The Magic of Boggs Rock — 2018-04-24

I have been waiting weeks for the peak bloom at Boggs Rock in Pickens County, South Carolina. Our state has several sites for a very special plant known as Diamorpha smallii or Elf orpine. It prefers the dry, severe landscape of a flat, bald rock face. On the rock face itself, not much else can survive except a few Lichen species and a moss known as Grimmia laevigata or Dry Rock Grimmia.

Elf orpine is found in only a handful of southeastern states, and then only on flat, exposed formations which are composed of unbroken granite and granite-gneisses and are emplaced within Precambrian metamorphic rocks which are scattered on the eastern side of the Appalachian Mountains. Along with Elf orpine, there are a number of other rather unusual plants which also prefer this harsh environment. However, most of these species are usually found on the edges of the rock outcrop where dirt has accumulated and where there is a meager supply of water during the hot, summer season.

A week or so ago, I took my young friend, Alex Patton, of Ohio to the site where he was able to photograph the beginning of the Spring bloom of these plants. They weren’t at peak bloom, but he was able to add a few species to his life list. It was fun to see him drink in the magical beauty of a flatrock outcrop in flower.

The Elf orpine plant is quite unusual in that this annual plant is only a couple of inches tall, at best, and in the full sun, its bulbous leaves turn bright, scarlet red. The 4-petaled, star-shaped flowers are only about 3/16 of an inch (less than 5mm) wide and are bright white. When mature, the plant will form several branches, at the end of which the flowers form. The contrast of the white flower petals, the scarlet leaves, and the rich green of the moss makes for some interesting images.

Here is a shot of a tiny, 1 inch tall (2.5 cm), unbranched Elf orpine plant growing on the moss:

Elf Orpine on Dry Rock Grimmia Elf Orpine on Dry Rock Grimmia

The following image shows several plants illustrating the typical branching of Elf orpine:

Branching Elf orpine plants on moss

The beauty of the place is found in the wide range of color present on an otherwise nondescript, gray rock:

Boggs Rock beauty

Boggs Rock beauty

As you can see from these images, there is some water on the rock. The night before, there was a deluge of rain, and some of it pooled in the slight natural depressions on the surface. It is in these vernal pools that many of the plants survive. They depend on our heavy Spring rains for their seeds to germinate. In mid-summer, there is no sign of the rich beauty that you see here — there is only Lichen and Dry Rock Grimmia.

From a distance, these mats of plants look rather rounded and almost pink, but up close, it is evident that there are multiple layers to this structure:

Several small groups of Elf orpine on Dry Rock Grimmia

An even close view is in order:

Elf orpine, up close and personal

It doesn’t take much of a depression in the rock for these plants to grow. The depression contains fine sand formed when the Lichen species break down the rock. Lichen represents a living partnership of a fungus and an alga.

Into the “weeds” a bit here: The fungus uses hyphae to absorb food from its surroundings. The algal component, called the photobiont, makes its own food through photosynthesis and grows as a mass of green cells dispersed among the fungal hyphae. The effects of Lichens on their mineral substrates can be attributed to both physical and chemical processes. The physical effects are reflected by the mechanical disruption of rocks caused by hyphal penetration, expansion and contraction of Lichen thallus, and the swelling action of the organic and inorganic salts originating from Lichen activity. Lichens also have significant impact in the chemical weathering of rocks by the excretion of various organic acids, particularly oxalic acid, which can effectively dissolve minerals and chelate metallic cations. As a result of the weathering induced by Lichens, many rock-forming minerals exhibit extensive surface corrosion. Well… enough of that!

I mentioned that although the Elf orpine grows on the Dry Rock Grimma, it also takes advantage of the pools of sand created by both physical and chemical weathering to deposit its seeds at the end of each year. Here is an image of a sand pool which provides suitable habitat for Elf orpine:

Elf orpine growing in sand

When the Elf orpine grows on moss, it sometimes leaves room for other plants to grow. One of these is Minuartia glabra or Appalachian stitchwort also known as Appalachian sandplant. This is a plant usually found around the wetter edges of rock outcrops:

Elf orpine on Grimmia with Appalachian stitchwort

At times, this delicate species can form dense mats of vegetation with many tiny white flowers open at once:

Appalachian stitchwort

But there are splashes of color besides red and white. Hidden along the edges of the rock outcrop and under some overhanging branches of local shrubs is Tradescantia hirsuticaulis or Hairystem Spiderwort. It is obvious how it got its common name. The flowers are usually some shade of deep magenta-purple:

Hairystem Spiderwort

Hairystem Spiderwort

At the edge of the rock outcrop, I found a pool of water in the center of which were growing tall stems bearing bright yellow flowers. These are the flowers of Packera tomentosa or Wooly ragwort:

Wooly ragwort

Wooly ragwort

Among the Wooly ragwort were many Nothoscordum bivalve or Crow poison also known as False Garlic plants with their showy white flowers with a yellow center. It is said that the indigenous Cherokee Indians used parts of this plant to poison crows that were eating their crops. However, there has been quite a bit of literature searching to determine whether or not Nothoscordum bivalve is actually toxic to any degree. If it is, it probably is not deadly — at least to humans:

Crow poison or False Garlic

Crow poison or False Garlic

The last plant species I will mention, Lindernia monticola or Piedmont false pimpernel and an Isoetes species or Quillwort (the thin grass-like leaves to the left in the following image) are denizens of wet places. Several of our other flatrock outcrops in the state have pools that remain wet throughout the year. In these pools, one can find a handful of species that prefer this habitat. I have not identified the Quillwort species at this site, because they are notoriously difficult to identify. One literally has to take the leaves from the plant to identify the species. The swollen base of the leaf contains male and female sporangia, protected by a thin, transparent covering (velum), which is used diagnostically to help identify Quillwort species. They are very difficult to distinguish by general appearance. The best way to identify them is by examining the megaspores under a microscope.

Piedmont False Pimpernel and a Quillwort species

Finally, I’ll leave you with a shot of the smallest flowering Elf orpine that I found. What a hardy species! If it only knew that it had but a few weeks in which to be pollinated and produce seed for the next season. It’s trying as hard as it can…

Tiny Elf orpine plants

Until next time,



  • Lucy

    Absolutely exquisite Jim!

    April 26, 2018
  • diane


    April 26, 2018
  • David

    Truly exceptional, Jim! Thank you!

    April 26, 2018
  • Frank Gilbert

    We are not worthy! Well done

    April 26, 2018
  • Frank Gilbert

    Well done

    April 26, 2018
  • Wonderful work. Your existence is completely justified. Redemption, penitence, absolution, exoneration, will never be necessary. Just keep doing what you are doing with wild abandon, and the universe and the beyond will rejoice and hail you always in fable and song. Why would I lie?

    April 26, 2018
  • Sharon Johnson

    Ditto what Jim Dollar said!

    April 26, 2018
  • Alan Cressler

    Is that the place we went a few years ago? It is just spectacular.

    April 27, 2018
    • Jim

      Yes it is, Alan! We had a great time that day. The place is still fairly pristine with hardly any vandalism.

      April 27, 2018
  • Kathy Gregg

    wow, Jim, These photos brought back many memories of when I was an undergraduate at Emory University back in the 60’s. I went on field trips to Stone Mountain and Mt. Arabia with professors William Murdy and Robert B. Platt, both of whom studied granite outcrop communities. How I loved that little red plant with white flowers!!!! I also enjoyed seeing it a 40-Acre Rock near the border of NC and SC.

    April 27, 2018
  • Linda Francis

    I love tagging along with you through narrative and exquisite photos! What journeys of discovery! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and photos!

    April 27, 2018
  • Jim, Where can we find this spot in Pickens County?
    Would love to see these beautiful flowers in this unique environment. Jim Y.

    April 27, 2018
  • Becky Kessel

    Simply spectacular images! What a gift to so perfectly capture such beauty in nature….

    April 28, 2018
  • Valerie Bourdot

    Your blog is a treasure, thank you!

    May 02, 2018
  • Fabulous! I really enjoy your travels and open-air classroom thru your blog! I learn so much from your posts.

    May 05, 2018

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