Wildflowers of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina — 2018-07-21 and 2018-07-22

On Saturday and Sunday, July 21 and 22, 2018, I visited the Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, North Carolina and the Blue Ridge Parkway in the western North Carolina mountains. The target species were Triphora trianthophorus or Three-birds orchid and Lilium superbum or Turk’s-cap Lily. By observing weather conditions on an online amateur weather station near the orchids, I had calculated that the orchids would be in bloom on either Saturday or Sunday. However, they might be a day or so late due to the immaturity of the plants; this being the first bloom cycle of the season. It used to be early August before the first wave of blooms, but due to climate change, they are blooming nearer to mid-July. As I had guessed, they orchids were ready to pop, but I was still a day early. So, I drove on up to the Blue Ridge Parkway to try to locate some good specimens of Turk’s-cap Lilies.

Well, that turned out not to be a problem at all. This year has brought an explosion of these Lilies along the Parkway. I could not drive a mile without seeing these towering (6-10 feet or 1.8-3 meters tall) plants, loaded with red-orange blooms, and they were being swarmed by large numbers of Battus philenor or Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies. What a spectacular sight to see these beauties arching over the lower-growing shrubs on the side of the road! Here are some examples of these lovely Lilies:

Turk's-cap LilyTurk’s-cap Lily

This is one plant whose flowers are easy to photograph from underneath, where the important floral parts are visible. It was difficult to find a group of flowers without a herd of butterflies flitting back and forth, poking up into the flowers while searching for nectar. Check out this Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly — one of many hundreds that I saw around the Lilies:

Turk's-cap Lily and Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly

Turk's-cap Lily

Turk's-cap Lily

Turk's-cap Lily

Turk's-cap Lily

This drive took me to one of my favorite spots on the Parkway — Wolf Mountain Overlook. There is always some wonderful wildflower bloom going on at this location. Today was no exception. The first wildflower I noticed was an orchid which was growing at the foot of the wet drip cliff face. Gymnadeniopsis clavellata or Club-spur orchid is a rather diminutive orchid with tiny, light yellow-green flowers that seem to twist and turn in every direction:

Club-spur orchid

Club-spur orchid Club-spur orchid
Club-spur orchid Club-spur orchid

Just down the road from the Club-spur orchids, I found a number of Triantha glutenosa or Sticky False Asphodel in full bloom. I had known about this disjunct population for a while, but until last year, I had not seen them in flower:

Sticky False Asphodel

Sticky False Asphodel Sticky False Asphodel

Sticky False Asphodel

After photographing the Sticky False Asphodel, I made my way back to my truck. On the way, I noticed a reddish color on the wet cliff face about head high. Upon closer observation, I could see that this was a large patch of Drosera rotundifolia or Roundleaf Sundew. I’ve seen them here before, but not so dense a group:

Roundleaf Sundew

Roundleaf Sundew

Roundleaf Sundew

Just below the Sundews was another plant coming into bloom. At peak flowering, it is virtually covered with bright yellow flowers. It is Hypericum densiflorum or Bushy St. Johnswort:

Bushy St. Johnswort

It was time to head back toward home. As I headed north on the Parkway, I was pleased to see lots of summer wildflowers along the roadside. Some of them were quite striking, such as this group of Phlox carolina or Carolina Phlox and Silene virginica or Fire Pink:

Roadside wildflowers

Fire Pink

Continuing to drive north, I passed a massive wet cliff face at about 5,500 feet (1,676 meters) in elevation, which hosted thick mats of Sphagnum moss. This looked like it might be interesting, so I soon found a place to pull off the road. Gathering my camera gear, I walked back to the area with the largest Sphagnum mats to see what I could find. Lo and behold, there was a Chelone or Turtlehead species in full bloom. I had never seen one bloom so early in the year. In addition, the flowers were much smaller than the typical Turtlehead flowers I’m used to seeing on this part of the Parkway. Here is a shot of the habitat and a few images of the plant in question:

Habitat for Chelone lyonii

Pink Turtlehead

Pink Turtlehead

After I returned home that night and consulted with a few expert botanists, I was persuaded to believe that the plant is Chelone lyonii or Pink Turtlehead.

This turned out to be a good location, because I found a beautiful fern which I could not identify. Those same expert botanists informed me that it was Phegopteris connectilis or Long Beech fern. Thanks guys, I appreciate your help with both of these species.

Long Beech Fern

Long Beech Fern Long Beech Fern

It was now late in the day, and having been on the road for about 10 hours, I was determined not to be distracted by anything else as I made my way home. If I needed to do so, I could always come back tomorrow after I checked the Triphora in the Pisgah National Forest. I was certain that they would be in bloom on Sunday. Well, that didn’t work well, because on the way back down the mountain and into the Pisgah National Forest, I remembered a roadside site where there usually were a number of Goodyera pubescens or Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchids. It really was just an hour or so before sunset, so I had to hurry.

I could see the blooming plants from my parking spot on the side of the road. I gathered my camera gear and walked the sort distance into the woods where the orchids were growing. Here are some shots of these beautiful orchids:

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchidsn Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchids
Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchids Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchids

And, a shot of the beautiful, evergreen leaves of this terrestrial, native orchid:

Leaves of Goodyera pubescens

Well, Sunday dawned, and I received a text message from a Florida friend, Chris Evans, who was spending the week camping with his kids about 1 mile (1.6 km) from the Triphora site in the Pisgah National Forest. His message read, “They are blooming today!”. That was good news, since it corroborated my calculations and meant that I would not be driving for 1.5 hours to find that the plants were still not in bloom. Walter Ezell decided he would join me on this trip, so we left home and headed toward Brevard, North Carolina and the Pisgah National Forest.

Upon arriving at the site, we loaded our camera gear and headed into the open woods. In no time, I spotted the first orchid flower. Walter busied himself by photographing a strange fungus species which we would later see more of in another section of the woods. Here is this first Triphora of the season:

Three-birds orchid

Little did I know, but there was a yellow-jacket nest right next to the plant. I must have stepped on it as I left, because as Walter approached the plant to photograph it, he was met with a swarm of angry yellow-jackets. After a painful sting on his eyebrow, he vowed to stay away from that particular portion of the woods. There were plenty of other orchids in other parts of the woods, so no problem. Here are some additional shots of the Three-birds orchids that we photographed:

Three-birds orchid Three-birds orchid

Three-birds orchids

Three-birds orchid Three-birds orchid
Three-birds orchid Three-birds orchid

Three-birds orchids

Three-birds orchids

As I mentioned earlier, we found several different species of fungus in the woods. This has been a very wet summer, unlike anything we had seen before, so good fungal growth was expected. Here are a couple of the better ones we found:

First, Artomyces pixidatus or Crown Coral fungus:

Crown Coral fungus

Next, Clavulinopsis fusiformis or Golden Spindles fungus:

Golden Spindles fungus

Aren’t those just exquisite? Because fungi are not my specialty, I may have misidentified one or both of those, so please let me know if I should change the identification.

We finished with the Triphora and fungus and headed to one last stop several miles away. It was about time for another couple of orchid species to be in bloom. The first of these is Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis or Slender Ladies’-tresses orchid. I’ve been visiting this same roadside/power line site for a couple of years, ever since my friend, Neil Jacobs told me about it. On this trip, I found some large brown patches under the power lines where the power company apparently sprayed herbicide. It must have been done late in the year last year, because it did not appear to affect the orchids to any significant measure. In any case, here are some images of these tiny orchid flowers:

Slender Ladies'-tresses orchid

Slender Ladies'-tresses orchid Slender Ladies'-tresses orchid
Slender Ladies'-tresses orchid Slender Ladies'-tresses orchid

Slender Ladies'-slipper orchid

This is the same roadside area where we have found a large number of Platanthera ciliaris or Yellow Fringed orchids. We did see a lot of them, but only one plant had open flowers. I will have to come back in a week or so to see them in all of their glory. Here is the one with a few open flowers:

Yellow Fringed orchid

It was time to head back home and call it a weekend. On our way back, we passed a curve in the road where there were several Sabatia angularis or Rosepink in full bloom. I have seen these grow and bloom in the same area for several years now. I stopped the truck and we got out our gear for one last set of photographs. Before I set up the tripod, I took a long whiff of the sweet floral fragrance. Very nice…

Rosepink

Rosepink

It took us a short time to drive through the National Forest to El Chapala Mexican restaurant in Brevard. That’s my go-to place to eat after photography up there. As we ate, we talked about the great time we had in the woods with the wildflowers and orchids. The Pisgah National Forest in Transylvania County and the Blue Ridge Parkway in the mountains of North Carolina have continued to offer splendid wildflower photography opportunities in every season but winter. This year was no exception. I consider myself very fortunate to live within just a couple of hours drive from these treasured locations.

I don’t have another trip firmly planned at this point. Time to sit back and relax for a few weeks. Of course, mid-August brings a rush to the Carolina coastal plain for the fringed orchids as well as other mid-summer wildflowers. We will just have to wait and see…

Until then,

–Jim

12 comments


  • Virginia Craig

    You capture nature’s flowers beautifully. Thanks for sharing.

    July 23, 2018
  • Skip Pudney

    Looks like a couple of very good days, indeed! Man, you’re on a roll.

    July 23, 2018
  • Margie Anderton

    Jim, since I found your blog I have traveled right along with you! I’m not able to get out and hike now but have been wishing for a Blue Ridge trip! I live in the western corner of Alabama so its a long trip for me but I have my memories and your pictures to console me!

    July 24, 2018
  • tom sampliner

    spectacular as always from you. Am envious of the three birds as they are no where around here and I would have to drive for better part of a day on a blind guess to hopefully catch them. Some year i have to pitch a tent near you guys and just follow you around to all these wonderful sites you learn or know about.

    July 24, 2018
  • Scott

    More wonderful photos of incredible plants. You missed one photo – Walter’s eyebrow. It might have been a real prize.

    July 24, 2018
  • John Neufeld

    fantastic as always

    July 24, 2018
  • Mike parsons

    Fantastic as usual

    July 25, 2018
  • Kathy Gregg

    You really hit the jackpot this trip! Wow!

    July 26, 2018
  • Ann McCormick

    Fantastic!

    July 26, 2018
  • I MUST make arrangements to meet you sooner or later! If you’re going to be down east in a couple of weeks, get in touch.

    July 26, 2018
  • Chris Benard

    So glad I found your site. I check my email every day to follow your travels. Thanks

    July 27, 2018
  • Carmen

    Hey Jim, I met you on mine mountain trail in Dupont.
    We hiked in Jones Gap today and was so excited to see the three birds orchids blooming! I had never seen them outside of your blog. It was a thrilling end to a really long hike. There were two main locations where we saw them. Crane fly orchids were numerous.
    Carmen

    August 04, 2018

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