Spectacular wildflower display on the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina — 2018-09-22

This is a rather lengthy post, so grab a snack and your favorite adult beverage, and settle in for the ride…

Just a few weeks after my last visit up there, the Blue Ridge Parkway roadsides in western North Carolina have provided us with a marvelous display of fall wildflowers! Each year that I visit this region, I am amazed at this colorful showing. On this trip, my good buddy and nature photographer, Alan Cressler, decided he would join me on a long (16 hours) day trip covering about 150 miles (240 km) of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, the 469-mile long (755 km) Blue Ridge Parkway is our longest National Park. In some places, it is only about 100 yards (100 meters) wide, but it snakes its way through some of the most beautiful mountainous sections of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Virginia. It is here, at altitudes of 5,000 to 6,000 feet (1,525 to 1,825 meters) that many plant species, usually found much farther north, can and do find a suitable home. During the trip, we both agreed that many of these species would probably not be found by anyone except for the fact that the construction of the Parkway had left its mark on the planet by winding its way through and over these craggy mountains, giving seeds and spores an open place to germinate and grow into our beautiful mountain flora. Many north-facing, vertical road cuts/cliff faces expose fractures in the rock which allow water to flow and provide the cool, wet substrate for some of the more northerly species, which are rare for these southern climes.

We began our trip leaving my home in Greenville, South Carolina, finding our way to the Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, North Carolina. Our first stop would be to check on the bloom status of Spiranthes cernua or Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchid at the impressive Cradle of Forestry facility just off of Hwy. 276 which transects the Pisgah National Forest and connects to the Blue Ridge Parkway. I had visited this site for the first time in the fall of 2017, after being told that there was a good showing of orchids in the spaces bordering the parking lot. I told Alan that we might be a bit early, because it was later in the month when I photographed them last year.

As we approached the entrance gate, I was prepared to pay the $5 entrance fee, even though we would not be entering the facility, proper, but just scouring the parking lot area for photographic opportunities. Imagine my surprise when the guard said that the fee would be waived that day since it was “National Federal Lands Day”, and that we could also volunteer our services by weeding, etc., but I declined the offer telling him that we were there to photograph the orchids. From that spot at the guard gate, I could see a few Spiranthes cernua at the edge of the parking lot — a sight that got my juices flowing!

We pulled in to the first available parking spot and were amazed to see that the orchids were at peak bloom. I don’t think Alan had ever seen so many Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchids in one spot! Although the ground next to the parking lot had been left unmowed and was a bit weedy, it didn’t seem to bother the orchids much, at all. Here are some shots of this spectacular display:

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchidNodding Ladies’-tresses orchid

I believe there were more orchids blooming this year than last year — if that is even possible! There were more than you could shake a stick at, although I don’t know why you would want to shake a stick at them. We spent about an hour, locating good photography possibilities and setting up for the shots. I wish we had gotten there about an hour earlier, because the sun was already peeking through the tree tops causing some pesky shadows and bright spots. We had hoped for the predicted cloudy skies, but that was not the case so early in the day. Anyway, here are some addition shots of the plants at the Cradle of Forestry parking lot. It definitely would have been worth $5 to photograph these beauties:

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid with dew

After gathering our wits (what was left of them), we packed our gear and headed north toward the Parkway, preparing ourselves to see more spectacular wildflower sights.

Upon intersecting with the Parkway, I turned the truck left, and we headed South to the next site. We soon passed the intersection of Hwy. 215, and I told Alan we would be coming back on our way North later in the day. There were some Gentians there that I wanted to get his opinion on.

We stopped at my favorite spot for Spiranthes ochroleuca or Yellow Ladies’-tresses orchid and Gentianella quinquefolia or Stiff Gentian and got out to check on their progress. Turns out that there were fewer Yellow Ladies’-tresses orchids than in previous years, and the ones that were present were farther along, as well. We spent a few minutes at this site and another one similar to it just up the road. Here are images of what we saw:

Yellow Ladies'-tresses orchid Yellow Ladies'-tresses orchid
Stiff Gentian Stiff Gentian
Stiff Gentian Stiff Gentian

I even caught a Phoebis sennae or Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly nectaring on one of the Stiff Gentian flowers:

Stiff Gentian with Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly

After this short stop, we proceeded just a bit down the Parkway to one of my favorite Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks to see what was happening there. As we approached, we could see a number of vehicles in the pull-off and their associated travelers all lined up along the wet cliff face capturing the beautiful wildflowers that were growing at the base of the cliff. There were young people, elderly people, and even one old codger in a wheel chair admiring the natural wonders. What a special place!

I had just been there a couple of weeks ago, so Alan and I picked out the best Gentiana latidens or Balsam Mountain Gentian to photograph and set about doing just that. I was a bit surprised to see a few of them still in prime condition, because most of them were past peak bloom. Here are a few shots of the best ones:

Balsam Mountain Gentian

The above plant was in the sun, so it was going past peak bloom, but the following images were taken from a plant that was in shade, so the flowers were pristine:

Balsam Mountain Gentian Balsam Mountain Gentian

Balsam Mountain Gentian

After finishing up at the overlook, I drove us to a special wet cliff face about 5 or 6 miles (8-12 km) down the road. Here, I had seen a rare (for North Carolina) fern — Phegopteris connectilis or Long Beech Fern that I wanted to show to Alan. There are only a few sites in North Carolina where it can be found, and this spot on the Blue Ridge Parkway is one of them. Here is a shot of it I took earlier in the year. At the present time, it was sort of ragged looking and I didn’t think very photogenic:

Long Beech Fern

We parked on a broad, grassy pull-off and visually inspected the large, wet cliff face. As we approached the spot where the fern grows, Alan (with his eagle eye) pointed out a specimen of Huperzia appressa or Appalachian firmoss. It had previously been known as Huperzia appalachiana, but due to the fact that it had previously been named as H. appressa, the name H. appalachiana was revoked. I am not pleased with this, but it is what it is… I’m just an old geezer that is peeved by some of the name changes.

My go-to spot for this species, which is rather rare in the state, is up the road from this location about 65 miles (104 km) north. However, this location is much more expansive and holds more specimens that the other site. It has now become my go-to site. Here are some images of this wonderful species. Huperzia appressa is one of the clubmosses and, as such, produces spores. In addition, this species produces new plantlets (gemmae) at the apex of its stem:

Huperzia appressa Huperzia appressa

Appalachian firmoss

Appalachian firmoss

In the above shot, note all of the gemmae that have dropped from the top of the stems to the wet mat below the large plant and have begun to sprout. The spores are found in those yellow sacs (sporangia) where the leaflets join the stem, about halfway up.

Appalachia firmoss and Roundleaf Sundews

In the above shot, note the Drosera rotundifolia or Roundleaf Sundews on either side of the Appalachian firmoss. What a fabulous site!

Here is a shot of more Roundleaf Sundews just a few feet (1 meter) away:

Roundleaf Sundews

We spent a lot of time at this location, remarking at the number of rare plants found there. We finished up, packed our gear and headed back north. We eventually reached the intersection of the Parkway and Hwy. 215. Taking this highway south, we soon came to a location where I had found an unusual Gentian that I wanted Alan to see. I found a place to pull off, and we gathered our gear and were off into the woods.

It was only a short walk to the spot where dozens of Gentian were growing in the shadows. I have photographed these in previous years, but were still unsure of their identification. Here are some images of the plants in question. For now, until I’m convinced otherwise, I’m calling them Gentiana decora or Showy Gentian:

Showy Gentian Showy Gentian
Showy Gentian Showy Gentian

I came to the conclusion that they are Gentiana decora by taking one of the flowers, splitting it vertically and unrolling it. Examining it on both sides and especially looking at the corolla lobes and appendages, it matched up perfectly with the image in Jim Drake’s book, Gentians of the Eastern United States — a must have for those inscrutable bad boys in the Southern Appalachian Mountains that refuse to fall into an obvious category. Here are the images I made of the split corolla, both inside and outside views. Note the longer tips of the corolla lobes and the shorter, ragged appendages between the lobes:

Showy Gentian Showy Gentian

Growing among these Gentians were some Spiranthes that looked unlike any I had ever seen in the Southern Appalachians. These particular plants still retained their leaves — unusual for many of the Spiranthes species I am so used to seeing. The flowers were shaped rather differently as well, with sepals that tended to be separate from the rest of the corolla and tended to point downward. After consulting Matthew Pace’s ground-breaking doctoral thesis, “The Systematics of the Spiranthes cernua complex (Orchidaceae): Untangling the Gordian Knot”, I came to the conclusion that they were a recent, newly named species, Spiranthes arcisepala (no common name, yet), one that comes down into North Carolina in a very narrow band from farther north where they are more prevalent. I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, but right now, that’s what I’m calling them. There were about two dozen plants in the immediate vicinity, all having the same features. Here are some shots of these plants:

Spiranthes arcisepala

Spiranthes arcisepala Spiranthes arcisepala

Across the road, Alan found a lovely Spiranthes cernua or Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchid, and it was situated right next to one of the strange Gentiana decora or Showy Gentian:

Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchid and Showy Gentian>

Showy Gentian

We finished up, packed our gear and headed back to the Parkway where I pointed the truck north. After about a half-hour or so of driving, I came to a spot where I had seem some strange Spiranthes. They were large and many of the plants had flowers that were in vertical ranks rather than being spiraled around the stem. Some of the plants produced creamy white flowers which reminded me somewhat of Spiranthes ochroleuca or Yellow Ladies’-tresses orchids, but I’m still not sure of the species. I suspect that they are Spiranthes cernua or Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchids, but who knows? Here are some images. Make up your own mind about them:

Unidentified Spiranthes orchids Unidentified Spiranthes orchids

It was beginning to be late in the day, and one of the places I wanted Alan to see was at a gated pull-off called Linn Cove Visitor Center. We Googled the hours of the facility and found out that they stay open as late as 5:00 pm. Well, our ETA was about 6:05 pm, so it was doubtful that we would be able to get into the place. The plants at this site are another Gentian, Gentiana austromontana or Appalachian Gentian aka Southern Mountain Gentian. This is a species that Alan had never photographed, so he was eager to see them. They are found only in the high mountains of North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee.

We finally arrived at the gate about 6:00 pm and to our amazement, we found that the gate was open. Alan later figured out that since there are several trailheads at this spot, they must leave the gate open to let hikers come and go, but they close the visitor center building at 5:00 pm. In any case, we were both excited to be able to photograph the plants without having to figure out a way to circumvent the gate.

We wasted no time in unpacking our gear and setting up our cameras to photograph the plants which were in pretty deep shade. Both of our camera models work in low light, so that was not a problem for either of us. I had shot these plants last year, but thought they must be another of the Gentian species and not Gentiana austromontana. In order to convince myself and Alan that they were, in fact, G. austromontana, we consulted Jim Drake’s Gentian book (mentioned above) and looked for the definitive clues: “Tapered terminal ends of the corollas, deep blue flowers, free portions of the corolla lobes half as wide as corolla appendages. Obviously puberulent inflorescence parts.” With my 5X loupe in hand, I nervously inspected one of the plants. Sure enough, I saw some short, hairy protuberances on the stem and some very fine hairs on the calyx lobes. This was what we were looking for! Alan was very happy to find a new life species, and I was happy to have known where to find them. Actually, I have to thank my friend John Neal for pointing out this site a couple of years ago. Although he didn’t identify the species, he told me that there some nice Gentians here, and I was happy to locate them. I took a sample flower with me and when I returned home, I split it and photographed the important parts. Here are those images:

Appalachian Gentian Appalachian Gentian

I also got a couple of macro images of the stem and other flower parts where it can easily be seen that they are hairy:

Important distinguishing parts of Gentiana austromontana

Important distinguishing parts of Gentiana austromontana

Finally, here are some images of the flowers:

Appalachian Gentian Appalachian Gentian
Appalachian Gentian Appalachian Gentian

While we were there, I noticed a Bumblebee (Bombus species) visiting the flowers, and managed to capture it (not very well, unfortunately) doing its thing:

Bumblebee inspecting a Gentian flower for possible pollination

Bumblebee butt and Gentian Bumblebee and Gentian

It was really beginning to get dark, but there were a couple of more places I wanted Alan to see before we headed home. Just down the road from that last Gentian location, was a pull-off across from a spectacular population of Spiranthes cernua or Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchids. The light was fading fast, so I had to capture what I could of the population. I had to stretch the exposure limit (10 seconds) to be able to capture these images. These couple of shots should give a good idea of the many plants that were growing on the hillside:

Large population of Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchids

Large population of Nodding Ladies'-tresses orchids

How about that!?!

I still had a couple of sites remaining to show Alan, but we would have to have used a flashlight to see the plants! So we settled on a few landscape shots instead. We stopped the truck and walked up the road a bit to a bridge overlooking the mountain ridges to the south. There is a good reason these are called the Blue Ridge Mountains, as you can see. I took the same shot from three spots along the bridge, and I could not decide on which one I liked the best, so I’m showing you all three of them:

Looking south from the Rough Ridge Viaduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Looking south from the Rough Ridge Viaduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Looking south from the Rough Ridge Viaduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway

I was hoping for a better sunset shot, but you takes what you gets…

Another great day on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Having my best friend along was just icing on the cake. A second set of eyes is always a positive on any field trip, for sure. We were quite late getting back home, meaning that we missed a superb salmon dinner that Walter had wanted to fix for us. When we realized that we wouldn’t make it back in time for dinner, we settled for a sandwich at the Subway in Marion, North Carolina.

I won’t apologize for the length of this blog post, because I wanted to show you a bit of everything we saw in a single report. I know some of you, Dear Readers, just look at the pictures, and that is just fine. I still like throwing in some geeky botanical stuff from time to time for those who might be interested in such a thing.

My next adventure might just take me back to the Carolina coastal plain for the fall season orchids, that is, if the flooding has gone down. I’ll have to check with one of my scouts down there.

Until then,

–Jim

7 comments


  • Lucy

    Splendid Jim! And I love the long text. I was swept away in your excitement! Thanks so much!

    September 24, 2018
  • Jim, for years I’ve wondered why the real close-ups of Spranthes flowers in particular look like they’re composed of gra
    ins of tissue rather than smooth tissue. Comment?

    September 24, 2018
  • Jane

    Loved your educational blog and the shots of the mountains were icing on the cake.

    September 24, 2018
  • Helen Jones

    What a marvelous blog and images of those flowers.It must have made your heart sing.

    September 25, 2018
  • Alan Cressler

    Sure had a great time. I love reading about the things I do with you.

    September 26, 2018
  • Barbara Mcintyre

    Don’t be disappointed in your sunset shots. They are a beautiful blend of shades of blues.

    September 28, 2018
  • Becky Kessel

    A treasure trove of information AND beautiful images to illustrate the grandeur of nature…. Thanks, Jim!

    October 04, 2018

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