Recent trip to the Pisgah National Forest for early Spring orchids — 2018-04-25

It’s that time of year again. Spring keeps us amateur naturalists very busy spending every spare minute in the field chasing the Spring ephemerals which do not last long at all. It is also time to catch the early Spring orchids in bloom. One special region I like to visit every Spring is the Pisgah National Forest in Transylvania County, near Brevard, North Carolina. The orchids that bloom in late April are Isotria verticillata or Large Whorled Pogonia orchid and Galearis spectabilis or Showy orchis. Both of these species is fairly reliable and produces some lovely flowers.

Here are examples of each of these two orchid species:

Isotria verticillata Isotria verticillata

Galearis spectabilis Galearis spectabilis

The trip to these sites began in my home town of Greenville, South Carolina. Driving north toward the Pisgah National Forest takes me on a beautifully scenic drive up the Blue Ridge Escarpment. According to www.visitgreenvillesc.com, “The escarpment is the line where the mountains are visibly reduced to foothills. Table Rock Mountain is one such outcropping. The 11,000-acre Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area encompasses the escarpment, as well as Jones Gap and Caesars Head state parks. Hardwood forests, mountain streams, lakes and diverse animal and plant habitats number among its treasures.” The escarpment abruptly rises several thousand feet and is loaded with rich mountain coves and waterfalls. In these coves, one can find many Spring wildflowers in rather large numbers. A few of these coves are transected by Hwy. 276 which runs from Greenville to Brevard.

There are a couple of places where I usually stop to check out the status of bloom of these wildflowers. In one of these coves, I saw the beginning bloom spikes of Aplectrum hyemale or Putty-root orchid. Here are a couple of shots of these orchids in spike. They should be in full bloom in a couple of weeks:

Aplectrum hyemale in spike Aplectrum hyemale in spike

The long, pleated leaves of this orchid species will appear in the late fall, taking advantage of the increased amount of light that filters through the bare branches of the trees in the forest. By the time the plant blooms, the orchid leaves will be in deep shade and will have withered and disappeared into the surrounding leaf litter. A few of our native orchid species share this same growth pattern.

In the same rich cove, I found a number of Spring wildflowers in bloom. One of these is Uvularia perfiolata or Perfoliate Bellwort. Some of our Bellwort species have leaves which surround the stem which seems to perforate the leaf. Here are a few shots of this interesting wildflower:

Uvularia perfiolata Uvularia perfoliata

One characteristic that differentiates this Uvularia species from other, similar ones, is the appearance of granular bumps on the inside of the flower petals. These bumps are a bit easier to see in the following close-up shot:

Perfoliate Bellwort

Two other Spring ephemerals which are fairly common in the area are Iris cristata or Dwarf crested Iris and Chamaelirium luteum or Fairy Wand:

Dwarf crested Iris Fairy Wand

The Fairy Wand flowers pictured above are just getting started, and the stem will elongate as the flowers open.

It was still early morning, but it was time to pack up my gear and head up the road to Brevard.

The first site I visited is on private property, and is monitored by a person who lives close by. This site is host to a clonal colony of Isotria verticillata or Large Whorled Pogonia orchid. This orchid produces a very interesting flower with sharply pointed sepals. I believe that most if not all of the plants in this colony are exact copies of the first plant that appeared at this site. Thus, it is a very fragile population where any biological attack on one of the plants will affect all of the plants in the same way. It is not unusual for Isotria verticillata to produce large colonies of plant with the same DNA. Here are some additional images of these interesting flowers:

Isotria verticillata Isotria verticillata
Isotria verticillata Isotria verticillata
Isotria verticillata Isotria verticillata

Here is a shot of one of the plants that is still in bud, just before opening:

Isotria verticillata

I was gratified to see that this population of orchids is increasing in size. There was a time not too many years ago when this population numbered in the hundreds of flowering plants. A few years ago, however, the number of flowering plants dropped precipitously, leaving me to wonder if there was some type of biological/fungal attack on the plants. But, the past two years has seen the population recover, and I believe it will soon produce similar numbers of plants as in the past.

It was now time to head on up to the Pisgah National Forest, proper, to see if the Galearis spectabilis or Showy orchis population was producing flowering plants. But just before arriving at the site, I checked on an area where, in the past, I’ve found some very strange, natural Trillium hybrids. I have speculated in prior blog reports, which parent species have crossed to create these strange flowers. I’m still unsure, knowing that several Trillium species (Trillium vaseyi, Trillium erectum, Trillium sulcatum, and Trillium rugelii) can be found nearby. I’ll leave it up to you, Dear Readers, to decide for yourselves. In any case, here are some images which represent only a few of the color forms I found on this trip:

Trillium hybrid Trillium hybrid
Trillium hybrid Trillium hybrid
Trillium hybrid Trillium hybrid

Trillium hybrid

Finishing with the Trillium hybrids, I packed my camera gear and drove just a short distance to the Showy orchis site. As I approached, I began to see several wildflowers which are associated with the orchids. One of these is Tiarella cordifolia or Foamflower. This particular wildflower species is fairly common along streams and wet depressions in the rich cove forests of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. I think the flowers are quite lovely, especially up close:

Foamflower Foamflower

Foamflower

Another rather common wildflower is Geranium maculatum or Spotted wild Geranium. On occasion, this wildflower can form large colonies of beautiful pink blooms. Here are a couple of close-up shots of this wildflower:

Spotted wild Geranium

Spotted wild Geranium

Finally, I reached the orchids. These particular orchids seem to prefer the flood plain of small creeks which cut through the area and which drain the coves. The delicate orchid flowers are found in a wide variety of shades of magenta-pink/purple. The pair of fleshy leaves hugs the multi-flowered stem and makes a bit of a bouquet on the forest floor. Here are a few of the many shots I took on this trip:

Showy orchis Showy orchis
Showy orchis Showy orchis
Showy orchis Showy orchis

Showy orchis

Wow! What a day! There are many more species to photograph — too many to catch on a single visit. There will be additional orchid species to see in the following weeks — Pink Ladies’-slipper orchid and Yellow Ladies’-slipper orchid, to mention two of them. I intend to photograph both of them in the Pisgah National Forest if I can arrange the time.

I hope you have enjoyed my Spring forays so far. Our region of the country, the Southern Appalachian Mountains, provides no end to exciting wildflower photography — almost into December. I remember when I was still working a job and not retired, having to wait until the weekend to do my photography. As one would expect during this time of year, there would be a high likelihood of a very rainy day. Now that I’m retired, I can head out whenever the weather is conducive for photography and not have to take time off from work. I intend to keep doing that in order to present images of our spectacular wildflowers.

Until next time…

–Jim

11 comments


  • Tony Willis

    As wonderful as ever,thank you

    April 30, 2018
    • tom sampliner

      outstanding commentary and description as well as the always beautiful photography you provide. You should write a book(s) accumulating your ventures.

      May 01, 2018
  • Sharon Johnson

    Thank you! So beautiful! I can stop trying to get good pictures myself and just enjoy yours, which are FAR better.

    April 30, 2018
  • clare tager

    Thank u Jim! Cathy Spencer shared your blog with us. We are really captivated by your photography and narratives
    This one is a favorite. Thank you for sharing your journeys!

    April 30, 2018
  • Gena Todia

    Love, love, love. Wonderful photography and narrative. Would love to go out botanizing with you. Thank you for sharing.

    April 30, 2018
  • David Arbour

    Fantastic!

    April 30, 2018
  • Will Stuart

    A beautiful collection of images as always, Jim. I was very impressed with your stem count of the Swamp Pink population. Was that the first every enumeration of that population?

    May 01, 2018
    • Jim

      No, but it was the first time my team has done the count.

      May 01, 2018
  • Ann McCormick

    As always, fantastic!

    May 01, 2018
  • Rudy Riggs

    Thank you for the photography and the information about all the plants you encounter! I am thrilled to tell you that I have discovered showy orchis on my own property.

    May 03, 2018
    • Jim

      Congrats, Rudy! We just found some on our mountain property, too. It’s a great feeling, isn’t it!

      –Jim

      May 03, 2018

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