Annual fall visit to the Carolina coastal plain (with an unexpected twist!) — 2017-11-03

“So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” Macbeth, In Act I Scene 3 line 38 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. [More about this farther down in the blog…]

Winter is just around the corner for us in the Carolinas. Our nearby mountains have already gotten their first dusting of snow (although it didn’t hang around), and now it is time for my annual visit to the Carolina coastal plain for some fall botanizing. The last weekend in October through the first weekend in November brings the last of the orchids and wildflowers in the Francis Marion National Forest in Berkeley County, South Carolina as well as in the Green Swamp in Brunswick County, North Carolina — two of my favorite botanizing locations.

The previous week had brought some correspondence from a new FaceBook friend, Alex Patton. Alex helps run a family fruit farm in Utica, Ohio, and he wanted to come down to the Green Swamp to look for the following:

Spiranthes cernua or Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchid
Spiranthes odorata or Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid
Spiranthes longilabris or Long-lipped Ladies’-tresses orchid
Parnassia caroliniana or Carolina Grass-of-Parnassis
Gentiana autumnalis or Pine Barren Gentian
Nabulus (formerly Prenanthes) autumnalis or Slender Rattlesnake Root

…and anything else interesting that might be available. This may sound like a tall order, but it was one that should be easily knocked out in a day. Alex had also arranged to meet his friend, Eric Ungberg, in the Green Swamp. Eric is affiliated with Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. I was so looking forward to hanging around with a couple of photographers and botany nerds in one of my favorite places.

I had messaged Alex that I would be hitting the Francis Marion NF on Friday, spending the night near the Green Swamp in Shallotte, NC that night and meeting him and Eric at “The Pond” in the Green Swamp early Saturday morning. My objective in the FMNF was to photograph Spiranthes odorata or Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid in the Wambaw Swamp area of the National Forest. This is an area I’ve visited each fall for the past 10 years or more years.

So, early Friday morning, I head south on my 4-hour trip to the South Carolina coastal plain. I arrive at the usual spot on Victor Lincoln Road. This gravel road winds through the center of the FMNF, connecting Halfway Creek Road with Hwy. 45. The location for the orchids is in the 4,755-acre Wambaw Swamp Wilderness area. It is a forsaken place of bottomland cypress forest, mucky swamp land, and dense pocosin. I have used the following descriptive quote in a previous blog, but I think it deserves mentioning again:

Wambaw Swamp offers no trails and little dry ground. Here, in another of the four Wildernesses in Francis Marion National Forest, you’ll find river-bottom hardwood swamp edged with small stands of pine. Wild orchids, lizard’s tail, pickerel weed, sedges, and ferns dominate the understory. The water level is generally too low for canoeing. Insects, snakes, muck, and lack of dry campsites keep most humans away. This may be the least visited spot in South Carolina.

The above description makes only a general mention the hordes of mosquitoes, ticks, and chiggers that are always present. And I’ve seen a number of poisonous snakes there, as well. After having said all of this, I know it is still a great place to find Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchids as well as a few other orchid species in season. Here is a close-up that I took of an exceptional Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid on Friday while mucking around in the swamp:

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid

Here is an image of the same plant, but taken from a few steps farther away:

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid

I ended up spending several hours in the Wambaw Swamp Wilderness, locating additional sites for this orchid species. Here are some shots of orchid plants I found:

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchids in situ

I managed to photograph a possible pollinator, Urbanus proteus or Long-tailed Skipper, which for some reason, was missing its long tail… Note how the Skipper begins nectaring on the lower flowers and works its way up the stem. With Spiranthes species, the flower’s reproductive parts mature at different stages, thereby helping to prevent self-pollination and to assure cross-pollination from other plants:

Long-tailed Skipper on Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid Long-tailed Skipper on Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid

I used the term, “possible pollinator”, because I did not actually see any pollinia attached to its proboscis. In the past, I have also photographed Epargyreus clarus or Silver-spotted Skipper (below left) as well as Panoquina ocola or Ocola Skipper aka Long-winged Skipper (below right) nectaring on Ladies’-tresses orchids in the Carolina coastal plain:

Silver-spotted Skipper on Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid Ocola Skipper on Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid

A very interesting side note about Spiranthes pollination that I found in a Dutch publication about the pollination process in Spiranthes spiralis, a European Ladies’-tresses species:

“The lip of flowers that is a few day more matured has opened further making access to the nectar gland wider and making the tongue brush past the stigma and deliver the pollen. Such a flower which develops first to release the pollen, and is later adapted to be pollinated is called protandrous. In 52% of the plants the flowers are arranged counterclockwise, in 39% clockwise and in 9% of the plants the flowers are to one side of the inflorescence [secund]. The pollinators always land at bottom of the inflorescence and visit the flowers ever higher up. Most bumblebees have a strong preference for counterclockwise arrangement, fewer for clockwise. It seems that autumn lady’s tresses responds to this preference by offering different inflorescence types and thus increases the chances of fertilization.”

Wow! Who knew!?!

At this point in my search, I was deep in the swamp. In order to give Alex directions to this particular spot (he said he might want to visit the FMNF on his way back to Ohio), I wanted to indicate the proper entry point into the swamp by placing bright orange survey tape on the tree just at the edge of the swamp next to the gravel road. I did not have survey tape with me — it was in my truck. When I exited the swamp and reached the road, the truck was 100 yards (~100 meters) south of where I came out of the swamp. I placed the camera/tripod next to the road to mark that spot and walked back to the truck. I got into the truck, found the survey tape, and drove north to where I had placed the camera. I located a small tree to which I attached a liberal amount of survey tape and went back to the truck.

Not only did I need to mark the preferred entry point into the swamp, but I had to figure out how I would be able to give him explicit directions to the gravel road and how far to travel down the road before looking for the survey tape. I was obviously distracted by these thoughts running through my head.

I eventually made it to my motel destination in Shallotte, NC, which was about 20 minutes from the Green Swamp. It was about 5:30 pm, and daylight was beginning to fade. I checked in, got my room key and proceeded to unload my stuff from the truck. Here is where it becomes a bit difficult to tell the rest of the story and also where my initial Shakespeare quote assumes a clear meaning…

After unloading my suitcase, computer, and some other stuff, I went back to the truck for my camera gear. I was shocked to find that my camera and tripod were not in the truck!!! WTF!!! What had happened?!? The only thing I could figure out was that I had left the camera beside the road in the FMNF at the spot where I had marked my exit point out of the swamp. How could I have been so negligent? The only thing to do was to get into the truck and head back the 2.5 hours to the FMNF and hope that the camera was still where I had left it.

The trip back to the FMNF was fraught with recrimination and mentally beating myself up for such a stupid and thoughtless act. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but whenever something traumatic such as this happens, my thoughts are all over the map. I really don’t remember the drive back to the scene of the crime, but when I arrived, it was pitch black dark. I made my way carefully down the potholed gravel road to the exact spot where I wildly hoped that I would find my camera sitting there. This road is not widely traveled, but it is hunting season, and some of the hunters use this road to get around in the national forest.

I made it to the location, but did not see the camera… My heart was in my throat. Thousands of dollars worth of new equipment gone, and I alone was to blame. I looked all around the shoulder of the road and even in the shallow ditch just next to the road. I drove up and down the road, using my truck’s headlights to search the side of the road, but no camera… After about 30 minutes, I decided that it was time to head back to the motel, another 2.5 hours, where I could think more clearly about my next steps. Time for Plan B.

Upon arriving back at the motel, I asked the night clerk where the nearest big-box hardware store was. Fortunately, it was nearby, but it was so late that it was closed. Early the next morning, I went there and bought materials for making a lost-and-found sign which I could place at the spot where I had left the camera. I really didn’t know what else I could do that would help the situation. After purchasing the sign materials, I met Alex and Eric at the pond. We proceeded to find most of the species on Alex’s list. Around lunch time, I told the guys that I needed to head on back to the FMNF so that I could place the sign, hoping that the person who had found the camera would know where to return it. We said our goodbyes, and I headed west to the FMNF.

Upon arriving, I passed a number of hunter’s trucks which were parked along the same road where I had left the camera. I thought about asking if they had found the camera, but they were nowhere to be seen — probably in the woods hunting. I drove to the spot and placed the sign where it would be most likely to be seen. Here is a shot of that sign with my phone number digitally blurred:

Lost-and-found sign

Disheartened, I drove home. That was Sunday. On Monday morning, I called the Berkeley County sheriff’s office and the FMNF forest service office, opening case files at each place describing my lost items. As I expected, there had been no such things turned in. Around mid-morning, the phone rang, and the area code on the caller-id indicated that it was a caller from the coastal plain area of South Carolina. I was understandably excited and probably shaking when I answered the phone. The caller paused and asked if I was “the one who lost a camera”? My prayers were answered! I told him that I was the person who lost the camera, and we proceeded to have about a 10-minute conversation about items lost and hunters and the national forest and dogs and … Turns out, he just wanted to know who I was and how I had managed to lose a camera in the middle of nowhere. Even today, I’m still trying to figure out what that conversation was all about.

I got almost no sleep on Monday night. On Tuesday about lunch time, I got another call from that same part of the state. Again, I was excited and hopeful. After saying our “hellos”, the caller said in his unmistakable lowcountry South Carolina manner, “I think I have your camera.” Well, you could have knocked me over with that proverbial feather! We spent about 10 minutes on the phone — me identifying the camera and tripod, and him relating how he came across it along the road. Turns out that he found it no more than 30 minutes after I had left the scene. What luck it was that he found it and, rather than taking it to a pawn shop or keeping it himself, he wanted to return it to me. He had scanned the local Charleston newspaper in the lost-and-found section, but did not find what he was looking for. Being a farmer and a hunter, he had gone back to his farm to spread some corn around his deer stand and decided to drive back by where he had found the camera. He saw my sign and decided to call me on the spot. He gave me his home address, and we decided to meet on Wednesday around noon, since it was a 4-hour drive for me to get there.

I made it to his house, met him and his gracious wife, and spent the better part of an hour or so chewin’ the fat. His name is Marion Wright. He was a restaurateur in the little town of Wando and is now retired and a gentleman farmer. No finer people have I ever met. I tried to get him to take the $500 reward, but he refused. I finally got him to take $200 which he said he would give to charity. On my way back home to Greenville, I tried to process all that had transpired in the past few days. Marion’s honesty and humility has renewed my outlook on humanity. Why I doubted that someone like him would find and return my lost items, I don’t know. But some real good came out of what was a pretty bad situation. It was a win-win event for me. Although I had to travel 13 extra hours in search of the camera, I got my camera back and I hopefully have learned an important lesson. Although, that remains to be seen…

Until our next adventure,



  • Jim

    Sorry, the comments box was not enabled when I posted this. You can now post comments to this blog post.

    November 09, 2017
  • Wow, what a story, Jim–it renews one’s faith in one’s fellow human beings! I really empathized. It so happens that last year I did something about as stupid–got my camera wet at Glacier National Park right at the beginning of my trip there and thought I’d never get it go work again. Fortunately, the camera dried out overnight and worked again. Glad you camera was found and returned. Gorgeous photos, as usual.

    November 09, 2017
  • Great, heartwarming story. I’m glad you got your gear back!
    I had a very similar thing happen in Shenandoah National Park several years back. I left a very expensive pair of binoculars somewhere along the trail to Dark Hollow Falls. When I got back to the parking lot I realized I didn’t have my binos, so I quickly ran down the trail again, scouring where I remembered stopping. I had no luck relocating them, but left a sign at the trailhead with my phone number. Sure enough later that evening I received a call from the kind people that found them. It could very easily have ended differently!

    P.S. Fantastic photos and information on Spiranthes odorata!

    November 09, 2017
  • John Fowler

    Brother, I can sympathize with you. A few days ago I left my wallet on a picnic table at Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley. I got a call from Jo at home about an hour later telling me that someone had found it. (This was my first awareness that I had lost it.) So we turned around and drove back. A worker had found it on the table and took it across the street to the hotel. The desk clerk opened it and found my ID and home phone.

    When I got there, I found all the money and credit cards still there. I gave the desk clerk and the person who found it $20, although they were reluctant to take it. I told them it would make me feel better, which was the truth. My head was full of punishing thoughts about myself. How could I have been so stupid? It took me a couple of days to get over it.

    There are some nice people.

    And you did get some great photos with that new camera!

    November 09, 2017
  • KT

    I know that feeling very well. I left my camera along side a forest service road in the Croatan a few months ago. I didn’t realize it was missing until I had left the site some hours later. Luckily when I returned it was right where I left it.
    Glad your camera was found and you got it back.

    November 09, 2017
  • Skip P

    So glad to read that this story had a happy ending and that you were reunited with your gear! Sounds like you also crossed paths with some decent folks whom you likely would not have met otherwise.

    And, cool shots of the S. odorata!

    November 09, 2017
  • john

    Wondering about the clockwise/counter arrangement of flowers. I can see in your last two images with one and two skippers that one goes one way and the other goes the other, but how do you determine which is clockwise and counter?

    November 09, 2017
    • Jim

      I would guess that the spiraling direction would be defined by looking at the spiral from the top. Just a guess, though.

      November 09, 2017
  • sonnia hill

    Jim, first of all let me say the photos are exquisite and so happy because we could have lost these if your camera had not been returned.
    I have never left a camera at a shoot, but I did leave my camera at home one year when I was going on a wildflower trip 2 hours north of where I live. I shared a friend’s camera!

    November 10, 2017
    • jim

      Thanks! I think we have all done something like that! Something to look forward to as we get older. šŸ˜‰

      November 10, 2017
  • Elizabeth

    You kept me on the edge of my seat reading about your terrible dilemma. As one who has ruined a camera in the dust of Colorado and another one in an unexpected deluge in North Carolina, I know how you can’t help but beat yourself up. So glad you had such a happy ending and were able to share your gorgeous photos with us.

    November 12, 2017
  • Lee Casebere

    Holy cow, Jim! What a story! Glad it turned out well when all was said and done. I have nothing that compares to your story!

    Nice info on the Spiranthes, and great photos as usual!!

    November 12, 2017

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