Francis Marion National Forest and the Carolina Coastal Plains Fringed Orchids — 2018-08-12

It is my usual delight to visit the Carolina coastal plain during mid-August. The wildflowers, especially the fringed orchids are usually in abundance. What I would normally do is visit the Francis Marion National Forest (the majority of Berkeley County, South Carolina) and then head over to the Green Swamp (the majority of Brunswick County, North Carolina) the next day. However, this year, I did not have the luxury of spending two days along the coastal plain. So I decided to visit just the Francis Marion NF and call it a day.

I had recently been in contact with good friend, Jeff Jackson, resident of the city of North Charleston, South Carolina, which is just a hop away from the FMNF. I told him that I was planning to come down on Sunday and asked if he would like to join me on a field trip. I was pleased when he agreed. The weather forecast was for 50% rain, but sometimes the forecast is wrong. So at 5:15 am on early Sunday morning, I left Greenville and headed to our meeting place in the Francis Marion National Forest. It’s a 4-hour trip for me, but I had my thoughts of lots of orchids and other wildflowers to keep my juices flowing.

We met at Bonneau Ferry Wildlife Management Area, a SCDNR site which covers 10,700 acres (4,330 hectares) of pine savannahs, bottomland hardwoods, wildlife openings, wetlands, and reservoirs. The earliest known date of existence of the ferry crossing was 1712. Anthony Bonneau’s ferry landing was established here, along the banks of the Cooper River, by a legislative act. The ferry soon became a private enterprise and remained so until 1798. The nearby plantation house, Bonneau’s Ferry Plantation, was built around not long after the ferry was established. In 1742, Anthony Bonneau died willing the 3,020 acre (1,220 hectare) plantation, on which he resided, to sons Samuel and Benjamin Bonneau. It seems that Samuel and his wife Mary became sole owners at some point. So the name, Bonneau Ferry. In 2004, The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources acquired a 10,700-acre tract from MeadWestvaco which included the original Bonneau plantation property.

I was excited to finally visit this location, having passed the turnoff many times over the past dozen years or so of my time spent in the FMNF. Jeff had seen several Platanthera species down there over the years, and we had high hopes of seeing some good ones on this day’s visit. We ended up spending about an hour driving around and walking the pine savannahs, but did not find much worth photographing. One of the target orchids was Platanthera cristata or Crested Fringed orchid, but they are the earliest of the ones to flower along the coastal plain, and the ones we saw at Bonneau Ferry were pretty much done. I did photograph some other wildflowers there which I will mention toward the end the blog.

So, we decided to head on into the Francis Marion where we both knew there would be some good orchids to photograph. Jeff had done some scouting on a previous visit, and he knew the location for some Crested Fringed orchids in a bottomland swamp. But first, we headed to a site where I had seen Platanthera conspicua or Southern White Fringed orchids in previous years. I had visited the site in May of this year, and saw that it had been burned very recently prior to that visit. That was good news, because a winter burn or even a late spring burn will clear out much of the choking vegetation that might prevent the orchids from blooming.

We arrived at the spot and gathered our camera gear. It was just a short walk into the savannah before we saw the first sign of bright white orchid flowers. They were growing in a fairly open area surrounded by ferns. Here is a shot of the first Southern White Fringed orchid we spotted:

Southern White Fringed orchidSouthern White Fringed orchid

Walking over burned out stumps and hillocks of savannah grasses is no easy feat. There are also fire-line ditches as well as deep potholes where old tree stumps have been burned out over many years of prescribed burns. Those suckers are deep! And they are often hidden by grass and ferns. In addition, it is necessary to be aware of spider webs connected to trees. One of the culprits that is responsible for building really strong spider webs is Nephila clavipes or the Golden silk orb-weaver spider or Banana spider. The silk is exceedingly strong and thick, and you really know it when you do a face plant into one of those bad boys! Here is an image of this particular spider:

Female and male Golden silk orb-weaver spiders

A few things to note in this shot:

1. The female we saw was at least 3 inches (7.5 cm) long (probably longer — I didn’t measure her) from tip to tip.
2. There is also a male spider in this shot. Can you find him? He is quite a bit smaller than the female. He’s pretty lucky, because he is usually devoured by the female after mating…
3. The silk is, indeed, golden-colored. Even so, it is almost impossible to spot, especially when you are looking down to the ground for wildflowers.
4. She has captured a large insect of some sort and has wrapped it tightly in silk for a future meal.

Back to the wildflowers… Here are some additional shots of the Southern White Fringed orchids we saw:

Southern White Fringed orchid Southern White Fringed orchid
Southern White Fringed orchid Southern White Fringed orchid
Southern White Fringed orchid Southern White Fringed orchid

Some of these came from a site just down the forest service road from where we found the first ones. The plants at the second site were not as large, but I think they were in better shape. We also found a few Platanthera ciliaris or Yellow Fringed orchids nearby. Some people insist on calling this the Orange Fringed orchid, and for good reason, but so far I’m sticking to the common name I’ve always used for them. We didn’t see many of them in full bloom:

Yellow Fringed orchid Yellow Fringed orchid

In the Francis Marion NF, the Yellow Fringed orchids are in full bloom about a week after the Southern White Fringed orchids peak. There are always a few of each species that do not get the bloom-time email, and since native orchids are notoriously promiscuous, there is usually a butterfly (the favorite pollinator of both species) that is willing to visit both species in succession, therefore creating a hybrid between the two. Both Jeff and I were excited to find one lone specimen of this hybrid orchid, Platanthera Xlueri or Luer’s hybrid Fringed orchid in the midst of all of the Southern White Fringed orchids we were seeing!

Luer's hybrid Fringed orchid Luer's hybrid  Fringed orchid

I came back later that afternoon for further scouting after Jeff had left, and I found an additional one just up the road:

Luer's hybrid Fringed orchid

I have been lucky enough, over the years, to photograph a number of this particular hybrid orchid in flower. The color of the flowers can vary from a light, creamy yellow to more of a yellowish latte color. Here are a couple of shots of this hybrid that I’ve seen in years past:

Luer's hybrid Fringed orchid Luer's hybrid Fringed orchid

Here is a collage of three shots that might explain the process a bit better:

Make-up of Luer's hybrid Fringed orchid

In any case, this is certainly something to look for when visiting an area where both the Yellow Fringed orchid and the Southern White Fringed orchid grow in close proximity.

We spent a good bit of time at this spot enjoying the wonderful show of native orchids in bloom. I was happy to share this site with Jeff, especially since he was going to take me to a few of his favorite spots in the Francis Marion.

I mentioned earlier that the Platanthera cristata or Crested Fringed orchids had about bloomed out for the year. We did see a couple of fairly nice ones at the Southern White Fringed orchid location, but Jeff had recently visited a particular bottomland swamp site a few minutes away, and he was eager to show it to me. It is a site that, I suspect, is periodically flooded in heavy rains. The water table was up already because of the amount of rain that this area had received in the past month. Crested Fringed orchids just love wet, sandy muck; I often see them growing in several inches of water. Lucky for them (and us, for that matter) that this site is perfect in that respect!

When we arrived on the gravel forest service road and pulled up next to the swampy area, I immediately saw dozens of yellow/orange “torches” shining in the dappled light. We had reached the mother lode! I wasted no time in finding the best ones to photograph and setting up our gear so that the tripod wouldn’t sink too deeply into the mud. Trying to level a tripod in loose, sandy muck is a challenge. Sometimes, between when I am able to frame the shot and release the shutter, the camera is slowly drifting off to the side. Also fortunate for us, we both had brought along calf-high rubber boots. Stomping around in boot-sucking mud is no fun in hiking boots or tennis shoes, for sure.

Out of the several dozen blooming plants of the Crested Fringe orchids we saw and photographed at this site, here are a few select shots:

Crested Fringed orchid Crested Fringed orchid
Crested Fringed orchid Crested Fringed orchid
Crested Fringed orchid Crested Fringed orchid

Wow! What a place! I’ll certainly look here this time next year.

We had been seeing the beautiful Lilium catesbaei or Catesby’s Pine Lily blooming in the ditches along the gravel, forest service roads. I’ve photographed this colorful wildflower many times, but when we passed a group of a dozen or more of them in full bloom. We both agreed that we must stop and photograph some of them. Here is the result:

Catesby's Pine Lily Catesby's Pine Lily
Catesby's Pine Lily Catesby's Pine Lily

Catesby's Pine Lily

This lily, as well as many more of our Southeastern flora, was named after Mark Catesby, an English naturalist and insatiable adventurer. Wikipedia states, “Between 1729 and 1747, Catesby published his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, the first published account of the flora and fauna of North America. It included 220 plates of birds, reptiles and amphibians, fish, insects, and mammals, as well as plants.”

The few existing folios (in two volumes) are just gorgeous, and they are highly prized by wealthy collectors. The hand tinted plates are large: 14 inches x 21 inches (35.5 cm x 53 cm). One complete set was recently offered at auction for $470,000 US! It is a sacrilege to separate the prints from the original folio, but some unscrupulous collectors will do that. Many of the separate prints sell in the $5,000 US range. If any of you, Dear Readers, just happen to have a spare 2-volume folio, I’d welcome it as a generous gift, and I will be more than happy to credit you in a future blog post! 😉

Two other wildflower species that we saw in great abundance were Marshallia graminifolia or Grassleaf Barbara’s Buttons and Liatris spicata var. spicata or Dense Blazing Star.

A field of Grassleaf Barbara's Buttons

Grassleaf Barbara's Buttons

Grassleaf Barbara's Buttons

Dense Blazing star

I’ll mention a few other odds-and-ends to wrap up this post. One plant that I saw and photographed at Bonneau Ferry WMA was Phyla lanceolata or Frog Fruit. It’s tiny white and purple flowers are porcelain-like but quite small. It’s fairly widespread in the Southeast, and I was happy to see lots of it growing beside the gravel road:

Frog Fruit Frog Fruit

Growing among the Frog Fruit was a diminutive plant with small, pinkish purple flowers. It is Asemeia (formerly Polygala) grandiflora or Showy Milkwort. It is another widespread plant which I’ve seen only along the coastal plain:

Showy Milkwort

One yellow-flowered plant that really stuck out for me was Hypericum crux-andreae or St. Peter’s-wort:

St. Peter's-wort

Now, back to the Francis Marion NF proper. Here is a plant we were seeing in great profusion almost everywhere we stopped. It is Polygala ramosa or Low Pinebarren Milkwort. There is a much taller and similar-looking version of this species, Polygala cymosa or Tall Pinebarren Milkwort, but it was already bloomed out:

Low Pinebarren Milkwort

I can’t close out this trip report without mentioning a plant which is as toxic as it is beautiful. That is Zigadenus glaberrimus or Sandbog Deathcamus. It often reaches 3-4 feet (1-1.3 meters in height) and has flowers with strange, green spots on the tepals. All parts of this plant are acutely toxic due to the presence of alkaloids such as zygacine. Grazing animals, such as sheep and cattle may be affected, and this or related species have caused human fatalities.

Sandbog Deathcamus Sandbog Deathcamus

It was really fun being out in the field with Jeff Jackson. One thing that I did not mention was the brief time we spent in a swampy area of the Francis Marion NF looking for another orchid species, Malaxis spicata or Florida Adder’s-mouth orchid. Along the Carolina coastal plain, it blooms from mid-July to mid-August, and it inhabits swampy areas with high water tables. We had walked about 100 yards (100 meters) into this particular swampy area when it began to sprinkle rain. It had been threatening rain for the latter portion of our trip, but I thought we would be lucky and have just a sprinkle. Well, just as I was pointing out an example of the plant in flower, the bottom dropped out! We both realized that we should make it back to our vehicles post-haste as we heard thunder in the distance.

We were both drenched to the bone, so Jeff decided to call it a day. I stayed on in my truck for another hour or so, trying to dry myself and my equipment, and waiting for the rain to stop. It finally did, so I gathered my camera gear and began to headed back to the spot where I had found one of the orchid plants in bloom. But before I reached the spot, I realized that the water table had risen about a foot (30 cm) due to the heavy rain. My rubber boots were sorely inadequate for the task, and I had to turn around with the thoughts of missed photographic opportunities in the back of my head. You win some; you lose some…

But, the day was a roaring success. I got the chance to do some field photography with a friend whom I had not seen in more than a year, and I learned of some new places to go in the Francis Marion NF. Win-win!

Until next time,

–Jim

9 comments


  • Tony Willis

    Superb photographs ,a delight to see

    August 14, 2018
  • Lovely photos and descriptions like always. Very happy to see my two favorite families (Orchidaceae and Polygalaceae) in one post!

    August 14, 2018
  • Fabulous, Jim, I learn so much from you!. Could you explain the differences between the yellow fringed and the crested fringe orchids? The crested fringe seem more disheveled and to have more fringes, but other that that, are there other ways to tell one from the other?

    August 14, 2018
    • Jim

      Hey Elena,

      There are a few significant differences:

      1. The flowers of Yellow Fringed orchid (YFO) are about 2 to 3 times larger than those of Crested Fringed orchid (CFO).
      2. The color of YFO is usually that of the old fashioned “dreamcicle”, whereas the flower color of CFO is usually a bright, golden yellow.
      3. The fringe on the lip of YFO is usually much longer than the fringe on the lip of CFO.
      4. The fringe on CFO usually looks a mess, all twisted and crinkley, whereas the fringe on YFO is usually straight.
      5. The preferred habitat is different. CFO likes to have its feet wet (I’ve seen it growing in a couple of inches of water). YFO prefers a much drier habitat.

      I hope this non-scientific answer helps,

      Jim

      August 14, 2018
  • I was looking over your Polygala photos again. For the racemed milkwort (Polygala racemosa) did you in fact mean Polygala polygama? I was unable to find a species online called Polygala racemosa, other than it being a synonym for Polygala barbeyana, which is only found in the southwest. But even then, Polygala polygama has more fringed petals and less color variation in a single flower. Maybe the plant in question is actually something else?

    August 14, 2018
  • Ann McCormick

    Love your blog! The information and photos are always fantastic!

    August 14, 2018
  • Bob

    Hi Jim,

    Great photos and commentary, as usual. Has it been determined that P.conspicua is a distinct species rather than a variety of P. blephariglottis ??

    August 14, 2018
    • Jim

      Hey Bob,

      Things like this are never really settled, it seems. But to my satisfaction, it is settled. Images of both species put side to side, I can usually tell them apart from one another. It really depends on whom you ask…

      Jim

      August 14, 2018
  • Rosanne Bornholdt

    Really enjoyed the photos and explanation of the Banana Spider!

    August 16, 2018

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