Early fall wildflower color on the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina — 2018-09-05

About a week ago, my good friend and photographer/naturalist, Liz Fox, visited some of my favorite wildflower spots on the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina. She advised me that I’d better get up there, because the wildflowers were already blooming and were in pretty good shape. Personal commitments and lousy weather prevented me from going until yesterday. Although my usual visit time up there is around mid-September, I knew that an earlier visit would allow me to see some of the flowers in early/peak bloom even though some of the species would not be showing blooms at their peak form.

So, the night before, I cleaned my lenses, charged spare camera batteries, and made sure I had some snacks and water for the trip. It’s about a two-hour trip, but I had planned to stop along the way to check out a few sites in the Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, North Carolina. Two orchid species I had in mind in the Pisgah NF are Spiranthes ovalis var. erostellata or October Ladies’-tresses orchid and Corallorhiza odontorhiza or Autumn Coral Root orchid. In good years, these can be found along the Davidson River near the Davidson River Campground. There is a trail along the river where these native orchids hide under the branches of Rhododendron maximum or Rose Bay Rhododendron.

October Ladies'-tresses orchidOctober Ladies’-tresses orchid

Autumn Coral Root orchidAutumn Coral Root orchid

As I drove into the Pisgah National Forest, it began to rain pretty hard. So, I pulled onto a gravel pull-off, determined to wait it out. After only ten minutes or so, the shower lessened, so I gathered my camera gear and headed down the road were I would find a path and a bridge to cross the Davidson River. Once on the other side, I followed a well-worn trail to the spot where I had seen several clumps of Autumn Coral Root orchids in previous years.

Shortly after reaching the spot, I heard thunder and the sky opened up once again. $#&^*! Through the woods just a short distance away, I could see a cinder block restroom/shower facility that was part of the campground complex, so I wasted no time to find some shelter from the pelting rain. While I sat under the eve of the building, I spotted the one and only October Ladies’-tresses orchid that I would find on this day. It was growing about 20 feet (6 meters) away, just at the edge of the woods.

After about 15 minutes, this shower let up and I was able to go over and photograph the orchid:

October Ladies'-tresses orchid

After photographing the orchid, I walked back to where I had seen the clump of Autumn Coral Root orchid, setting up to capture these beauties. After photographing a few separate plant groups, I began to notice the wide range of color found in this usually nondescript species. Normally, at least in our southeast mountain region, the plant is a uniformly yellow-green color:

Autumn Coral Root orchid (typical color form)

But I was also finding plants with dark red stems and tan to yellow swollen ovaries. I mention the ovaries, because this orchid is self-pollinating, and the ovaries begin to swell even as the plant emerges from the leaf litter. In our region, the flowers of this self-pollination orchid species do not open because it is not necessary to attract pollinators. Since the plant does not have showy flowers, it has become known as the orchid that will not win any beauty contests. Even so, it is one I look for this time of year to photograph in order to photograph its strange flowers. Here are a few images of the different color forms I saw growing out of the wet leaf litter:

Autumn Coral Root orchid Autumn Coral Root orchid
Autumn Coral Root orchid Autumn Coral Root orchid
Autumn Coral Root orchid Autumn Coral Root orchid
Autumn Coral Root orchid Autumn Coral Root orchid

Autumn Coral Root orchid

Well, it was now time to continue my trip up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. I really love this part of the trip. It takes me through dense, but open woods whose canopy forms a tunnel of sorts through which the driver enters a green wonderland. Much of the drive skirts a wide mountain creek as it tumbles over large boulders on its way to join the Davidson River. In the late fall, the trees are brightly colored in a palate of yellows, oranges, and reds — one of the best places in the Pisgah National Forest to see brilliant fall color. The drive is also lined with a multitude of wildflowers, mostly consisting of yellow ray-flowers and native Impatiens species. These Impatiens species come in a variety of color forms from almost white to bright yellow to vibrant orange. Below, left to right — Impatiens capensis, Impatiens pallida, and Impatiens pallida forma speciosa:

Impatiens capensis Impatiens pallida Impatiens pallida forma speciosa

Upon reaching the Parkway, I turn west and head south to my first destination. This particular site is one where I have found Gentiana decora or Showy Gentian in previous years. On this trip, I found only two plants, each of which had only a single flower. This is a bit of a disappointment, because in previous years, I have found a number of plants, each of which produced clusters of blue and white flowers. I don’t know why this spot is in decline. Perhaps it’s just the nature of things…

Showy Gentian Showy Gentian

Unlike many of our mountain Gentian species, these flowers are open at the top. I have seen this species with only closed flowers. Again, I do not know what causes some of the flowers of this species to open while others remain closed.

Next to these plants were some Medeola virginiana or Indian Cucumber-root. I’ve never photographed this plant when in flower, but I thought the seeds (actually berries) were so attractive, that I didn’t want to pass them by. An interesting note about this species is that the genus, Medeola, has been incorporated into the specific epithet of a rare orchid, Isotria medeoloides or Small Whorled Pogonia orchid. The term, “medeoloiodes”, means “looks like Medeola“, referring to the whorl of leaves of Medeola virginiana. I am picturing both of these species so that you can understand the reference. Left: Medeola virginana. Right: Isotria medeoloides:

Medeola virginiana Isotria medeoloides

Locating the rare native orchid, Isotria medeoloides can be quite challenging due to the fact that both similar-looking species often grow together. I can’t count the number of times that I thought I had found the orchid, when in fact, I had found the common, Indian Cucumber-root! And I don’t think I’m the only one that has been fooled by the “impersonator”.

Back to the trip… It was time to head to the main destination.

Back in the mid-1930s, when the Blue Ridge Parkway was being constructed, much of the construction work was done with tools that could not compete with today’s powerful tools. Even so, huge cuts were driven through solid rock, creating yawning, vertical cliff faces — many 50 feet (15 meters) tall or more. Often, these cliff faces contain large cracks which provide a conduit for water runoff. It is at these wet cliff faces that many of the most striking and unusual wildflowers can be found.

Conveniently, at one of these wet cliffs, there is also an overlook pulloff where one can park and see both a spectacular mountain vista in one direction as well as a wide variety of colorful wildflowers in the other direction. Some of these wildflowers are quite unusual and rare. One of these wildflowers, in particular, is beautifully decked out in white petals pierced by dark green veins. It is Parnassia asarifolia or Kidneyleaf Grass-of-Parnassus. Oddly enough, it is not a grass. But who cares? Here is a group of images that I hope shows the flowers at their best:

Kidneyleaf Grass-of-Parnassus Kidneyleaf Grass-of-Parnassus

Kidneyleaf Grass-of-Parnassus

Kidneyleaf Grass-of-Parnassus

Kidneyleaf Grass-of-Parnassus

I even found one aberrant one with 4 petals instead of the usual 5 petals:

Kidneyleaf Grass-of-Parnassus

Near these delicate looking flowers were some unusual rosy-pink flowers called Chelone obliqua or Red Turtlehead. The name, “Turtlehead” becomes obvious when the flower is closely inspected. These lovely plants can be found in a number of wet locations all along the higher elevations of the Parkway:

Red Turtlehead

Red Turtlehead Red Turtlehead

Red Turtlehead

This particular cliff face is also a hotspot for a relatively newly named Gentian called Gentiana latidens or Balsam Mountain Gentian. The deep, cobalt/royal blue color of this wildflower is hard to believe. Unlike the previously mentioned, Showy Gentian, the flowers of this Gentian species are always closed, forcing the bumble bee pollinator to work very hard to work its way in through the top of the flower to get to the pollen and nectar. I have noticed that for the plants which grow in full sunlight, the foliage is a lighter yellow-green and the flowers are a darker cobalt/royal blue. Those plant growing in more shaded conditions produce dark green leaves and somewhat lighter blue flowers. Here is a selection of images of some of the plants I saw in several different locations within 10 miles (16 km) of the major hotspot, wet cliff face:

Balsam Mountain Gentian Balsam Mountain Gentian
Balsam Mountain Gentian Balsam Mountain Gentian
Balsam Mountain Gentian Balsam Mountain Gentian

Balsam Mountain Gentian

I’ll leave you with the mention of another rare (rare at least for this region) plant, Triantha glutinosa or Sticky False Asphodel. As I write this post, these plants are currently in seed. Here is an image of the plant in full bloom taken on July 21st of this year (left) and in seed (right), currently showing a strikingly red seed capsule:

Balsam Mountain Gentian Balsam Mountain Gentian

One additional thing I’ll point out is the scene of some over-exuberant trimming done by the mowing crew. This is a very rare plant for North Carolina as well as the Blue Ridge Parkway. One section of a group of plants was trimmed very closely, cutting the stems that had produced seed capsules. It didn’t do significant harm to the growing plants, but it did reduce the ability for the plant to generate seeds, this year, for a future generation. Here is the image:

Triantha glutinosa after close trimming

I’ll be returning to this area, for sure, in a couple of weeks. There are Spiranthes species and additional Gentiana species that I saw on this trip that I don’t want to miss when they come into full bloom. I’ve said it many times before, but I’ll say it again — I feel so lucky to live in a part of the country where I have to drive only a couple of hours to reach a botanical hotspot. The Southern Appalachian Mountains are home to a huge variety of wildflower species, and the Blue Ridge Parkway allows us the opportunity to view these beauties up close and personal…

Stay tuned,

–Jim

5 comments


  • Hot stuff top to bottom!

    September 06, 2018
  • Ann McCormick

    Wonderful!

    September 07, 2018
  • Beautiful! Every plant is marvelous, but I’d love to illustrate the Kidneyleaf Grass of Parnassus in particular–never seen a botanical illustration of this lovely plant. Can you tell me their blooming time? I’d like to take a jaunt to your area to do some field sketches from life if possible.

    September 07, 2018
    • Jim

      At the site where I photographed them, they are usually in flower from early to mid-September.

      September 07, 2018
  • Valerie Bourdot

    What fancypants Grass-of-Parnassus! Fantastic photos, info & observations. Hoping the best in the wake of Florence.

    September 18, 2018

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