Fall orchids and other wildflowers – Francis Marion National Forest, Berkeley County, South Carolina — 2018-10-17

This mid-week trek had been put off and put off because of other commitments and then because of bad weather, but on Wednesday, I made the 4-hour trip down to the coastal plain and met my friend, Jeff Jackson in the middle of one of the Southeast’s most diverse national forests. The main target was two orchids, Spiranthes odorata or Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid and Ponthieva racemosa or Hairy Shadow-witch orchid. For the former, I would usually wait until late October, and for the latter, I would usually come down the first week of October. Splitting the difference would place me in sort of a no man’s land where I wasn’t sure I would see either orchid species at its best. Turns out, I was mostly correct in my assumption about the Hairy Shadow-witch orchid — it was mostly bloomed out for the season. We did find a few halfway decent plants to photograph, but the Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid was another thing altogether as you will see.

We met at our “usual” spot in the Wambaw Swamp Wilderness area where some of the best of both species can usually be found. Although the FMNF is most famous for its Longleaf Pine savannahs, this particular area is a wet, bottomland, hardwood forest that is calf-deep in water most of the time. Today was no exception. Luckily, I had brought along my rubber boots and was prepared for the standing water. This habitat is perfect for the orchids which prefer wet feet, especially the Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchids — I’ve seen them in bloom when the plant was fully submerged in several inches of water. On this visit, we were greeted with many dozens of plants – some in full bloom and some in tight bud. Their strong fragrance, not a light floral one, but a heavy, earthy, sensual one, was evident even from a great distance. Here is an example of one of the plants with the largest flowers, nearly 1/2-inch (12 mm) long:

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchidFragrant Ladies’-tresses orchid

We spent more than an hour sloshing around the swamp, finding the best of the orchid flowers to photograph. We did find several groups of six or more plants, some of which were just showing some open flowers. A few of the plants were quite tall, nearly 2 feet (60 cm) from ground to tip of the flowering stem! I particularly like to find a group with several blooming stems like the following:

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid

Here are some additional shots of the Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchids we found at this first site:

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid
Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid

In the previous images, note the yellow pollinia that were partially removed by a pollinator.

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid

Here is another brightly colored wildflower, Sabatia dodecandra or Marsh Rose Gentian, that we found growing among the orchids:

Marsh Rose Gentian

After being quite pleased with the Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchids, but disappointed with the Hairy Shadow-witch orchids at this site, I suggested we travel about 5 miles (8 km) to another site for the Hairy Shadow-witch orchids. I had not visited the site for several years, but the last time I did visit, there were quite a few growing by a small stream. So we packed our gear, made u-turns on the narrow forest service road, and headed east – dodging deep potholes in the gravel road.

We finally arrived at the spot and got out of our vehicles. At first, I didn’t see any of the orchid plants. I was really disappointed, but I had not looked closely enough. Once my pattern recognition kicked in, I began to see dozens of orchid plants in the thick grass, but those were all in seed. I was obviously about 10 days too late. We eventually found almost a thousand plants along about 100 yards (100 meters) of the gravel road. We eventually managed to find a few plants that still had flowers toward the top of the flower stem. Here are some shots of this mysterious orchid:

Hairy Shadow-witch orchid

Hairy Shadow-witch orchid Hairy Shadow-witch orchid
Hairy Shadow-witch orchid Hairy Shadow-witch orchid

We both made mental notes to come back to this spot next year, but at least 10 days to 2 weeks earlier in the year. Since this was another bottomland swamp, we found some really nice Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchids:

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchid

Here is a habitat shot. As you can probably tell, I was standing in about 6 inches (15 cm) of water when I made this shot:

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchids

We finally packed up and traveled farther down the road to see what else we could find. A short distance later, we came upon another wet, swampy area. It was thick with Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchids! I took only a few shots at this site, because it was getting late in the day, and I wanted to be able to photograph some of the other wildflowers I had seen beside the road as we made our way to this area. Here are the last of the Fragrant Ladies’-tresses orchids:

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchids

Fragrant Ladies'-tresses orchids

We finally headed back west in the direction we had originally come from, to try to photograph some of the many Trilisa paniculata or Hairy Chaffhead that were growing beside the road. This species used to be called Carphephorus paniculatus, but was moved to the genus Trilisa to keep us amateur naturalists on our toes. LOL! In any case, it was getting fairly dark as the sun was quite low in the western sky, but I managed to get off a few shots:

Hairy Chaffhead

Hairy Chaffhead Hairy Chaffhead

Hairy Chaffhead

We were almost too late for these as evident by many of the plants having dead flowers at the top of the stem. Make another mental note to come back earlier next year.

One final plant species I wanted to photograph before I left was Liatris elegans or Pinkscale Blazing Star. It can often be seen blooming in the thousands along the drier roadside banks, but on this trip, we did not see very many of them:

Pinkscale Blazing Star

Pinkscale Blazing Star

What a day of fun we had! It’s always special to be able to share my adventures with a like-minded soul like Jeff. He lives in North Charleston, just a few miles from the Francis Marion National Forest, and he was actually raised in the area, so he knows it quite well. We had a great time sharing adventures and talking about things botanical. I’m looking forward to the next time when we can get together down there or elsewhere in the Carolinas.

I still have a couple of locations I plant to visit before this wildflower season is done, so stay tuned.

Until then…

–Jim

7 comments


  • Ann McCormick

    Wish you could email the aroma of the Fragrant Ladies-Tresses! Beautiful pictures of all!

    October 18, 2018
  • Carol

    Thank you for taking us along! Fantastic per usual!

    October 18, 2018
  • Chris Davidson

    Another wonderfully written blog post Jim! Stunning images as always..

    October 18, 2018
  • John Neufeld

    Wonderful photos again. Thanks.

    October 19, 2018
  • tom sampliner

    As always, spectacular images in every possible way but even more impressive is your story telling ability to present botanical ventures in such a readable pleasurable and educational manner.

    October 19, 2018
  • Joyce H

    I hope to visit that area next year with my daughter. I didn’t know so many orchids bloom in the fall.

    October 19, 2018
  • Twila

    Beautiful photos of beautiful flowers. Swampland?? Mosquitos? Snakes? I would enjoy seeing them but too old to climb.

    November 02, 2018

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