The Blue Ridge Parkway – Part 1 of 2 – Late Summer color — 2017-09-02

This is the time of year when we are all getting ready for fall. But in the meanwhile, we should not ignore the late summer color that is quite amazing. My good buddy, Alan Cressler, resident of Atlanta, Georgia called a few days ago and asked if I would show him the location of a particular Clubmoss, Dendrolycopodium hickeyi or Hickey’s tree-clubmoss. He has been wanting to photograph that species for years, and had not had the opportunity to locate it. I knew of a sure location for it, so I said, “Yes!”. Of course, I would never turn down a trip to one of my favorite places, The Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina.

For the time being, I am going to put off our search for the elusive clubmoss and point my attention to the other things we saw on that day-long trip – ones that add that late summer splash of color to the scenery. The Clubmoss search will be detailed in Part 2 of 2.

We began our trip by driving from my house in Greenville, South Carolina through northern Greenville County on our way to the Parkway. My preferred way of getting there is to pick up Hwy. 276 and head to Brevard, North Carolina – gateway to the Pisgah National Forest. Driving Hwy. 276 would take us by a roadside waterfall called Wildcat Wayside Falls. It is directly next to the highway and is a favorite of locals, and it is one of the very few waterfalls that is wheelchair accessible. We stopped in front of the falls and took a few shots of the cascades. The amount of water running over the falls varies considerably depending upon the rainfall in the preceding week. We had experienced a thunder-storm the day before our visit, so at least the falls were not as dry as they sometimes are. Here is my shot from in front of the falls:

Wildcat Wayside Falls Wildcat Wayside Falls

We did not linger long, because we had a drive of 2 hours ahead of us with a few planned stops before we reached our final destination. Although the drive up the Blue Ridge Escarpment was rather uneventful providing very few opportunities for photography of rare wildflowers, we both enjoyed the drive since it took us through a part of the Carolinas that is one of the most beautiful — winding mountain roads covered with a canopy of green leaves.

In no time (it seems) we reached Brevard, North Carolina and the gateway into the Pisgah National Forest. I had told Alan about last year’s find of Spiranthes ovalis var. erostellata or October Ladies’-tresses orchid along the Davidson River. The location had been provided to me by friend who lives in the area. So we parked the truck on a pull-off by Hwy. 276, gathered our camera gear and made our way to the path by the river. I was able to go directly to the spot where I had photographed the orchid last year – it was not far from the highway. However, there were no October Ladies’-tresses orchids to be found on this trip! We searched and searched, but still could not find them. But, all was not lost. While looking for the orchids, we found a downed Liriodendron tulipifera or Yellow Poplar aka Tulip Poplar which had been infected by a strange-looking fungus, Chlorociboria aeruginascens or Blue Stain Fungus. I am given to understand that it is not rare, but the presence of its fruiting bodies is rather rare. I’ve seen the “blue stain” in some wooden bowls that have been fashioned from the infected wood. I always believed that the wood had been dyed in some fashion after turning, but now I realize that it was all just a natural effect. Here is a shot of the half-inch (~10 mm) fruiting bodies of this Blue Stain Fungus:

Blue Stain Fungus on downed Yellow Poplar

I also had another surprise for Alan. On last year’s visit, I had located several sites along the river for Corallorhiza odontorhiza or Autumn Coralroot orchid. The odd thing about these particular plants (for me, anyway) is that many of the plants produce open flowers. Generally speaking, those Autumn Coralroot orchids in our region do not produce open flowers. The flowers never open (they are cleistogamous) and are self-pollinating, requiring no pollinator to produce seeds. There is a variety of this species that always produces open flowers, and it is called, Corallorhiza odontorhiza var. pringlei or Pringle’s Coralroot orchid, but it does not make it down into our area. I’m not quite sure if these open flowers on “our” orchids actually invite pollinators or if this is some rather odd mutation of an otherwise closed flower system. I saw no pollinators on this visit, but that is not unusual. In any case, here are some images of these orchids:

Autumn Coralroot orchid

Autumn Coralroot orchid Autumn Coralroot orchid

Autumn Coralroot orchid

Autumn Coralroot orchid

There was also a small population of plants with reddish stems and some red in the expanding seed capsules. Note that these plants produced only closed flowers:

Autumn Coralroot orchid Autumn Coralroot orchid

While we searched for additional orchid plants, we saw a number of strange-looking, leafless plants that turned out to be Epifagus virginiana or Beech Drops. These wiry plants are actually parasites which grow on the roots of Fagus grandifolia or American Beech. There were many American Beech growing along the river bank, so I should not have been surprised to find this beautiful parasitic plant. Most of the plants had not begun to bloom, but we did manage to find a couple of plants with open flowers:

Beech Drops Beech Drops

We finished photographing the orchids and made our way back to the truck. I had two other places I wanted to stop before reaching the Parkway. The first one was just up the road a bit, so we reached it quickly. I wanted Alan to see the tiny Geranium thunbergii or Thunberg’s Geranium. From a distance of 6 feet (~2 meters) they merely look like simple white flowers, but up close, they are quite lovely with their pink stigmas and blue stamens. The veins in the petals are a shade of lilac. Here are a couple of shots of these beauties:

Thunberg's Geranium

Thunberg's Geranium

The second spot was where I had photographed some rather robust Autumn Coralroot orchids last year. We made it to the area and parked in a pull-off a short distance from the orchids. Upon reaching the roadside site, we found that there were only a handful of plants, and those were rather puny. I did photograph one, though, which was growing just next to a couple of Triphora trianthophorus or Three-birds orchids, one of which was sporting a seed capsule:

Autumn Coralroot orchid and Three-birds orchids

So, we got back into the truck and headed up Hwy. 276 to where it connects with the Blue Ridge Parkway. From that point, it’s a wonderful drive, any time of the year in any direction. We turned south, heading toward the area where the Clubmoss was growing. Since I’ll be covering this part of the trip in the next blog entry, I’ll move on to the next stop along the way — a few miles farther along the Parkway. But before I do so, I will show a couple of early blooming Gentianella quinquefolia or Stiff Gentian. As expected, we found many plants that were still in tight bud, but we did find two plants that were in full bloom, showing off their rich, purple flowers:

Stiff Gentian Stiff Gentian

From there we drove directly to what was to be our final stop. The Wolf Mountain Overlook provides habitat for several rare species. It is a tall, vertical cliff face that is constantly dripping wet from seepage runoff. Here is a shot of a portion of the wet cliff face I took several years ago:

Vertical wet cliff at Wolf Mountain Overlook

Many of the plant species somehow manage to find a tenuous foothold in the cracks in the rock face. Those that cannot do so, grow in the shallow ditch at the foot of the cliff face. Here is where we find the endemic, Gentiana latidens or Balsam Mountain Gentian. The large majority of the plants were in tight bud, so we were fortunate to find one group of plants in full bloom. The color of these 1.5-inch (3.75 cm) flowers is difficult to describe in words. So, I will introduce you to them with some images:

Balsam Mountain Gentian Balsam Mountain Gentian
Balsam Mountain Gentian Balsam Mountain Gentian

Another beautiful wildflower species which grows in the shallow ditch is Chelone obliqua or Red Turtlehead. Its flowers resemble the head of a turtle, so….. This is not an uncommon plant species, but its presence at the foot of the cliff certainly adds a welcome splash of color to the dark rock. We were fortunate to find some plants in bloom because we were just a bit early for peak bloom. Here are a few images of the flowers:

Red Turtlehead Red Turtlehead

A few months ago, I photographed a very rare species for the area at this location: Triantha glutinosa or Sticky Tofieldia. It is found in only a couple of counties in the mountains of North Carolina. It is more commonly found in the states surrounding the Great Lakes. On this visit, all of the plants were forming seed capsules — all but one plant which obviously had not gotten the message. It was in perfect bloom. We didn’t find it until Alan had photographed the plants that were in seed. How lucky for him! Here is that plant:

Sticky Tofieldia

While we were photographing some of the plants in the shallow ditch, Alan found some carnivorous plants growing on the cliff face: Drosera rotundifolia or Round-leaf Sun Dew. How this plant manages to hold on to the wet, vertical rock is beyond my imagination. Yet, there they are. Here are some images of a few of those plants:

Round-leaf Sun Dew Round-leaf Sun Dew

Round-leaf Sun Dew

We were just about ready to leave, when we saw a bright orange critter attempting to crawl up the wet, rocky, cliff face. Alan knew exactly what we were looking at: Notophthalmus viridescens or Red-spotted Newt:

Red-spotted Newt

It was getting late, and Alan had a couple of hours to drive even after we returned to my house. So we turned the truck around and headed north where we would eventually pick up Hwy. 276. But as fate would have it, Alan spotted a streak of blue as we passed it at the posted speed of 45 mph (72 kph). So, I turned around at the next overlook, which was around the next curve. I drove back to the spot, which was another wet cliff face, although much smaller than the one at Wolf Mountain Overlook. What he had briefly seen was a very dense growth of Balsam Mountain Gentian growing in and among a thick growth of Red Turtlehead! It was getting late, and light was fading fast, so we rushed to get our camera equipment out of the truck and across the road to the cliff face. We both used hand-held flash for fill light; otherwise, we would not have been able to take suitable images. Here are some of the images of this spectacular group of plants:

Balsam Mountain Gentian and Red Turtlehead

Balsam Mountain Gentian Red Turtlehead

As you can see in that shot on the upper right, there is a caterpillar munching on the Red Turtlehead flowers. If you, dear reader, know the identification of the caterpillar, please leave a comment with the answer.

Update, (2017-09-04): One of my astute readers reports, “the caterpillar is actually a Sawfly, a Hymenopteran rather than a butterfly or moth. Check out Tenthredo grandis. Sawfly larvae can be recognized by having 6 or more pairs of abdominal prolegs (the fleshy-looking legs). Caterpillars never have more than 5 pairs.

However, what excited me the most, was a strange swarm of plants that had flowers of an unknown color form. I am used to seeing Impatiens species as shown below:

Impatiens capensis Impatiens pallida Impatiens pallida forma speciosa

The identification from left to right is Impatiens capensis, Impatiens pallida, and Impatiens pallida forma speciosa.

However, what we were seeing could only be explained by hybridization between the species. I have not heard of this happening… Here are some shots of these strangely colored flowers:

Impatiens color form Impatiens color form
Impatiens color form Impatiens color form

Impatiens color forms

This last image was posed by me. I had taken one of the plants and draped it over another so that the flowers would be next to each other.

What a day! By the time we got home it was way past dark, and I felt bad that Alan wouldn’t be getting home until around midnight. But we were both glad we had stopped at that last place. I was pleased that Alan had happened to see the blue flowers as we passed by the wet cliff face. I’m still quite puzzled at the wild color forms of a rather common wildflower. Maybe one of my knowledgeable readers will have the answer…

Until next time when I will reveal Part 2 of this adventure,

–Jim

17 comments


  • Katherine Miller

    God, this is fun!!!
    You take us along with you, practically!
    And I really appreciate it.
    What an extraordinary range of colours and forms.
    I will say that that colour, the blue of the Gentiana latidens makes something go ka-thunk inside of me.
    Thank you.
    Katherine

    September 03, 2017
  • Susan

    Thank you for sharing these beautiful pictures. I don’t understand why some of the orchids that were there last year are gone this year? Poachers?

    September 04, 2017
    • Jim

      Susan, that’s just the way some orchids work. They may stay underground for several years, building up energy to bloom again. It takes a lot of energy to produce flowers, and some of them can’t do it year after year without taking a break. I’m not worried — they will be back again…

      September 04, 2017
  • Lucy

    Amazing pictures Jim! I’ve never seen impatiens those colors either. How fascinating!

    September 04, 2017
  • Chuck Ramsey

    Thanks for sharing–beautiful photographs, as always. We stopped at Wolf Mtn overlook yesterday with hopes of finding a few Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia grandifolia). A display about 20′ above our heads held over fifty blooming plants–easily the biggest patch of the flowers we’ve seen. Also noted Sundews, Balsam Mtn Gentian, Red Turtlehead, but missed the Tofieldia.

    September 04, 2017
    • Jim

      The single blooming plant we saw was considerably farther south from the overlook, proper, but still at the base of the wet cliff face.

      September 04, 2017
    • Mary Douglass

      Chuck, walk further down the Parkway (south) to see the Tofieldia. We also missed it despite many stops at Wolf Mountain overlook, but reading Jim’s blog inspired us to search a little further! There’s actually a lot of it there.

      September 04, 2017
  • Shelley

    My thanks as well for your wonderful work in words and pictures. After each post I am newly inspired to tread more slowly and look more carefully. Enjoy the coming of autumn.

    September 04, 2017
  • Sharon Johnson

    Thank you, again, for taking me along on your trip. I know the Wolf Mountain Overlook well for its seep and the wonderful flowers and carnivorous plant one can find there. But your photographs are SO far superior to mine! LOVE the jewelweed photos!
    Keep up the good work! I hope you know how much enjoyment you are giving others, like me!

    September 04, 2017
  • Mary Douglass

    Jim, the caterpillar is actually a Sawfly, a Hymenopteran rather than a butterfly or moth. Check out Tenthredo grandis. Sawfly larvae can be recognized by having 6 or more pairs of abdominal prolegs (the fleshy-looking legs). Caterpillars never have more than 5 pairs.

    September 04, 2017
    • Jim

      Thank you so much for the ID! I just knew one of my smart readers would know the answer!

      September 04, 2017
  • Gorgeous! I especially love the salamander.

    September 04, 2017
  • Another superb collection of pictures. Good to just read about your trip.

    September 04, 2017
  • Nancy Yudell

    So wonderful to get to go on this adventure vicariously. The photography is superb and your eye for detail tremendous. So glad I’ve been included on your discoveries.

    September 04, 2017
  • Karen S Lawrence

    I thoroughly enjoy seeing these photos and hearing about your adventures looking for plants. Right after I read this I went on a trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway and drove the Heintooga Road and could not believe that I found a decaying branch with that same Blue Stain Fungus! I would never had known what it was if I had not just read about your trip so thanks!
    Karen

    September 05, 2017
  • tom sampliner

    another superb account of your botanical travels with the expected outstanding photographic images. Wish I could have been there with you guys.

    September 06, 2017
  • Gayle

    The common name Red Spotted Newt is really the terrestrial subadult stage called an” eft” of the aquatic Eastern Newt (Notophthalmun viridenscens).This is according to the book
    “Amphibians and Reptiles of the Carolinas and Virginia” by Jeffery C. Beane, Alvin L. Braswell, Joseph C. Mitchell, William M. Palmer, and Julian R. Harrison III.
    I saw several red “efts” while taking summer classes for science teachers from the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences. The eft will return to water to live when it becomes an adult.

    September 07, 2017

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