Impressive display of Spiranthes (Ladies’-tresses orchids) in the North Carolina mountains — 2017-10-04

In keeping with my most recent post showing Gentiana and Spiranthes species along the Blue Ridge Parkway, I will be showing you some more (in fact, a lot more) Spiranthes images.

In an email a few days ago, a good friend, Rosemarie Knoll, happened to mention that the Spiranthes were blooming in the parking lot of the Cradle of Forestry interpretative Center off of Hwy. 276 in the Pisgah National Forest north of Brevard, North Carolina. If you have been following my posts for any length of time, you will know that the Pisgah National Forest continues to fascinate me with its many orchids and other wildflowers in season. Well, this happens to be the season for Spiranthes or Ladies’-tresses orchids.

Turns out, Rosemarie doesn’t use hyperbole in her communications, but she should have. When I arrived at the entrance gate, I informed the attendant that I had come to photograph the Spiranthes flowers on the margin of the parking lot. He said, “Oh, you mean those little white flowers?” I indicated what I was referring to by pointing to a couple of flowering plants on the shoulder of the access road just next to his gate shack. I had reached for my wallet to give him the $5 entrance fee, when he told me that I could go ahead without paying. I gladly thanked him and proceeded to the parking area, noticing the patches and groups of Spiranthes cernua or Nodding Ladies’-tresses along the way.

However, I was mouth-agape to see the huge numbers of flowering plants as I pulled into the first available parking space! There were thousands of flowering plants all along the grassy berms that separated different sections of parking area. It is difficult to show a wide-angle shot of such a display, but here is one attempt:

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

This is a close-up of one of the Ladies’-tresses orchid plants:

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid

The parking area is quite large, and these orchids were scattered in drifts on the grassy edges of every available open space. Thankfully, they had not mowed those areas, so the display was quite wonderful. Rosemarie has since emailed me to say that they used to mow the grassy areas. They were quite surprised to see what came up this year when they didn’t mow it. Whew! I hope they continue not mowing…

I gathered my camera gear and set about finding a position for attempting to photograph the drifts of orchid flowers. The day was bright and sunny, so the result was not the best I could have imagined, but here are a few wide-angle shots that show the plants in situ:

Nodding Ladies'-tresses in parking area

Nodding Ladies'-tresses in parking area

Nodding Ladies'-tresses in parking area

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

While I was photographing some single flowering stems, I was fortunate enough to capture the visitation of what I believe is an Apis mellifera or Honey bee:

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid with Honey bee Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid with Honey bee

I am more than a little bit curious about this for a couple of reasons. First, there is no free pollen with this orchid species. Rather than the pollen being dust-like, it is compact and waxy, and it is contained in structures that are called pollinia. Although the body of the bee appears to be dusted with pollen (probably from the myriad asters in the vicinity), none of this could have come from orchids. It did not seem to be daunted by the effort, though. It visited a number of the flowers on this particular inflorescence before heading over to another one. Second, its small proboscis seems incapable of reaching far enough into the flower to sip any nectar that would be present. This is all rather puzzling to me. In the past, I’ve seen large Bombus species or Bumble bees as well as several butterfly species visit these orchids. In fact, on this trip, I did witness a couple of Agraulis vanilla or Gulf fritillary butterflies make brief visits to the flowers, but I was not quick enough to capture the visit. I do know that the Bumble bees are pollinators, because I’ve seen them with pollinia attached to their proboscis, but I’m doubtful that either the Honey bee or the butterfly could be considered pollinators. Here is a shot of a Bumble bee with attached pollinia captured while visiting a Spiranthes cernua. Following is a shot of a Gulf fritillary on Spiranthes cernua:

Bombus pollinator on Spiranthes cernua

Gulf fritillary on Spiranthes cernua

Here are a few additional shots of the Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchids:

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

That last shot on the above right shows some of the vehicles in the parking lot.

After spending a couple of hours at this very special location (thanks for the heads-up, Rosemarie), it was time to head on up to the Parkway. I was not expecting to see any better than what I had already seen, but there were a couple of spots that I wanted to visit if nothing more than to check to see if they were still producing orchid flowers. In short order, I entered the Parkway and headed north to my first stop.

I have to mention, at this point, that a good deal of the roadside shoulder has been mowed rather recently. I figure that they are making it “pretty” for all of the fall foliage visitors that will be coming to the Parkway soon. It seems to be spotty though, because continuous swaths of the roadside were still in great shape for hosting the orchid bloom. A few of the areas where I had seen orchid flowers in the past were mowed to within an inch of their life, and I was disappointed to see it like that. I’m not faulting the mowing crew — it’s their job. Another way to look at it, I suppose, it that these Ladies’-tresses orchids do best when the area is mowed and not allowed to become thick with other vegetation. The timing is often wrong, though. It’s a conundrum with no obvious solution. However, there are so many roadside sites up there for these orchids, that it’s not a problem to find them. The problem is finding a safe place to pull off the Parkway in order to photograph the flowers! I sometime have to walk a half mile (800 meters) or more back to a site where I spotted the flowers along the road.

‘Nuf said about that!

It was a bright, sunny, blue-bird day — great for the grand vistas but not so great for macro photography. I did the best I could under the circumstances. I arrived at Big Ridge Overlook just in time to have to wait for a parking space because of all of the hikers who were meeting here for a foray onto one of the many trails that are available on the Parkway. After finally finding a parking space, I made this shot of the view from the overlook:

View from Big Ridge Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway

From the parking area, I walked north just a short distance to an open meadow-like expanse to the west of the Parkway. Here, thanks to my friend Jim Petranka, I know that there are many Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchids in years when the area is not mowed. Last year, it had been mowed when they were in spike and just before the orchid flowers were to open. Dang! I found many flowering stems scattered on the ground. This year, however, the plants were in great shape, although not as large as in previous years. I think the recent drought might have something to do with that.

One of the reasons I like this site particularly is because it produces flowering stems where the flowers are in vertical “ranks” rather than spiraling around the stem. Here are some examples of this:

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

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid

This odd morphology occurs in just a small percentage of the population at any one site, but I find it quite interesting. While I was photographing these “ranked” flowers, they were visited by a Bombus species or Bumble bee that was intent in getting all it could from the flowers — visiting each one, from the bottom flowers to the top ones on each rank:

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid with Bumble bee Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid with Bumble bee

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid with Bumble bee

I did not manage to capture this one with pollinia attached to its proboscis, because it had learned to quickly brush it off after visiting each flower.

I’ll leave you with one final shot. As I was heading back south along the Parkway and to the intersection with Hwy. 276 which would take me home, I rounded a curve and spotted this sight on the edge of the road. There was another vehicle that was on my tail, so I had to drive another half mile (800 meters) before I could find a place to turn around and head back to the location. I pulled off on a wide shoulder, got my camera gear ready and positioned myself and the tripod on the edge of the road. While I was shooting this image, several cars slowed down, their drivers probably wondering what in the world this idiot was doing on the side of the road! Too bad that they will never know the answer to that question and will never appreciate what wonderful natural beauty the Parkway offers — if they would only look down instead of admiring the vistas in the distance… Of course, it’s fine that the Blue Ridge Parkway manages to offer something beautiful for everyone.

Roadside orchids

Until next time,



  • Penny Firth

    Excellent photos of very beautiful orchids. I’ve never seen so many in one place!

    October 05, 2017
  • Ryan

    Unreal Jim!

    October 05, 2017
  • Bob & Amy

    Magnificent Jim. Great work as usual. Coincidentally, we just had a “Spiranthes moment”, also. Driving down the Eastern shore of MD and VA we came upon blooming roadside Spiranthes in an area where we knew them to occur. Mowing is a big factor there as well. The
    plants nearer to the road had been cut but closer to the
    woods we found large, dense (30-50 stem) clumps of “giant” Ladies’ tresses. The spikes were 12-15 inches tall but the individual flowers were huge (more than 1/2″ long) with an intense vanilla fragrance. I’d call them S. odorata but I understand the powers that be have backed off that as a species and call it simply a variety (i.e. part of the cernua complex). What’s your take ??

    October 05, 2017
    • Jim

      SPIRANTHES ODORATA! Do I make myself clear!?! 😉

      October 05, 2017
  • Bob

    WOW !! I guess you don’t think much of the powers that be either.

    October 05, 2017
    • Jim

      I believe their heart is in the right place, but I disagree with their conclusions.

      October 05, 2017
  • sam

    Lovely shots, Jim! Our Spiranthes are closing up shop, and just yesterday I saw the last of the Cor. odontorhiza waving bye.

    Happy birthday!

    October 05, 2017
  • Greg Peters


    Another amazing blog. Great pictures and supporting text. I look forward to your blog each week.

    October 06, 2017
  • Duane Erdmann

    Your published photos never cease to impress me. Have you ever shot S. casei upclose?

    October 07, 2017
  • Thanks for this post, Jim and the wonderful photos. Our meadow conversion sites here at the Cradle have been in progress for a few years, and you are correct that the timing of mowing is crucial. It is something we iterate to our maintenance team each year. We have transplanted some wildflowers onto the berms and spread milkweed seeds, but majority of the flowers are natural and have been waiting to bloom for who knows how many years. A few of us actually commented a couple weeks ago that the display of Spiranthes seemed LESS than last year! Many, many thanks! -Cradle of Forestry team

    October 11, 2017

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