Part 1 of 2 — Summer comes to the BRP — 2018-06-23

This post is fairly long and loaded with colorful images, so fasten your seat belts!

On Saturday, June 23, 2018, my photography buddy, Alan Cressler met me at my North Carolina mountain cabin to get ready for a weekend trek along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. We each had a list of flowering plants we wanted to photograph, all of which should be blooming this time of year. The cabin is about 25 miles (40 km) from the closest section of the BRP, and it’s not a bad drive at all.

We loaded our gear in my truck and headed off to the Parkway. Our first stop would be at a site very near where we intersected the Parkway. It is a site I found out about just a couple of years ago. The target species would be Liparis loeselii or Loesel’s Twayblade orchid. My friend and photographer, Meng Zhang, had learned about this site from a volunteer at the Linn Cove Viaduct Visitor Center and had passed the directions on to me. This roadside site consists of several large clumps of orchid plants growing on a moss-covered hillside. Each time I visit, I am awed at both the number of plants as well as the collection of last year’s seed capsules remaining on the plants. I shouldn’t be, though, because this is a self-pollinating plant whose pollination efforts are aided by rain drops! Yes, the protective cap covering the pollinia withers away quite readily and allows the pollinia to drop (aided by rain) directly onto the stigma, resulting in pollination. In the image below, notice the flowers in the upper right and upper left. On the one in the upper right, the protective cap is still present, but it is loose enough to allow one of the pollinia to begin to fall from its original position. On the one in the upper left, the protective cap is gone, and one of the two pollinia has already fallen.

Loesel's Twayblade orchid Loesel’s Twayblade orchid

Here is a shot of one of the groups of orchids that is just loaded with this year’s flowers and last year’s seed capsules:

Loesel's Twayblade orchid with last year's seed capsules

Here are some additional shots of the orchids at this roadside site:

Loesel's Twayblade orchid Loesel's Twayblade orchid
Loesel's Twayblade orchid Loesel's Twayblade orchid

Loesel's Twayblade orchid

We drove on up to the Visitor Center, and unluckily for us, when we inquired about the possibility of seeing another orchid species, Platanthera orbiculata or Pad-leaf orchid, we were told that the ones on the Visitor Center trail were not available to be seen, because the trail was being repaired and was closed. This was a species that was high on Alan’s list, but we had another site that I knew about a few miles up the Parkway where there were 4 plants, one of which I had photographed when it bloomed last year. I happened to mention it to the volunteer and she replied that location was also closed, because recent heavy rains had washed out the trail bridge and otherwise made it impossible to reach the site. Big Bummer!!! However, she added that one had been spotted near the trail to a place called, Beacon Heights. That overlook was just down the Parkway from the Center, so we thanked her and headed to the overlook.

We arrived with great anticipation of finding the Pad-leaf orchid in flower. We loaded our gear and headed up the trail. After a while, Alan’s eagle-eye spotted the huge leaves of this species near the trail. But….. it was just the leaves and no flowers. He was really disappointed, and so was I, but I photographed the leaves anyway. They are quite glossy and leathery, and they lie parallel to the ground. They measure about 6 inches (15 cm) long and about 3-4 inches (7.5-10 cm) wide — pretty large for a terrestrial orchid. To make matters worse, I saw that last year’s bloom stem was still present, although it was in decay:

Pad-leaf orchid leaves

I had never been to the top of Beacon Heights, so we agreed to continue on up the trail to see what else we could find. Just up the trail, Alan spotted an orange mushroom/fungus. We couldn’t identify the species right off, but decided to photograph it anyway:

orange mushroom/fungus

Perhaps one of my knowledgeable readers will help me out with the identification…

Nearby, there was a large population of Galax urceolata or Beetleweed also just known as Galax and Wandflower. This is a very common ground cover and therefore it has a number of common names. The leaves are evergreen and last through the winter. Some locals gather large numbers of the glossy green leaves to use as decoration for the winter holidays:

Galax

The flowers are actually quite handsome when seen up close:

Galax flowers

We finally reached the top of Beacon Heights and made our way around the throng of sight-seers who were on the granite bald enjoying the grand view. Even though the view was nice, I spotted one of my favorite wildflowers, formerly Saxifraga michauxii or Michaux’s Saxifrage. It has been renamed to Micranthes petiolaris, but it still keeps the same common name — very confusing, right? Anyway, it looks rather like an unkempt mess from a distance — who would give it a second glance?:

Michaux's Saxifrage

But, up close, it takes the guise of a beautiful flower, even though it is quite tiny:

Michaux's Saxifrage Michaux's Saxifrage

While I was working on the Saxifrage, Alan had found another rather non-assuming plant that we later found out was Paronychia argyrocoma or Silvery Nailwort. Interestingly, Paronychia also refers to an infection of the edge of the fingernail or toenail which is also known as ingrown nail. What the wildflower and medical diagnosis have in common is beyond my pay grade, but I thought it was interesting. A large portion of the flowers remain closed, but the open flower display bright yellow petals:

Silvery Nailwort

Silvery Nailwort

After considering the magnificent view, I decided to take a panoramic shot. Not much detail can be visible on the image included in this blog post, so I’m including a link, Here, to the same image on my Flickr photostream.

View from atop Beacon Heights on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Well, a non-blooming target species was not going to stop us from proceeding on to several other sites where I had previously seen other orchid species in flower in previous years. The first of these sites was another roadside location where the orchids grow on a mossy embankment. We pulled into the overlook parking lot, gathered our gear, and crossed the Parkway to the embankment. Fortunately, the mowing crew had not yet mowed the ditch or embankment, so there were a number of interesting plants still available for photography. The first orchid I saw was Platanthera lacera or Ragged Fringed orchid, and it was growing in the shallow ditch. Fortunately, the mowing crew had not yet mowed the ditch or embankment, so there were a number of interesting plants still available for photography. Unfortunately, this particular plant was not very photogenic so I took a chance on seeing more of them later on our trip, and I didn’t photograph it.

Farther down the ditch, I found a number of Neottia smallii or Appalachian Twayblade orchid plants. This is a very common species if you know where to look for it. This orchid species prefers to grow under the low-hanging, sprawling limbs of Rhododendron maximum or Rosebay Rhodendron — a ubiquitous shrub of the mountain region. Here are some examples of this tiny orchid:

Appalachian Twayblade orchid Appalachian Twayblade orchid
Appalachian Twayblade orchid Appalachian Twayblade orchid

Appalachian Twayblade orchid

As we continued walking along the base of the embankment, I noticed an orchid species that I had never seen at this site — Liparis liliifolia or Lily-leaf Twayblade orchid. This species was in full bloom, but it was about a week past peak bloom. It still had a few flowers that were in pretty good shape, so I decided to photograph the best ones:

Liparis liliifolia orchid Liparis liliifolia orchid

Lily-leaf Twayblade orchid

Notice how translucent the lip of this orchid is. The sepals beneath the lip are actually visible through the lip.

Farther down the road, Alan spotted some Loesel’s Twayblade orchids, but they were past peak bloom. Both Loesel’s Twayblade orchid and Lily-leaf Twayblade orchid are close relatives. So, that means I should look for hybrids between these two species, which I know are quite rare, but they do exit. Try as I might, I did not find any of the hybrids. But I did stumble across a couple of groups of Goodyera pubescens or Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchids that were sending up flower spikes. Although they were not in bloom yet, the foliage of this particular orchid species is so handsome, that I could resist making a few images:

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchid

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchid

Here is what the flower spike should look like in a couple of weeks:

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchid

Our final destination for the day was another 65 miles (104 km) north on the BRP, so we had to leave this special location. Driving the BRP in any time of year is enjoyable, but this time of year (and in the Spring) there are lots of wildflowers on which to feast your eyes. One species that one would not normally think of as a wildflower is Castanea dentata or American Chestnut. This species was formerly the king of the Appalachian Mountains. It was the dominant tree species with specimens commonly ranging to 100 feet (30 meters) tall. But they were decimated in the first half of the 20th century by an airborne fungal blight that caused death to these giants. New shoots often sprout from the roots when the main stem dies, so the species has not yet become extinct. However, the stump sprouts rarely reach more than 20 feet (6 meters) in height before blight infection returns. During our trip that day, we saw a number of Chestnut trees which we believe are remnant populations of the American Chestnut. Here is an image of one that we saw in full bloom. Those flower spikes are actually the male catkins that are 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) long and are covered with tiny flowers:

Possible American Chestnut tree

Next to the Chestnut tree, I spotted a Clematis viorna or Leather flower. The color of the flowers is hard to miss as its vine winds it way up a small oak sapling:

Leather flower

Across the road from the Chestnut tree, was a fallow field. Fields like that one are always fruitful sites to explore for all sorts of wildflowers. At the edge of the field, we spotted a common Milkweed species called, Asclepias syriaca or Common Milkweed. This particular Milkweed is intensely fragrant and is a veritable magnet for butterflies, bumble bees, beetles, ants, and other critters. Here are a few shots of the Common Milkweed:

Common Milkweed Common Milkweed

Common Milkweed

After photographing this Milkweed species, I looked across the field and saw the unmistakably bright orange flowers of another Milkweed species, Asclepias tuberosa or Butterfly Milkweed. As I head in the direction of those bright orange flowers, I almost step on a Platanthera lacera or Ragged Fringed orchid! Turns out, there were dozens of them in this field. Here are some examples of this strange orchid plant:

Ragged Fringed orchid Ragged Fringed orchid
Ragged Fringed orchid Ragged Fringed orchid
Ragged Fringed orchid Ragged Fringed orchid

Finally, I am able to make it to the bright orange, Butterfly Milkweed:

Butterfly Milkweed

Butterfly Milkweed

Butterfly Milkweed

Time was not on our side as we still had a way to travel before out last stop. So we gathered our gear and piled into the truck and headed north. Earlier that day, we had been seeing a few scattered examples of another Milkweed, Asclepias exaltata or Poke Milkweed. This species is tall, up to 6 feet (just under 3 meters), and it tends to lean in the direction of sunlight. It prefers shady conditions under overhanging trees next to the road. Poke Milkweed is not an uncommon plant along the Parkway, but it is not as common as the Common Milkweed. Its drooping umbel of green and white flowers are sort of attractive in their own way. Unlike the Common Milkweed, the Poke Milkweed does not have an intense fragrance, if it has a fragrance at all. Here are a couple of close shots of the flowers:

Poke Milkweed

Poke Milkweed

After photographing the Poke Milkweed, I happened to mention to Alan that I had heard of a hybrid between Poke Milkweed and Common Milkweed. Poke Milkweed is known as a reluctant seed producer, and I wondered what pollinator would visit both species, especially since the flowers of each of these species is differently shaped. It was no time at all that I spotted a strange form of what I thought was Poke Milkweed in a small un-mowed strip beside the road. As is my usual habit, I slammed on the brakes, made a u-turn, and headed back to check out that plant.

Upon reaching the plant in question, it was obvious to me that its flowers exhibited characteristics of both Poke Milkweed and Common Milkweed. The plant had the tall stature of Poke Milkweed but was more sturdy and did not lean. The peduncles (thin stems) connecting the flowers to the main stem were tinted a rosy-purple and not the light green I would have expected. We checked for a fragrance and found a definite floral aroma, but not quite as intense as is found in the Common Milkweed. In addition, the sepals of the flowers on this plant had a distinctive rosy-purple color. I believe what I was seeing was, indeed, the hybrid between Poke Milkweed and Common Milkweed! Talk about serendipity!

We wasted no time in setting up our camera equipment and recording this rare occurrence. Here are some of the shots we took at the site:

Milkweed hybrid Milkweed hybrid
Milkweed hybrid Milkweed hybrid

Milkweed hybrid

What a day this had turned into! Both of us were genuinely excited to find such a rare plant. We spent a good amount of time studying and photographing this plant and both agreed that we had found the hybrid I had just been talking about. But time was really speeding by, so we got back on the road and headed to our final stop.

This last overlook was one that I have visited many times. It was my go-to spot for Ragged Fringed orchids but since we had already seen a bunch of them at an earlier stop, I was looking for something different. We arrived and immediately checked out the fallow field across the road for those orchids. I did not find a single one in the entire field! I looked and looked, but I still don’t know why they didn’t appear this year. Alan finally found a single plant next to the tree line, so we spent a few minutes taking pictures. Here is my shot of this orchid:

Ragged Fringed orchid

Across the road in the un-mowed field, were two species of Milkweed — both fine examples of their species. The first one was a beautiful and intensely fragrant Common Milkweed, all decked out in beautiful flowers:

Common Milkweed Common Milkweed

The second one was a bright scarlet-orange Butterfly Milkweed. It was so deeply colored that it almost hurt to look at it:

Butterfly Milkweed Butterfly Milkweed

Butterfly Milkweed

As I was finishing up and heading back to the truck, I spotted a touch of purple and saw that it was a large, Prunella vulgaris or Common Selfheal flower:

Common Selfheal

In a way, this looks like an orchid, but it is not. Of course, that does not take away from its beauty a single bit.

This was a very successful day, even though one of our target species was not in bloom. Perhaps it actually was in bloom at the site that was closed, but there’s always next year. The Blue Ridge Parkway offers many beautiful wildflowers in season and also a few surprises. I am thankful to have friends like Alan who share the same interest in wildflowers and the outdoors. I am also thankful that I live close to some of the most scenic places in the eastern United States. I will never tire of the BRP.

There is much more in store in Part 2 of our BRP adventure.

Stay tuned…

–Jim

7 comments


  • Irenee

    Thank you for the beautiful info and images! Would it be possible to get locations of these species? I will be going through the BRP on the 4th, and as an amateur plant photographer, I would love to find some of these orchids!

    June 28, 2018
  • Very interesting on the hybrid milkweed! Thanks for sharing.

    June 28, 2018
  • Beautiful photos! I was looking Loesel’s Twayblade this past weekend but was unable to find it. I am so envious of all the flowers you saw just in one day!

    June 28, 2018
  • Charles L. Argue

    It is always a pleasure reading your blog and viewing your photos.

    June 29, 2018
  • Carol Allen

    Very cool that you saw the hybrid milkweed!

    June 29, 2018
  • sam

    Lovely, Jim, wish I was there! I also have a hybrid milkweed nearby, and it produces seed reliably each year. I guess the seeds are fertile as there are some more nearby, with the happy parents flanking the group.

    June 30, 2018
  • sonnia hill

    I have never seen such a bright colored Ascepias tuberosa. Wow! Time for Part 2.

    June 30, 2018

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