Devils Fork SP and Oconee Station Falls — wildflowers — 2018-03-17

After leaving the Pachysandra procumbens site, we headed a short distance west on Hwy. 11 to Devils Fork State Park. Here, we hoped to find Shortia galacifolia or Oconee Bells and Monotropsis odorata or Sweet Pinesap in bloom. Neither Alex Patton (photographer friend from Ohio) nor Sam Saulys (photographer friend from Connecticut) had photographed these two rather rare species. Alex and Sam drove to South Carolina to see these plants as well as any other wildflowers I could show them in our area of northwestern South Carolina.

Devils Fork State Park was created in 1990, about 20 years after the 7,500 acre (3,000+ hectare) Lake Jocassee was built and filled. The filling of this lake, whose purpose was to provide cooling water to a nuclear facility, buried the large percentage of the federally and state listed Shortia galacifolia or Oconee Bells under more than 300 feet (91 meters) of water. However, many creeks and tributaries in the immediate area of the lake currently host this rare plant.

On the Saturday we visited the site, the park was holding the Oconee Bells festival. I usually prefer to visit on a day when the festival is not taking place, because there are large numbers of visitors, and the Park Rangers are especially zealous about asking photographers to stay on the trail. But I wanted to make sure that my out-of-town visitors would be able to photograph the plants at their peak, so I scheduled their visit during the festival. Just hours before our visit, there was a deluge of rain, which I believe cut down the public attendance, considerably. This gave us just a bit more room to set up and photograph the flowers.

Oddly enough, to me anyway, the flowers always face the creek next to which they grow. That means you had better be prepared to get your feet wet to get the best shots. To make matters worse, the plants grow no more than 10-15 feet (3-5 meters) from the creek – never up in the woods bordering the creek. Here is a shot of a typical clump of Oconee Bell flowers:

Oconee Bells Oconee Bells

We parked at the trailhead and gathered our camera gear, then walked down the trail in anticipation of seeing the beauty of a rare botanical wonder. As we neared the creek, we could hear the chatter of groups of sight-seers who, like Alex and Sam, were probably seeing these plants for the first time. The first group of plants we saw were probably the best of the day. They were situated next to a wet seep just off the trail next to the base of a tree. Alex asked me to take is picture as he posed overlooking the plants:

Alex Patton and Oconee Bells

We spent a good bit of time at this first site, selecting the best flowers from the many that were in front of us:

Oconee Bells

I have hundreds of shots of this plant, so I made myself useful by pointing out suitable subjects to my visitors. But… I couldn’t pass up this group which was partially shaded next to the creek:

Group of Oconee Bells

Here is Alex focusing in on some Oconee Bells beside the creek:

Alex and Oconee Bells

The next on the list of plants to see at Devils Fork SP was Monotropsis odorata or Sweet Pinesap. Almost everyone is familiar with the plant, Monotropa uniflora or Indian Pipes. Well, this one is similar, except that it has very colorful flowers whose fragrance is strongly sweet and spicy. In fact, they smell just like cloves. For that reason, they are much easier to locate under the leaf litter than if they had no fragrance. As one walks down the trail and passes an area where these plants grow, the fragrance is quite noticeable. A good sniffer is recommended in order to locate the plants. Just put your nose down near the grown and crawl toward the scent. Believe me, I have gotten lots of raised eyebrows and suspicious glances from hikers who were unaware of why I was crawling on the ground in the woods.

I led our group to an area where I had found the plants on my previous week’s scouting trip, carefully pointing out the plants so that they would not be trampled. Looking down on the plants from a standing position, it is clear to see why the plants are so difficult to spot. The scale-like bracts surrounding the flowers are the exact color of the leaf litter. Here are a few shots showing the color range of the flowers from deep purple to magenta pink:

Sweet Pinesap Sweet Pinesap
Sweet Pinesap Sweet Pinesap

Sweet Pinesap

Fortunate for me, Walter Ezell had a longer lens on his camera, so he could easily take pictures of the group members as we were engrossed in photography. I had only my 90mm lens which was not conducive for those types of shots. Here are a couple of shots of Sam Saulys on the ground with the Sweet Pinesap:

Sam with Sweet Pinesap

Sam with Sweet Pinesap

Another plant species which Alex had wanted to photograph was Hexastylis heterophylla or Variable-leaf Heartleaf. It is fairly common in the area, so we had no trouble finding a suitable candidate for him to photograph. The strange, urn-shaped flowers are always positioned just on top of the ground and usually under the leaf litter, but the shiny green leaves are easily seen from the trail:

Variable-leaf Heartleaf

It’s called Variable-leaf Heartleaf because the leaves can be either uniformly green or green with light green or white variegation.

We finished up at Devils Fork and headed west to our last major location — Oconee Station Falls Trail. Along this trail, there are many different Spring ephemerals in flower depending on which day you visit. We arrived at the primitive parking lot and found only a couple of other vehicles. That meant we would not have a lot of distraction along the trail. As we started down the trail, I attempted to prepare our visitors for what they would be seeing — thousands of Trillium cuneatum or Little Sweet Betsy in a variety of color forms and several other wildflowers in bloom. About half way to the falls, which is at the end of the trail, we began to see Trillium plants scattered here and there. It was evident that Alex and Sam wanted to stop to photograph the plants, but I managed to convince them that it would be worthwhile to wait just a bit and proceed ahead down the trail.

Soon, we reached the beginning of the mother-lode of the Trillium plants. I believe they were in awe of those plants, which grow so densely as to appear as a ground cover. I decided to concentrate on the yellow color form of this species, because I think it is so pretty. Here are a couple of shots of this color form as well as a green color form:

Trillium cuneatum - yellow form Trillium cuneatum - yellow form

Trillium cuneatum -- green form

This yellow color form of Trillium cuneatum appears in a ratio of about 1 for every 250 plants. It is not Trillium luteum which does not grow in our area of upper South Carolina.

Growing among the Trillium plants were many thousands of Podophyllum peltatum or May Apple. This plant loves the damp depressions found in rich cove forests in our mountain habitat. Here is an image of one of the plants which will be blooming in a week or so. Notice that there is a pair of complex leaves on this plant. Only plants with two leaves will produce a flower. The great majority of plants in this colony had only a single leaf:

May Apple with flower bud

A short distance down the trail, I noticed an early blooming Geranium maculatum or Spotted Wild Geranium. Its pink flower was rather difficult to photograph as it swung in the gentle breeze:

Spotted Wild Geranium

There were other splashes of color scattered in this open woods. One of these was Viola hastata or Halberd-leaved Violet. Another was Sanguinaria Canadensis or Bloodroot:

Halberd-leaved Violet Bloodroot

I managed to find a nice patch of Viola sororia or Common Blue Violet right next to the trail:

Common Blue Violet

We spent a lot of time walking the trail, noticing and talking about all of the wildflowers which were in full bloom. We eventually reached the end of the trail at Oconee Station Falls. This spot is a favorite of the locals, especially during the warmer, summer months. There are always plenty of families with kids, eating picnic lunches and enjoying being out-of-doors and in the woods. We are all quite fortunate that the state of South Carolina has set aside this parcel of land for everyone to enjoy. Here is a shot of the 60-foot (18-meter) falls:

Oconee Station Falls

Finally, here is a shot of Alex, Sam, and yours truly taking a break before heading back up the trail to our vehicle. Many thanks to Walter Ezell for taking the people pictures found in this blog post:

Alex, Sam, and me at Oconee Station Falls

What a great day! The weather held out for us with no rain, and we had plenty of time to photograph all that we wanted to photograph. Our out-of-town friends were able to add as many as 8 plant species to their life lists, and that is always good. We have such a diversity of wildflowers in our area of the state, so that at almost anytime during the growing season, there are many good opportunities for photography. We made it clear to both Alex and Sam that they are welcome to return to see more of what the upstate of South Carolina has to offer.

‘Til next time,

–Jim

8 comments


  • Remember, vividly, our trip to Devil’s Fork SP in search of Oconee Bells (easy to find) and Monotropsis odorata (impossible to find without a pointer).
    Thanks for the memories and great images, as always.

    March 22, 2018
  • Larry

    Terrific photos and excellent dialogue Jim! These bring back great memories of our outing to this location! Thank you for sharing!

    March 22, 2018
  • Ryan

    Unreal shots!

    March 22, 2018
  • Rudy Riggs

    Oconee Bells are some of my favorite wildflowers. I have managed to keep a clump alive on my hillside down to the river for several years, but it is clear they would rather grow nearer the water. Thanks for the beautiful shots!ni

    March 22, 2018
  • Linda Francis

    I didn’t get to visit Devil’s Fork or Oconee Station Falls this year, but your narrative and gorgeous photos are the next best thing! Thank you!

    March 22, 2018
  • Tony Willis

    Absolutely wonderful,beautiful plants and as usual great photography

    March 23, 2018
  • Debbie

    Beautiful pictures as always!! This is the third year in a row I’ve come up on St Patrick’s weekend to see the flowers. You guys were starting down the trail at Oconee Station just as I was leaving – but I didn’t realize who you were or I’d have said Hello!

    March 23, 2018
  • John Fowler

    Nice to get an appreciation of just how hard it is to shoot these little plants.

    March 26, 2018

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