More wildflowers along the Blue Ridge Parkway – Gentians and Spiranthes — 2017-09-29

I just returned from a wonderfully relaxing weekend in the mountains of North Carolina. The trip allowed me time to visit the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway, one of my favorite botanizing haunts. Recently, a friend, John Neal, had emailed me some locations for both Gentiana saponaria or Harvest Bells as well as Spiranthes cernua or Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchid, and I had hoped that they both would still be in good bloom on this trip.

Harvest Bells Harvest Bells

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchid

The site(s) for both of these species were only a half-hour or so from our mountain cabin, so it was not much of a jaunt to check them out. The first site was the Linn Cove Visitor Center, just north the intersection of Hwy. 221 and the Blue Ridge Parkway at Mile Marker 304.4. It’s a place I visit in the spring for the nearby, Liparis loeselii or Loesel’s Twayblade orchid. John had told me that the Harvest Bells would be found along the edge of the parking lot of the visitor center. When we arrived, I went into the center to ask about the Gentians, and while I was waiting to speak to one of the park officials, there was a lady already telling her that she was glad to see that the Gentians in the parking lot were so plentiful this year. Well, that got my juices flowing! When she finished her conversation, I caught up with her and asked about the plants. She pointed just across the parking lot to a center section with trees, and she said that’s where I would find them.

I proceeded back to the truck and gathered my camera gear. As I approached the edge of the parking lot, I could see dozens of deep cobalt blue flowers. But, it looked like we might have been a week or so late, since many of the flowers were already turning brown on the tips. I believe that the flowers that have been pollinated and are producing seed capsules turn brown shortly after pollination. In any case, I was determined to find some that were worthy of photography. Those plants along the edge of the wooded section were pretty much spent, but as I walked deeper into the woods, I began to see some that were in good shape.

As usual with this species, at least along the Parkway, there was quite a variation of color. Here is a selection of shots showing some of that color variation within this population at the visitor center:

Harvest Bells Harvest Bells

Before you say it, I know the one above right looks like it might be Gentiana decora or Showy Gentian, but a close examination of the calyx lobes tells me it is Gentiana saponaria — at least, I think so. These mountain Gentians are often puzzling to identify.

Harvest Bells Harvest Bells

The rich, cobalt blue color of these flowers is unsurpassed among any of the wildflowers I’ve ever seen.

We finished with the photography at the visitor center and headed north along the Parkway on a quest to find the Ladies’-tresses orchids that John had mentioned.

Camera geek stuff follows: Allow me to pause at this point to mention my new camera gear and some factors associated with my recent photography. As you probably are aware, I have ditched my old, heavy, old-fashioned Olympus E-5 DSLR for a new-fangled, mirrorless contraption known as a Sony a7rII. It is smaller and has a full-frame sensor, which gives me more latitude in composition of my close-up, macro shots. I’m still getting used to the settings and feel for the thing, and I’m sure I’ll be getting used to it for quite some time. The mirrorless part of it allows me to automatically see exactly what I’m shooting, especially helpful in determining dof (depth-of-field) and exposure levels.

In addition, there is a huge difference in the output of these cameras. The Olympus E-5 produced 12.3 megapixel images with an aspect ratio of 4:3, while the Sony a7rII produces huge 42.4 megapixel images with an aspect ration of 6:9. The aspect ratio is playing havoc with me in deciding how to portray the images in my blog. I used to have the ratios of 600×800 pixels or 450×600 pixels firmly set in my mind, but now I’m having to change that to 600×900 pixels and 450×675 pixels. This behind-the-scene wrangling may lead to some images with weird distortion if I am not careful. Let’s just see how it goes…

Just a bit farther up the Parkway, we reached the overlook that John had pointed out to us. Across the road, on a fairly steep hillside, we could see additional Gentians and Goldenrod species, ubiquitous along this part of the Parkway. After surveying the hillside a bit closer, I spotted a number of spikes of white flowers — the Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchids! Setting up the tripod on the steep, rocky hillside was a bit of a challenge, but I found a way to make it work without sliding back down to the road. Here are some shots of the plants at this site:

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchids

You will probably notice a difference in the shape of the flowers between the two images, above. I chalk this up to the remarkable variability in this species. Some of the flowers are simple in their structure while others are a bit more “flamboyant” with more pronounced curvature of the petals and lip. This will become more apparent with the flowers at our next stop. I didn’t ask John about the mowing, but apparently, the roadside had been closely mown a couple of days prior to our visit, because we found the evidence:

Evidence of a recently mowed roadside site for orchids

As I mentioned, there were Harvest Bells at this site, growing among the Ladies’-tresses orchids. These were lighter in coloration than at the visitor center site, but they still had that rich, cobalt blue color:

Harvest Bells

As John had mentioned in his email, down below the parking lot, were many more Gentian plants in full bloom — some with very light coloration and open flowers! It was a bit of a struggle to get to them because of the steepness of the slope, but I did not let this prevent me from getting a few shots:

Harvest Bells Harvest Bells
Harvest Bells Harvest Bells

We ended up spending a considerable bit of time at this site, drinking in the beauty of these colorful wildflowers. But it was time to continue our quest. I thought that with a sharp eye and a little luck we would be able to find additional Ladies’-tresses orchids. So we packed our gear and continued our trip north.

The speed limit on the Parkway is 45 mph (72 kph). So, this gives us ample opportunity to scan the roadside for interesting plants. I have to say that I’m pretty good at this. My pattern recognition skills have been honed from many years of traveling the roads and searching for orchids as I whizz by. Of course, there is always an impatient driver who crowds your rear bumper, anxious to pass, even though there is a double yellow line in the road for a large percentage of the entire length of the Parkway. There are scattered overlook areas and a few spacious road shoulders that are useful for fixing such a problem, so I ended up using this procedure to rid myself of these impatient drivers.

A couple of miles up the road from our last stop, I spotted a number of white spikes along the roadside. Fortunately, there was a wild shoulder to use as a pull-off. After getting my camera gear, I crossed the road to get a closer look. These beauties were some of the most robust of the Nodding Ladies’-tresses we had seen so far. A few of the plants were at least 15 inches (38 cm) tall, and loaded with luscious, waxy flowers. Here is a full-plant shot of the best one:

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid

If I were merely observing only the flowers, I would think that this might be Spiranthes odorata or Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid, but the narrow, grass-like leaves is a definite characteristic of Spiranthes cernua or Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchid — and a robust one at that! I spent a good amount of time with this one and managed to get a pretty decent close-up of the flowers. The lip is so thin, that you can easily observe its single-cell thickness in a close-up shot:

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid

There were a couple of other plants of a similar size nearby. Here is one of them:

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid

Note a misplaced yellow pollinarium perched on the dorsal sepal of one of the flowers on the above right image. I didn’t see this until I got home and downloaded the images from my camera.

We packed our gear and continued up the Parkway searching for more wildflowers. We were soon rewarded when I spotted a group of Harvest Bells on a roadside slope. These were just too good to pass up:

Harvest Bells

The color was just knock-your-socks-off blue! It was almost a fluorescent blue even though the sun was partially hidden by high clouds. What a sight! As I approached this plant, I noticed a small population of Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchids a few feet away – an opportunity not to be passed up:

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchids

Well, I had accomplished what I set out to do. I had photographed two iconic fall wildflowers found along the Blue Ridge Parkway and had learned a few things about my new camera system. It was time to head back to our mountain cabin.

At the intersection of the Parkway and Hwy. 221, our access point to the Parkway, I saw something I had missed on our trip up, and that was a mowed, grassy field with hundreds of tiny, Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchids! How could I have missed these? I must have had a narrow focus on getting to the visitor center and not looking along the roadside on our trip up. I must make a note not to let this happen again…

Anyway, here are a few shots of these beauties in front of a cliff face across the road:

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchids

Another successful wildflower adventure along the Blue Ridge Parkway! Thanks to my friend, John Neal, I now know of another couple of spots to remember for next year. On this day, the light was perfect, and the weather was mild. Overcast prevented us from taking some long-distant, wide-angle shots of the mountain views, but that should be coming up in a couple of weeks when the leaves turn bright red and yellow as they do every autumn. Here’s hoping I can make it back up there to catch the light…

–Jim

10 comments


  • Fantastic blue colour Jim. Just lovely.

    October 02, 2017
  • Lucy

    Amazing pictures Jim!

    October 02, 2017
  • Beautiful photos of plants from my two favorite families! Thank you once again.

    October 02, 2017
  • Patricia Walker

    I love seeing your pictures and reading about ‘the hunt ‘ as usual. We have our camper parked on some property my brother owns in Highlands. We came up yesterday and as we drove up to our camper there in ferocious us was a beautiful patch of ladies tresses. I’ve been coming to this property 20 years and have never seen them here. But I realized to that for most of those years the caretaker kept that area mowed. The tall gras has Ben annoying all summer, but now I’m grateful he never mowed the area. Now I have to figure which species it is.

    October 02, 2017
    • Jim

      From the pictures you sent to me, I’m pretty sure that they are Spiranthes cernua (Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchid).

      October 02, 2017
  • catherine elwell

    What delight you bring!

    October 02, 2017
  • Hi Jim – Great shots! It’s always nice to see someone else who appreciates the gentians.

    I’ve only ever photographed isolated populations in Northwestern Ohio and Southwestern Pennsylvania, but yours look really different from the G. saponaria I’ve seen before – much wider (and rounder) leaves and pointier flowers. Maybe G. decora or even G. austromontana?

    That said, our population of G. saponaria in SW PA used to be considered var. allegheniensis, differentiated by narrower than usual leaves, so I may have a screwy picture of the species in my head.

    October 02, 2017
    • jim

      Thanks for your input, Greg. I must admit that these mountain Gentians constantly confound me. I have made the best guess at the ID, but I could be wrong. I suspect that many Gentians that I come across are actually hybrids, because we have five or six species that bloom about the same time and in the same general area. I don’t think these are G. astromontana due to the fact that they are not puberulent anywhere although the leaves do have ciliate margins, but any other guess is certainly reasonable.

      October 02, 2017
    • Here’s a shot of our G. saponaria:

      http://www.pbase.com/hlpgtf/image/166261244

      October 04, 2017
  • Brian O'Brien

    Beautiful plants and fantastic photos. I’m a big fan of both gentians and orchids. My most recent combination is of Spiranthes magnicamporum (Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses) and Gentiana puberulenta (Downy Gentian) here in Minnesota.

    October 02, 2017

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