Part 2 of 2 — Orchids and Lilies and Azaleas, oh my! — 2018-05-05

As I mentioned in my previous blog (Part 1 of 2) about our recent trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina, I was joined by my good buddies from Atlanta, Georgia — Alan Cressler and Steve Bowling. On our way up Hwy. 276 through the Pisgah National Forest, I suggested that we stop at a special site for Cypripedium acaule or Pink Lady’s-slipper orchids. I certainly did not have to twist any arms.

This particular site is on a foot trail off a gravel forest service road, and is spectacular in that the plants are quite large, and they never disappoint. There must have been close to 100 blooming plants, and they were in perfect shape. Here is an image of one small group to whet your appetite:

Pink Lady's-slipper orchid Pink Lady’s-slipper orchid

Pink Lady's-slipper orchid

These beauties grow on a hillside in an open woods, so they are easy to see and photograph. This site was shown to me several years ago, and I try to make it back there this time every year. Here are a few more shots of these orchids:

Pink Lady's-slipper orchid Pink Lady's-slipper orchid
Pink Lady's-slipper orchid Pink Lady's-slipper orchid
Pink Lady's-slipper orchid Pink Lady's-slipper orchid

Group of Pink Lady's-slipper orchids

All three of us savored the perfect blooms for a considerable time, going from group to group and remarking on the size and color of the flowers. After we got our fill of these wild orchids, we proceeded north to an intersection with Hwy. 215; our eventual gateway to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

There is a section of Hwy. 215 in Jackson County, North Carolina, where we got our first glimpse of one of the most lovely Rhododendron species that the state has to offer: Rhododendron vaseyi or Pink Shell Azalea. It is quite difficult to describe the color of this species except to say that the color is like that of the inside of a conch shell. I’m guessing that specific color is where the common name was taken. Its range is quite restricted, being found in only 5 of North Carolina’s mountain counties. Oddly enough, it has been reported from 1 coastal county in Massachusetts, but I cannot verify the authenticity of that report. It seems to prefer well-drained, forested hillsides where it stands out like a beacon when in full bloom.

The first plants we came across were in a deciduous woods just off Hwy. 215. So, we found a safe place to pull off the road, gathered our gear and headed into the woods. From a distance, this is how the rather tall plants appeared:

Pink Shell Azalea

Pink Shell Azalea

Up close, the flowers are just exquisite! Their delicate pink color and large, extending stamens and pistil make for an excellent photographic opportunity; that is, if the wind doesn’t present a challenge:

Pink Shell Azalea

Pink Shell Azalea Pink Shell Azalea

Pink Shell Azalea

Pink Shell Azalea

Pink Shell Azalea

Driving north, we soon reached the Blue Ridge Parkway. Although the trees were not yet leafed out and it was quite overcast, Alan wanted to see if we could get a scenic view to photograph. So we drove to the highest elevation overlook on the Parkway: the Richland Balsam Overlook, perched at 6,053 feet (~1,850 meters). Here is one of the scenes we saw from the overlook of the Blue Ridge Mountain range to our southwest:

High elevation mountain overlook

The final location I will mention here is just off the Parkway in the Graveyard Fields overlook area. This single stop gave us a wide variety of plants to photograph. The first one we saw was Pieris floribunda or Mountain Andromeda. This large shrub is found only in the high reaches of the Southern Appalachian Mountains in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. It is a member of the blueberry family, and all parts of the plant are poisonous if ingested:

Mountain Andromeda

Mountain Andromeda

Very near by, on the ground, were a number of bright white flowers. Nothing much to look at, actually, but up close, they are quite handsome. It is Fragaria vesca subspecies americana or Woodland Strawberry. It does have a bright red berry in mid- to late summer, but the taste is not as sweet as commercially grown Strawberries. Being a more northerly species, it is only rarely found in North Carolina, and then only at high elevations. A couple of interesting notes: The powdered leaves were said to be used as a disinfectant by Native Americans, and the fruits may be eaten fresh or dried:

Woodland Strawberry

It is difficult to see the critter lurking among the stamens in the previous image, so I will give you a close-up shot. I didn’t notice it until I processed my images out of the camera:

Woodland Strawberry and critter

Also at this location, we could see the blooming of Amelanchier arborea or Service Berry dotted here and there as clusters of white across the valley. It is one of the first flowering trees at this altitude to have flowers in early Spring. Fortunately, there was one growing just next to the Parkway, providing an easy but challenging shot (because of the constant wind):

Service Berry Service Berry

Finally, the pièce de résistance was just behind us on the wooded hillside: Thousands and thousands of Erythronium umbilicatum subspecies monostolum or Mountain Dimpled Trout Lily. Although locally abundant, it is endemic to the high mountains only in North Carolina and Tennessee:

Mountain Dimpled Trout Lily

Mountain Dimpled Trout Lily

The plants were so closely spaced on the hillside, that it was a bit difficult to find a good representation of a single flower. But diligent searching provided a few good ones:

Mountain Dimpled Trout Lily Mountain Dimpled Trout Lily
Mountain Dimpled Trout Lily Mountain Dimpled Trout Lily

Mountain Dimpled Trout Lily

While I was photographing one of the single Trout Lily flowers, I spotted Alan off to the side, in deep thought and relaxing from the rigours of intense wildflower photography:

Alan Cressler among the Mountain Dimpled Trout Lilies

I’m thinking that look on his face means he had a pretty good day. I know that I did, for sure!

So many wonderful wildflowers can be found in just a short distance drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina. The higher elevation mountains, especially above 5,000 feet (1,525 meters) provide a cooler and wetter environment than the lower elevations. Many of the wildflowers found at these altitudes are found only much farther north. In addition, the Spring season comes generally 3-4 weeks behind the Spring season at lower elevations, so if I fail to see a particular wildflower in bloom in the foothills, I can usually find it a few weeks later in the mountains along the Parkway. I know I’ve said it before, but I am so thankful that I live only a couple of hours from this wildflower haven.

The wildflower season is far from being over, so stay tuned for more beauty from the Southern Appalachian Mountains…

–Jim

6 comments


  • Amanda Rowe

    Lovely pictures of lovely flowers.

    May 08, 2018
  • tom sampliner

    I know that along with many others I look forward to each of your blog postings with your folksy smooth literary style and outstanding images. I was pleasantly surprised at how deep and rich the coloring on all your depicted pink slippers was. I saw several plants I have never seen. The long view scenery shot was outstanding.
    If my rotator cuff, labrum and fluid on the long head of the sheath of the filament of the biceps improves for next year I might have to ask if I can join you. Carrying equipment right now not so fun; nor are the nights.

    May 08, 2018
  • Phil Draper

    Your posts are exquisite. Makes me homesick for the Parkway. Always love taking a stroll with you via your photos.

    May 08, 2018
  • bill

    u done another fantastic job of capture……

    May 08, 2018
  • Ann McCormick

    WOW!

    May 09, 2018
  • Max Smith

    Interesting to see so many trout lilies together. I’ve never come across that kind of concentration here in Michigan.

    May 09, 2018

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