crested Fringe orchid

Last year, when I made my visit to this region, I had a bit of difficulty finding Platanthera ciliaris or Yellow Fringed orchid, the most frequent one to bloom in the National Forest. It is the last of the three to bloom, and it seems that I am always a bit early to catch many of them in bloom. This year was no different. I had driven down one of the main roads that runs east to west, and had seen a few that were still in tight bud. There was one area, especially, that will be fantastic in another week or so, but that’s the way things work out. Here is a shot of this fairly dense stand of Yellow Fringed orchids next to the road:

Yellow Fringed orchids in bud

However, there is one area where they do tend to open earlier, so I headed to that spot. I did find about a dozen of them in perfect bloom:

Yellow Fringed orchid Yellow Fringed orchid
Yellow Fringed orchid Yellow Fringed orchid
Yellow Fringed orchid Yellow Fringed orchid

Yellow Fringed orchid

An unusual orchid species, and one with very small, oddly shaped flowers, can be found in the mucky recesses of Wambaw Swamp, down a remote forest service road and deep into the woods. This place had the most dense population of blood-sucking mosquitos that I have ever come across — much more fierce than any swarm I’ve met up with anywhere else in the country. So, I donned my mosquito head net and prepared to meet the enemy. Off I slog through calf-deep water and muck to an area that is only slightly raised from the surrounding swamp. Here, along the edges of pools of standing water, can be found Malaxis spicata or Florida Adder’s-mouth orchid. As with our other Malaxis species, the flowers are exceedingly tiny, less than 1/8 inch (~3 mm) wide. I had mentioned earlier that the day was cloudy, but now, I was hearing thunder approach, and I didn’t wish to be in the swamp when the storm struck. So I went directly to the last place where I had seen this species in flower, and sure enough, there was a single plant in bloom. Except for the two, glossy green leaves, this plant is terribly difficult to spot:

Florida Adder's-mouth orchid plant

Florida Adder's-mouth orchid Florida Adder's-mouth orchid

Unfortunately, I had time for only this one plant, because the storm was upon me. I packed my gear and made it back to the truck with no time to spare. I wish I could have stayed for more of this species, but it was getting late, and I had to move on. My itinerary included the night in a motel just east of the Green Swamp Preserve, where I would be meeting up with a couple of friends who are also nature photographers. More about this in my next installment coming soon.

On the way out of the National Forest, I had to pass by a spot I call my “George and Erica site”. This is where I discovered another good location for Platanthera cristata or Crested Fringed orchid while showing them around the National Forest a couple of years ago. During that field trip, I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of some golden-yellow flowers next to a swampy area beside the road. As I am wont to do, I slammed on the brakes, giving them quite a scare. I pulled off on the side of the road, and told them I had just discovered another great site for Crested Fringed orchid. Here is the throw-back shot I took of them posing beside the orchid plants:

George and Erica beside the orchids

On today’s trip, there were not as many plants in bloom due to the rather heavy undergrowth, but I did get a few good shots:

Crested Fringed orchid Crested Fringed orchid
Crested Fringed orchid Crested Fringed orchid

All in all, I’d say I had a pretty good day. I was tired and a bit wet from the sprinkle I received at the last site, but I got to see and photograph what I had hoped to see. The wildflowers, orchids especially, are never in the exact same place you saw them last. Sometimes, they are not there at all, and I’m often caught wondering if they are gone for good. Most of the time, they are just taking a break from putting on their spectacular show. And those that don’t show in a particular year are replaced by those which had already rested a year or two. I’m forever grateful at any showing of a family of plants that, although very plentiful worldwide, are always in peril at any location. They are generally slow-growing and don’t deal well with vegetative competition, not to mention rampant poaching and habitat degradation. But, today was a good day…

Stay tuned for the next part of this adventure at a familiar site just up the coast — The Green Swamp Preserve.

–Jim

8 comments


  • David Arbour

    Fantastic shots of fantastic flowers!

    August 14, 2017
  • Carol

    Enchanting! Thanks for “taking us along”!

    August 14, 2017
  • Very nice collection, thank you for sharing.

    August 15, 2017
  • David White

    Thanks for sharing these great images of beautiful plants without the mosquitos!

    August 15, 2017
  • Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous! My old stomping grounds.

    August 15, 2017
  • Greg Peters

    As always, Jim. I really enjoy your blog. The photos are amazing and as informative as your descriptions. Keep up the great work!

    August 15, 2017
  • sonnia hill

    Found the translucent spider in your Liatris spicata var. resinosa photo. Such gorgeous Platanthera spp. and other bog plants. I love the paleae on the Marshallia graminifolia.

    August 15, 2017
  • John Fowler

    Excellent, as usual.

    August 28, 2017

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