Part 2 of 2 — Purple Fringed orchids on the Blue Ridge Parkway, NC — 2018-06-24

In case you missed it, Here is a link to Part 1 of 2 for this weekend trip.

After traveling north on the Blue Ridge Parkway on Saturday, on Sunday, Alan Cressler and I made the trip south from the intersection of Hwy. 221 and the BRP near Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina. Our target location was Mt. Mitchell State Park. The access road from the BRP to the top of the mountain is populated with scores of Platanthera psycodes or Small Purple Fringed orchids. Around the last week in June each year, I try to make the pilgrimage to this location because these orchids almost never let me down. They come in a variety of shades from pure white (still have not found this one) to pink to deep rosy-purple. Here is one showing the typical color found in the large majority of plants at this site:

Small Purple Fringed orchid Small Purple Fringed orchid

My favorite color form is the scarce pink form. On this trip, we saw just 3 or 4 of them out of the thousands flowering plants along the roadside. Here is an example of this one:

Pink form of the Small Purple Fringed orchid

For botanical geeks only: The Small Purple Fringed orchids at Mt. Mitchell range in height from 8 inches (20 cm) to 24 inches (60 cm); the taller ones are generally found growing in the shade. The flowers are usually around one-half inch (12 mm) wide. There has been much discussion about the difference between Platanthera psycodes or the Small Purple Fringed orchid and Platanthera grandiflora or the Large Purple Fringed orchid; mostly concerning the size of the flowers, but at least in our southeast region, the flowers are about the same size. There is an insignificant color difference that can be discerned after seeing the flowers over a number of years, but it is not a characteristic that is determinative. I have noticed more variability in the color of the Small Purple Fringed orchid, but again, that is not determinative.

There is one feature that is significant in determining the difference, and that is the shape of the nectary opening, which is found in the center of the flower. For the Small Purple Fringed orchid, the nectary opening is partially hidden by the male reproductive parts (the pollinarium), but is generally considered “pinched” and in the shape of a barbell. For the Large Purple Fringed orchid, the nectary opening is larger and almost round. Here is a close-up example of each species; Large Purple Fringed orchid on the left, and the Small Purple Fringed orchid on the right:

Large Purple Fringed orchid Small Purple Fringed orchid

You might also notice differences in the polliniaria structures in front of and to either side of the nectary opening. The differences (larger and spaced wider apart for the Large Purple Fringed orchid and smaller and spaced closer together for the Small Purple Fringed orchid) are readily apparent upon inspection. This difference in structure dictates a pollination mechanism that is more suited to different pollinators. I have observed on many occasions at this site that the Small Purple Fringed orchid is pollinated by Epargyreus clarus or the Silver Spotted Skipper, while I have seen Battus philenor or the Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly visit the Large Purple Fringed orchid. That is not to say those are the only pollinators of these orchids.

The larger, wider spaced pollinaria of the Large Purple Fringed orchid are situated such that the pollinia will be stuck to the head/eyes of the pollinator as it jams its head forward to reach the nectar, while the more closely spaced pollinaria of the Small Purple Fringed orchid will be stuck to the proboscis of the pollinator. It is also thought that the barbel shape of the nectary opening of the Small Purple Fringed orchid is designed to cause the pollinator’s proboscis to shift either right or left, thereby positioning the proboscis more closely to either of the pollinia.

‘Nuf said about that. Now, back to our scheduled programming…

I try to find instances where several plants grow in a group. This is not a “grouping” species. It does not clump. But sometimes, there are two or three plants that happen to be growing next to one another. Here are a few examples of such a grouping:

Group of Small Purple Fringed orchids

Small Purple Fringed orchids Small Purple Fringed orchids

Pair of Small Purple Fringed orchids

This year brought some larger specimens as well:

Small Purple Fringed orchids Small Purple Fringed orchids

Small Purple Fringed orchid

And, of course, a couple more of the lighter, pink ones:

Small Purple Fringed orchid Small Purple Fringed orchid

Here’s a shot that captures a misplaced/displaced pollinium that was not totally removed from its anther sac. If you have been following my posts for any time at all, you know that this is the kind of thing I like to find. Sometimes, such as on this occasion, I didn’t know I had captured it until I downloaded the images from my camera:

Pink Small Purple Fringed orchid with misplaced/displaced pollinium

Now, isn’t that lavender/pink color just wonderful!?!

But, I have to say that the pièce de résistance of this trip was the scene of hundreds of rather large Small Purple Fringed orchid plants marching up the hillside. I won’t say anymore about this, because a picture is worth a thousand words (in this case, 3 pictures):

Large group of Small Purple Fringed orchids on the hillside

Large group of Small Purple Fringed orchids on the hillside

Large group of Small Purple Fringed orchids on the hillside

After taking a breather from this marvelous display, we decided to have our lunch in the Mt. Mitchell park restaurant. This time of year, it’s always crowded, but we had our meal in relatively short order and proceeded to head toward the top of the mountain where we hoped to find a secretive little wildflower called Oxalis montana or Mountain Woodsorrel. On Mt. Mitchell, which is the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains at 6,684 feet (2,037 meters) above sea level, this wildflower prefers to hide in the spruce-fir trees beside the trail to the observation tower. Here is an excellently written story about these trees on Mt. Mitchell.

When we finally found the small patch of plants, the flowers were not fully open, so Alan went on up to the summit to capture some cloud scenes while I patiently waited for some sun to peak out to help open the flowers. The wait was worth it:

Mountain Woodsorrel

Mountain Woodsorrel

Mountain Woodsorrel

Compared to our other native Oxalis species, this one is a knockout! Its red stripes remind me of another spring-blooming high mountain plant — Trillium undulatum or Painted Trillium (see below). This Oxalis species is found only in the Appalachian Mountain chain from northern Georgia through Maine and into Canada. It seems to like the cooler temperatures of higher elevations.

Painted Trillium

Well, it was now time to head south again. This time, in search of the elusive Platanthera grandiflora or Large Purple Fringed orchid. I know of only three sites for this regionally scarce orchid species along the Parkway, and none of the sites produce more than a handful of flowering plants in any particular year. The first site we visited showed us nothing. I was feeling a bit apprehensive as we approached the second site. But I should not have, because there were about 10 plants in full bloom. Platanthera grandiflora comes into bloom at least a week before Platanthera psycodes, so the plants we saw at this second site were well into bloom. In fact, if we had been there a few days later, they would not have been nearly as nice to photograph. Here are the results of our visit:

Large Purple Fringed orchid

Again, note the round nectary opening and large, widely spaced anthers.

Large Purple Fringed orchid Large Purple Fringed orchid
Large Purple Fringed orchid Large Purple Fringed orchid
Large Purple Fringed orchid Large Purple Fringed orchid

Feeling quite satisfied at finding such nice plants to photograph, we agreed that this would be our last stop for the trip. Alan would be heading back to his home in Atlanta, and he had quite a distance to travel. So, we chatted a bit about the adventure and then said our goodbyes. I headed back north on the Parkway toward the cabin and toward a patch of Penstemon smallii or Small’s Beardtongue I had seen on a rocky outcrop on our trip down to Mt. Mitchell. The color of these flowers and the number of flowers in the patch made it hard to miss. The problem was that where these plants like to grow precludes pulling off the Parkway anywhere near them. So, I had to drive another couple of hundred yards/meters to find a suitable place to pull over. When I walked back to the spot where the plants were growing, I found that I had an additional problem: no space between the rocky outcrop and the road. In addition, the road curved around the outcrop, so I was in a rather blind spot with my butt stuck out into the road. Fortunately, the speed limit on the Parkway is only 45 mph (72 kph), and it being a curve, even slower. But still, when a large pickup truck came around the curve, it was more than a bit unnerving! But, I managed to get off a few shots of this gorgeous wildflower:

Small's Beardtongue

Small's Beardtongue Small's Beardtongue
Small's Beardtongue Small's Beardtongue

I finished up and got back to the truck safely. Whew! That was close. I pulled back onto the Parkway, remembering what a great time we had had out in the field. The plants we had come to see (well, all but one) had performed in spectacular fashion. Even the ones that were a surprise to us, gave me chills as I reflected on our visit. Alan is really a good friend, and we have a lot in common when it comes to photographing our native wildflowers. I treasure his friendship and look forward to many more adventures with him in the Carolinas and Georgia.

My next trip is planned for a visit to Texas in a few weeks. A great nature photographer and Flickr friend, Matt Buckingham, will be guiding Walter Ezell and me on a trip that will take us from Dallas, Texas to the Davis Mountains in west Texas. We hope to locate and photograph several of the Hexalectris (Coralroot) orchids as well as other spectacular wildflowers that Texas is famous for. Wish us luck!

Until then…

–Jim

8 comments


  • Carol Allen

    Fabulous! What an amazing sight to see that number of Platanthera!

    June 29, 2018
  • John D. Fowler

    I didn’t know that flower photography was such a hazardous occupation! BTW, if yall want to travel a few more miles beyond west Texas we would be delighted to see you.

    June 29, 2018
  • Amanda Robinson Rowe

    Absolutely gorgeous! Thanks for sharing. My husband thought the small beardtongue was Skull Cap so I am glad that you shared the pictures.
    Have a safe trip to Texas.

    June 29, 2018
  • Ann McCormick

    FANTASTIC!

    June 29, 2018
  • Carmen

    Beautiful! We are hiking at Mt Mitchell today. I am happy that the purples are in abundance. My pictures, however, will not be anything like yours.

    June 30, 2018
  • tom sampliner

    Jim fantastic photography and outstanding story as always. You must consider writing all of your blogs into a travelogue book, along the lines of what Phil Keenan did years ago. We orchid and botany folks would enthusiastically receive it.

    June 30, 2018
  • Lovely collection of shots Jim.I loved that area and would love to come again.The pink ones are really my favourite.

    June 30, 2018
  • sonnia hill

    My favorite part was the section “For botanical geeks only”. Such lovely colors of the orchids and I agree that the lavender/pink ones are very special.

    See you next week.

    June 30, 2018

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