Part 1 of 4 — A Texas wildflower adventure – Texas Purple Spike orchid — 2018-07-11 and 2018-07-12

A few months ago, I viewed some images on Flickr which is an online photostream repository. These images included a couple of orchid species that I have wanted to see and photograph for quite a while. The photographer is someone whom I have followed for quite a while. His name is Matt Buckingham, and he lives in Lufkin, Texas. He doesn’t photograph just wildflowers, he also loves to photograph birds, insects, snakes, and anything else provided by nature.

Not too long ago, I asked him if he would guide me on a trip to photograph some of the wildflowers he has seen in Texas. Much to my surprise, he agreed to do so! My target orchid species were two Hexalectris species: Hexalectris warnockii or Texas Purple Spike orchid aka Texas Crested Coralroot orchid, and Hexalectris grandiflora or Giant Crested Coralroot orchid. In addition, Texas has about 25 different Asclepias species or Milkweeds, and those are also high on any list of target species I could come up with. So Walter Ezell and I made arrangements to pay a visit to Texas on July 11 through July 16, hoping we could find at least one of the target orchid species in flower as well as a few Milkweeds.

Matt and a Flickr friend and master naturalist from Tyler, Texas, Sonnia Hill, had told me that a good place to start looking for H. warnockii is Cedar Ridge Nature Preserve just south of Dallas, Texas. Sonnia and her husband, Bob were spending a few days in Dallas, but she couldn’t make it to the Preserve with us. But, they did ask us out for a delicious meal in Dallas’ Galleria shopping center. I’ve known Sonnia on Flickr for a few years and had never met her, so this “face to face” was especially nice.

The Cedar Ridge Nature Preserve, managed by Audubon Dallas, is quite disjunct for the Texas Purple Spike orchid, but it is fairly reliable this time of year. H. warnockii was originally found at the Preserve in 1986 but nothing much was done with the information. Then, in 2003, a botanical inventory was done and around 40 H. warnockii plants were found. This orchid species was better known from much farther west, particularly in the Big Bend and Davis Mountains area of western Texas and in the Chiricahua Mountains of extreme southeastern Arizona. So our plan was to fly into Dallas, look for the orchids, then drive into west Texas to look for other species in the Davis Mountains. Matt and his wife, Carolina (Caro) Paez would be our guides. Matt and Caro would have a several-hour drive to meet us, so we agreed to meet at the Preserve on Thursday morning, look around, then head west.

Walter and I flew into Dallas early on Wednesday but could not check into our rented Airbnb accommodations until 3:00 pm, so we decided to drive directly to the Preserve and see if we could locate the orchids on our own. Turns out, the local chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists monitors this orchid species in the Preserve during June and July. Fortunately for us, they mark the location of every plant they find by orange survey tape, so it was quite easy for us to locate a few good subjects to photograph. Here is an example of this gorgeous orchid species:

Texas Purple Spike orchid Texas Purple Spike orchid

The orchid plants grow in soil which is underlaid with limestone. The shallow layer of leaf litter is composed of needles/scales of two coniferous species: Juniperus virginiana or Eastern red cedar and Juniperus ashei or Ashe juniper, and leaves of primarily two oak species: Quercus stellata or Post oak and Quercus macrocarpa or Bur oak. Even though the plants began to send up flower spikes upon the beginning of the July-August monsoon/rainy season, it was remarkably dry at the location where we found the plants.

As we walked down the main trail, I was wondering if I would be able to spot this well-camouflaged orchid on the side of the trail. If it had not been for the flagging tape, I’m sure that I would not have been able to find it. About half-way down the one-mile (1.6 km) trail, we were greeted by a number of orange flags scattered in the woods. Even fairly up close to the flags, the flowers were extremely hard to spot. Because this is a Coralroot orchid species, there are no leaves — the plants get all of their nutrition from an underground fungus which invades the root-like body of the plant and thereby exchange carbon and mineral nutrients. This process is known as mycoheterotrophy.

We were hearing rumbles of thunder in distance, so we knew we did not have a lot of time to do much photography before the rains and lightning would drive us back to the vehicle. We did manage to photograph a few of the plants, knowing that Matt and Caro would be joining us the next morning for a full-on photography experience.

Here is a view from the trail into the woods, showing several of the orange flagging-tape markers. Try as I might, I cannot spot any of the plants from the photograph, so you will just have to trust me that they are actually there!

Orchid habitat

The plants consist of slender bloom spikes with 6 to 15, 3/4-inch-wide (19 mm) flowers. For the most part, the flowers tend to nod or droop, so they are a challenge to photograph, especially if the goal is to find several flowers in the same focal plane. Here is a shot of a single plant with 9 opened flowers and three unopened buds:

Texas Purple Spike orchid spike

On our next-morning trip with Matt and Caro, we did manage to find one plant with a couple of flowers that faced forward just perfectly. Here is a selection of shots from this one plant. Note the pale yellow, raised “crest” of ridges on the lip:

Texas Purple Spike orchid

Texas Purple Spike orchid

Texas Purple Spike orchid

Texas Purple Spike orchid Texas Purple Spike orchid

Texas Purple Spike orchid

As I mentioned, most of the other blooming plants had drooping flowers, so that in order to photograph them, I had to find a forked twig to stake the stem and lean it backward. I had to be very careful, because the stems are very succulent and brittle, and I did NOT want to break any of them. Here are some shots of these drooping flowers:

Texas Purple Spike orchid Texas Purple Spike orchid
Texas Purple Spike orchid Texas Purple Spike orchid

Texas Purple Spike orchid

I even found a couple of albino-looking plants with absolutely no red/purple coloration, but the flowers apparently do not fully open on those yellow plants:

Albino-looking Texas Purple Spike orchid plant

Not a bad start to a wildflower photography adventure! As we were leaving the Preserve, I stopped the vehicle, got out and took this shot of the Preserve sign:

Cedar Ridge Nature Preserve sign

Although I had not met Matt and Caro before this trip, I could tell that we would be having a fun time. And, I have to say that Caro has “magic” vision — she can spot orchid flowers “from a mile away”. I do believe she has a sixth sense that allows her to do this. Whatever the reason, she certainly provided many more opportunities to photograph plants than would have happened without her help. She would definitely be using her talent on the next leg of our adventure in the Davis Mountains of west Texas: another Coralroot orchidHexalectris grandiflora or Giant Crested Coralroot orchid.

Stay tuned…

–Jim

9 comments


  • Tony Willis

    Jim that is a stunning orchid and what beautiful photographs

    July 17, 2018
  • sonnia hill

    Jim, I had just gone to flickr a few minutes ago to see if your photos were there. I did not see them, but by the time I went back to FB your wonderful blog was ready and loaded with those marvelous Hexalectris warnockii photos.

    I echo what you said about meeting in person. I checked flickr and we “met” at least 9 years ago.

    July 17, 2018
  • Jim, I am grateful for your spirit and your devotion to the art of serving and expressing your gift for all of us to share. The effort you make to get to the flowers you photograph is enviable, and I’m glad you are doing the work! My traveling days are winding down, and my enthusiasm isn’t what I remember it being, so I appreciate all the more being able to vicariously enjoy what you are doing, and celebrate that with each post you make!

    July 17, 2018
  • tom sampliner

    Jim your photography is always spectacular and in the case of this coral root, I know how difficult it is to depict them being so small and flaring out in some many different planes. If you had any wind at the time the task becomes almost impossible. Spectacular images of a tough plant to shoot. Am envious. Hope someday to see the species, it would be a lifer for me.

    July 17, 2018
  • PK

    Spectacular, Jim!

    July 17, 2018
  • chuck ramsey

    Hi, Jim–I was reading the intro to this blog post to my wife as she walked over to view the photos, and when I read “…Giant Crested Coralroot…”, she said “Oh, just a coralroot!”. My response was “This isn’t your average coralroot.” Absolutely beautiful photographs, as always, and the depth of your field of focus is amazing. No, these are not “just a coralroot’!! Thanks so much for sharing.

    July 17, 2018
  • Skip P

    Outstanding! Wonderful write-up and photography of this most interesting plant…and this very much makes me look forward to the next three installments! Are they here yet??? Glad you were able to meet Sonnia, Carolina and Matt. I swear, I don’t know how Caro finds the things that she does but will go with your assessment of a “6th sense” for lack of a better explanation. It’s uncanny! Matt is a fantastic wealth of knowledge and almost all that I have learned about Texas flora has been through him.

    July 17, 2018
  • John Fowler

    that is indeed a beautiful plant. I am glad that you found some.

    July 17, 2018
  • Hi Jim, Remarkable shots. You gave me permission to use your photos in OrchidRoots, so I borroweed some. With links back to this page for the benefit of other orchidroots users.

    July 31, 2018

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