The secret life of Pachysandra procumbens (and some other wonderful stuff) — 2018-03-17

This past weekend, I was fortunate to have two friends, Sam Saulys from Connecticut and Alex Patton from Ohio, as well as my faithful companion, Walter Ezell, join me for some local botanizing. In our area of South Carolina — the extreme northwestern counties of Greenville, Pickens, and Oconee — we have some really wonderful Spring ephemerals. Being ephemeral, they don’t hang around for very long, so it was important that my friends arrive during mid-March to enjoy the full impact.

It was going to be a long day out in the field, so we left as soon as we had breakfast and packed our gear in my truck. Sam was going to head toward home in Connecticut at the end of the day, so she drove her own car in our mini caravan.

Our first stop was a rich mountain cove near a place called Peach Orchard Branch in Pickens County. This is located in the wilds of the Jocassee Gorges Management Area. I was introduced to this site by my friend Rich Stevenson, who had photographed the leaves of Pachysandra procumbens or Allegheny Spurge around this same time, last year. I had known that this species was found in only a couple of small populations in the upstate, but until I saw his pictures and asked for directions, I didn’t know where to look for it.

The four of us arrived at the trail head and gathered our gear. The trail is actually an old logging road that winds around the mountains and borders the rushing waters of Eastatoe Creek, a great trout stream, filled with waterfalls and rapids. It is not a challenging trail at all, meandering through dense woods of deciduous trees, pines, and hemlocks. What normally takes me 10 minutes to get to the site from the trailhead, took us considerably longer, because my naturalist buddies wanted to inspect lots of plant specimens along the way.

We finally reached a spot where a patch of Pachysandra procumbens was growing on the banks of a small rivulet next to the trail. I had visited here about a week ago to make sure that the plants were in good shape and would provide a floral display for my guests. At that time, there were many budding stems, but I was not convinced that they would be in flower during our visit. We were not disappointed! This patch of plants provided more than a dozen spikes of white flowers, looking very much unlike any other flowering plant in this region. Here is an example of the flowers of this strange and wonderfully fragrant plant:

Pachysandra procumbens Pachysandra procumbens

If you inspect this image closely, you will notice that there are two distinct flower types present. The top-most flowers are composed of the male stamens only — no petals. The bottom-most, fleshy-pink flowers are the female flowers — nothing but petals. Interestingly, not all of the flowers stems of this species produce the female flowers. I can find no information about the pollinators, even though we did see some tiny bees visiting the male flowers. They were probably attracted to the plant because of its strong, spicy fragrance.

Some botanical-nerd stuff: A “perfect” flower has both stamens (the male fertilizing organ of a flower, typically consisting of a pollen-containing anther and a filament) and carpels (the female reproductive organ of a flower, consisting of an ovary, a stigma, and usually a style), and may be described as bisexual or hermaphroditic. A “unisexual” flower is one in which either the stamens or the carpels are missing, vestigial or otherwise non-functional. Each unisexual flower is either staminate (having only functional stamens) and thus male, or it is carpellate (or pistillate) (having only functional carpels) and thus female. If separate staminate and carpellate flowers are always found on the same plant, the species is called simultaneously or synchronously monoecious. Another term for this confluence of male and female flowers, especially if there are mostly male flowers with a few female or bisexual flowers is subandroecious. ‘Nuf said…

On my scouting visit last week, when the flowers were not well enough along to be open, I did photograph a few flower stems in their bud stage. As you might expect, although the evergreen leaves were quite evident and easy to find, the budding stems were fairly difficult to locate. Many of them were still hidden under the leaf litter, and the ones which were exposed, were the same color as the dead leaves. Only a few of them were actually visible and poking out above the leaf litter. Here are some shots of those budding flower stems:

Pachysandra procumbens in bud Pachysandra procumbens in bud
Pachysandra procumbens in bud Pachysandra procumbens in bud
Pachysandra procumbens in bud Pachysandra procumbens in full bloom

Those last two shots, above, show our lead-in image on the right and the same flower stems in bud a week before, on the left.

Another point to mention is the unusual way the flower stalks sprout from the main stem of the plant rather than from the end of the growth point which is surrounded by evergreen leaves. What I have observed, is that the flower stalk will grow from a point about 10 inches (25 cm) from the end of the growth point. At the point from which the flower stalk emerges, the rather lax and sprawling stem will arch somewhat, making sure that the flower stalk is about at the high point on the almost horizontal stem. There is always an exception to every rule, and my friend Floyd Griffith managed to find the exception down in the Florida panhandle. Click Here for the link to his images of this strange sight.

Well, I do have one other exception for this strange plant. On Saturday, I managed to photograph a plant with both male and female flowers positioned as one might expect, except the flower stem hosted a lone female flower at the top-most portion where the male flowers usually reside. Here is a shot of that plant. Note the lone female flower on the top of the right and left flower stems:

Pachysandra procumbens with female flower on top of stem

Previously, I mentioned the evergreen foliage; here is an image of this beautiful ground cover:

Foliage of Pachysandra procumbens

Here are some additional shots of the flowers we saw:

Pachysandra procumbens in full bloom Pachysandra procumbens in full bloom
Pachysandra procumbens in full bloom Pachysandra procumbens in full bloom

Pachysandra procumbens in full bloom

Being a rich cove forest bordering a stream, this site offered many photographic opportunities for other wildflower species. We were somewhat past the peak bloom of Anemone (Hepatica) acutiloba or Sharp-lobed Hepatica, but there were so many plants present, that there were a number of late bloomers. Here are some examples of this ephemeral, Spring wildflower:

Sharp-lobed Hepatica Sharp-lobed Hepatica leaves

And, of course, my favorite color form of this species:

Lovely color form of Sharp-lobed Hepatica

There were also the Viola hastata or Halberd-leaved Violet in large numbers, providing many photographic opportunities to capture their bright yellow flowers:

Halberd-leaved Violet Halberd-leaved Violet

Halberd-leaved Violet with Pachysandra procumbens leaves nearby

This was also a good time to photograph the dainty, crisp white Thalictrum thalictroides or Rue Anemone flowers:

Rue Anemone Rue Anemone

Nearby, we also found several examples of Stellaria pubera or Star Chickweed and Obolaria virginica or Virginia Pennywort:

Star Chickweed

Virginia Pennywort

Another plant which is quite common along streamsides but which is difficult to photograph properly is Xanthorhiza simplicissima or Yellowroot.

Yellowroot

Here is a close-up image of the flowers:

Yellowroot flowers

Another plant that is infrequently seen, and always in very wet places, is Conocephalum conicum or Cat’s-tongue Liverwort. It is very easy to see why it got its common name!

Cat's-tongue Liverwort

Nearby, on the same wet rock was Lunularia cruciata or Crescent-cup Liverwort — soaking wet from the constant seepage dripping from above it:

Crescent-cup Liverwort

According to Wikipedia, “The liverworts are a group of simple plants. Molecular evidence based on mitochondrial DNA suggests strongly that they are the stem group from which mosses, hornworts and all higher plants evolved. Liverworts are usually regarded as Bryophytes, together with mosses and hornworts.”

Finally, because Alex is also interested in Salamanders, he briefly visited a small cave located on the side of the mountain. Although no Salamanders were found there, he did manage to find a few under boulders in the stream:

Alex Patton in front of a cave while looking for Salamanders

Here are Alex and Yours Truly relaxing, just before heading back up the trail to the truck:

Alex and Jim relaxing before heading back up the trail

Walter and I live in an area of amazing biological diversity. Many rare endemics and/or listed species can be found within just an hour or so from our home. Since this is the case, it gives me a lot of pleasure to treat my out-of-town friends to some local botanizing, showing them some special plants that they would otherwise not be able to see.

There is a lot more to this day’s field trips. Stay tuned to further blog posts highlighting the Spring ephemerals found in the upstate of South Carolina…

–Jim

11 comments


  • John Fowler

    Great photography work. You seem to have that Sony working well.

    March 19, 2018
  • bill

    u, are the Master.,..,

    March 19, 2018
  • Susan

    Beautiful! Thanks for sharing!

    March 19, 2018
  • Ava Turnquist

    Awesome. Thanks for sharing. Really like your attention to liverworts. Cool cat”s tongue.

    March 19, 2018
  • Beautiful photographs. Thanks for sharing.

    March 19, 2018
  • Becky Kessel

    Lovely images and such diversity! I was down that way Sunday as well for the Oconee Bells.

    March 20, 2018
  • Ann McCormick

    Wonderful pictures and descriptions! Should I be able to find the Pachysandra procumbens in Western NC — specifically Yancey County?

    March 20, 2018
    • Jim

      It is currently listed in only one NC County — Polk.

      March 20, 2018
  • Allan

    Great pictures! I love the colors. Thanks for sharing.

    March 21, 2018
  • Walter K Ezell

    So many lovely photos, and a great time with friends in the forest.

    March 22, 2018
  • Linda Francis

    Aha! I learned some interesting botanical nerd stuff I never knew about Alllegheny Spurge! Thanks for sharing the information and your lovely photos!

    March 22, 2018

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