The Green Swamp Preserve — Native Orchids and other Wildflowers, Brunswick County, North Carolina — 2017-08-13

The second part of this most recent weekend photography trip took me to one of my favorite spots: The Green Swamp Preserve in Brunswick County, North Carolina. It is comprised of around 16,000 acres of longleaf pine savannahs, dense pocosins, and flatwoods swamps. On this trip, I was joined by my good friends, Kelvin Taylor and Jackie Tate, both from central North Carolina. This meet-up has evolved into an annual event around mid-August of every year when the fringed orchids come into bloom. The previous day found me about 2 hours southeast in the Francis Marion National Forest where I spent the day photographing summer orchids and other wildflowers. You can access the blog report for that leg of the trip HERE.

The day began with a rather cloudy sky — good for photography. Kelvin, Jackie, and I met at the fire tower on Hwy. 130 just east of the sleepy coastal town of Shallotte, North Carolina. Just a short walk down the roadside, and there we found hundreds of Platanthera conspicua or Southern White Fringed orchids. Depending on the mowing regime, these beauties show up every year around mid-August. Last year, the entire roadside was mowed in late July, so no orchids could be found. Obviously, last year’s late mowing didn’t prevent the orchids from putting on a gorgeous display this year:

Southern White Fringed orchid Southern White Fringed orchid

Usually, the plants are widely scattered in a large area along the road in a natural depression, but this year, we found this group of 8 flowering plants in a nice tight clump:

Southern White Fringed orchids

There were hundreds of single plants scattered about, so we spent the better part of an hour choosing the best of the bunch to photograph. This is not as easy as it sounds. We were looking for plants with mostly perfect flowers, and those plants that still had a few unopened buds left at the top. Some of the plants we found were quite small — they will probably be larger next year. All of the plant photography required a bit of “landscaping” or moving the grass and other vegetation away from the flowers for a better presentation. Some people consider this as not being natural, but even Ansel Adams did it for much of his macro photography, so it can’t be too bad, right?:

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

Southern White Fringed orchid

It’s rather difficult to get a wide-angle shot of the population, but here are two attempts:

Southern White Fringed orchids on the roadside

Southern White Fringed orchids on the roadside

There were many more plants in this population than those that show up in these two photographs, but they were not visible at longer distances because of the grass and other vegetation. Here are shots of Kelvin and Jackie shooting pictures of the fine display of native orchids:

Kelvin shooting the orchid group

Jackie shooting a picture of Kelvin

And here is another shot of that group of 8 plants:

Large grouping of Southern White Fringed orchids

We also saw a number of flowering plants of another white wildflower: Sabatia difformis or Lanceleaf Rose Gentian.

Lanceleaf Rose Gentian Lanceleaf Rose Gentian

We finished with the roadside photography and decided to head on over to the Green Swamp Preserve which was about 30 minutes away. We arrived and parked at “the pond”, a sandy parking area built for the hikers and photographers who frequent the area. The pond is actually a large borrow pit that is now full of water. We were quite relieved to see that the parking area had been spruced up a bit by adding gravel next to the road so that the large drop-off was no longer present.

We parked, gathered our gear and headed south along Hwy. 211 to the gate for Big Island Savannah. The walk is pretty nice, because there is always something interesting to see along the way. This time of year, there are some nice Asclepias or Milkweeds blooming on the roadside. In past years, depending on how zealous the mowing crew has been, we have seen numerous hybrid plants in the area. This year, we saw only a single hybrid: a cross between Asclepias rubra or Red Milkweed and Asclepias lanceolata or Few-flowered Milkweed. Here is a shot of the hybrid:

Hybrid Milkweed

And here is a shot of one of the putative parents, Asclepias lanceolata or Few-flowered Milkweed:

Few-flowered Milkweed

Soon, we walked around the gate and down the sandy logging road to the savannah. Here is a shot showing the longleaf pines and wiregrass that make up Big Island Savannah:

 Big Island Savannah

We were more than relieved to see that the savannah had been burned most likely in late winter or very early spring — perfect for the orchids! The Aristida stricta or wiregrass was in great shape and not so dense that the orchids would have a time at penetrating the ground cover. We could actually see the orchid spikes just above the wiregrass. That is always a welcome sight!

Yellow Fringed orchids in the wiregrass on Big Island Savannah

This is a shot of Kelvin working on one of the many Yellow Fringed orchid plants:

Kelvin photographing some of the many Yellow Fringed orchids on the savannah

The Yellow Fringed orchids were scattered all about and were quite visible as we walked out onto the savannah. But what I was looking for was Gymnadeniopsis integra or Yellow Fringeless orchid. This species is quite rare in the Carolinas, but where it is found, it can be considered locally abundant. Big Island Savannah is ground zero for this species in North Carolina. As we wandered out into the center of the savannah, we began to see the little yellow “torches” which told us that this diminutive orchid was indeed blooming this year. Keep in mind that the entire plant is less than 12 inches (30 cm) tall, and the cluster of flowers is only 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) tall. Here is a selection of shots of the Yellow Fringeless orchids we saw on Big Island Savannah. You will notice that each image has a green background. That is because the plants are nestled deep within the wiregrass:

Yellow Fringeless orchid Yellow Fringeless orchid
Yellow Fringeless orchid Yellow Fringeless orchid
Yellow Fringeless orchid Yellow Fringeless orchid

Yellow Fringeless orchid

There were other wildflowers on Big Island Savannah besides the orchids. We found three species of Meadow-beauty: Rhexia mariana or Pale Meadow-beauty, Rhexia alifanus or Smooth Meadow-beauty, and my favorite, Rhexia petiolata or Fringed Meadow-beauty:

Pale Meadow-beauty Smooth Meadow-beauty Fringed Meadow-beauty

There was one other rare flowering plant that we saw on Big Island Savannah, and that was Pleea tenuifolia or Rush Featherling. Although it is rare, it is also locally abundant. This means that when you find it, there will be many, many plants. It can be found only in a very narrow strip running from southeastern North Carolina into eastern South Carolina, and from the western panhandle of Florida westward into southern Alabama. On this trip, I found a single plant in bloom, and that plant had only one open flower:

Rush Featherling

Now, it is time to get back to the orchids. We were seeing hundreds, maybe thousands, of Platanthera ciliaris or Yellow Fringed orchid. It was difficult to decide which plants to photograph because there were so many. Here is a selection of some of the better ones we saw:

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

Yellow Fringed orchid

While finishing up with the photography of the Yellow Fringed orchids and preparing to pack it up for the day. I spotted one of the rare hybrids between the Southern White Fringed orchid and the Yellow Fringed orchid: Platanthera Xlueri or Leur’s Fringed orchid. This particular plant was not robust as were the putative parents, but it was a sight to behold, nonetheless:

Leur's Fringed orchid

It exhibits all of the intermediate morphological characteristics of both parent species as well as a pleasing, creamy white color.

Another fine day out in the field with two good friends and plenty of beautiful wildflowers. Can’t get any better…

I have a surprise trip report in store for you later this week. Stay tuned for a western native orchid species that is new to my photography gallery. I can hardly contain my excitement at the prospect of this up-coming field trip!

–Jim

8 comments


  • Ben R

    that’s just incredible. Wow!

    these have to be some of the most spectacular native orchids there are.

    August 15, 2017
  • Max Smith

    Incredible photographs as always. Especially loved the macros and the wider view of the wiregrass and pines. A quite different environment than I see in my neck of the woods.

    August 15, 2017
  • Wayne Roberts

    love your shots. wish we were there.

    August 15, 2017
  • David Berry

    Thank you, Jim! It’s wonderful to see what you discovered at Green Swamp in August after my visit there in early May. It’s quite a different spot this time of year and I’ll be sure to come later in the summer next time around.

    August 15, 2017
  • Skip P

    Ah, wonderful! So glad to see the place in such great shape. The P. xleuri is amazing.

    August 16, 2017
  • sonnia hill

    Like Ansel Adams, I do a lot of prep of the surrounding area before taking a photo 🙂 Every one of your photos is so gorgeous, but I repeat myself.

    August 18, 2017
  • John Fowler

    Such lovely pictures!

    August 28, 2017
  • Such an awesome place! I was able to go a few weeks after you did, and I saw some of the same stuff. Your photos are fantastic!

    September 07, 2017

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