A Fall visit to the Cedar Glades of northwest Georgia — 2018-11-04

The main reason I wanted to make this long trip was to photograph the uber fragrant Spiranthes magnicamporum or Great Plains Ladies’-tresses orchids. They are not found in the Carolinas, but they do appear in small numbers in the Cedar Glades and Limestone Barrens of two counties in northwestern Georgia. Little did I know, when I left home at 5:15 am, that I would see much more wildflower diversity than I had imagined, and I would also make a new field trip friend.

My good friend, Alan Cressler of Atlanta, Georgia had guided me to the sites for this orchid a few years ago, and I had asked if he would like to do so again. He readily agreed and mentioned that Henning von Schmeling, Senior Director of the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell, Georgia would like to join us. Great! Time to make a new field trip friend.

Great Plains Ladies'-tresses orchidGreat Plains Ladies’-tresses orchid

Great Plains Ladies'-tresses orhchid

I met Alan at his house and we packed our gear and drove north of Atlanta where we joined up with Henning. He had more room in his vehicle, so we transferred all of our stuff to Henning’s car and began our trip by heading north on I-75.

Our first stop was a side trip to see Symphyotrichum georgiana or Georgia aster. That was old hat for the both of them, but they were kind enough make a side trip to allow me to see and photograph it for the first time. We drove up Horn Mountain, Chattahoochee National Forest, Gordon County, Georgia and found several patches of the rare Georgia Aster growing along the ridge line. In the Southeast, there are several counties where this rather rare Aster can be found. It’s pretty easy to recognize, because it is a “composite” with the ray flowers being purple while the true, disk flowers are white. Here is an example:

Georgia aster

To complicate matters somewhat, they were sympatric with another purple composite, Symphyotrichum patens or Late Purple aster. As you can see below though, the disk flowers of the Late Purple aster are yellow rather than white:

Late Purple aster

Here they both are side-by-side to show the differences:

Georgia aster (left) and Late Purple aster (right)

There was another Aster in full bloom, and it had small white flowers. Because I have always avoided learning the late summer and fall composites, I had to ask around for the identification. My friend, Alan Weakley, came through just before I wrote this blog report. He identified it as Symphyotrichum pilosum or Hairy White Oldfield Aster:

Hairy White Oldfield aster

Alan Cressler had remembered a roadside site where a fern, which is normally in the coastal plain habitat, grows along a small stretch of highway. He is meticulous in his record-keeping, and it was no time before we saw the patch of ferns. It is a beautiful fern called, Thelypteris kunthii or Southern Shield fern:

Southern Shleld fern

From there, we made our way toward the Cedar Glades of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Catoosa County, Georgia. These Cedar Glades are an interesting habitat, because they provide something that we don’t see much of in the Carolinas, and that is an underlayment of limestone. In fact, some of the glades have little to no soil at all with an outcrop pavement of solid limestone. This provides the perfect habitat for what are called “calciophiles”, or plants that prefer to grow in calcium-rich conditions. Most of the Cedar Glades are filled with a variety of grasses, similar to the grassy savannahs on the coastal plain, as well as Juniperus virginiana or Eastern Red Cedar. Here is a shot of one of the Cedar Glades:

Cedar Glade

Scattered among some of the loose limestone gravel in the center of the Cedar Glades, are piles/mats of gelatinous material which is rather indescribable. It turns out to be Nostoc commune, a Cyanobacteria. Rather than go into great detail to describe what it is, I’ll leave it to you, Dear Reader, to click on the link for the information. Supposedly, it is marginally edible, but I would ask, WHY!?! It is rather disgusting looking and feeling, and I would probably eat some of the grasses before I would eat that stuff…

Cyanobacteria

Along the margins of the glades, we found another Aster. Being a calciophile, it is found in the limestone-layered Cedar Glades in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. Here are some images of this purple composite, Symphyotrichum priceae or Lavender Oldfield Aster:

Lavender Oldfield Aster Lavender Oldfield Aster

Lavender Oldfield Aster with pollinators

As we were leaving this particular glade, we came upon the tiny flowers of a lone, Lobelia spicata var. spicata or Palespike Lobelia:

Palespike Lobelia

On our way back down the trail to the vehicle, Henning looked into the open woods and saw a huge patch of Opuntia cespitosa or Eastern Prickly-pear Cactus. This particular cactus species has pads which seem to grow horizontally rather than upright. Apparently, it is also a calciophile. Here is a link to a site called, www.Namethatplant.net, which has some nice pictures of its beautiful flowers.

We visited several of the many glades in the area, and on the way to the last one, Alan spotted a large population of Omphalotus olearius or Jack-O’lantern Mushroom. Here is a shot of Alan photographing the main portion of this large population:

Jack-O'lantern mushroom

Here are a couple of closer shot of this impressive mushroom:

Jack-O'lantern mushroom

Jack-O'lantern mushroom

Alan had expected to find the Great Plains Ladies’-tresses orchid in several of the glades we visited, but we found only a handful of blooming plant in two of the glades. In each one, they tended to grow very close to water or wet depressions. This was not a particularly good year for them, but that’s the way orchids work — they are where you find them. There are good years and not so good years for orchid flowers, and most of the time, there is no rhyme or reason for their appearance or disappearance. But, it always pays to look where you have seen them before. If you don’t find the orchids, there will probably be other interesting things to photograph.

Our last location to visit was Cloudland Canyon State Park. We had hoped to see lots of fall color at the overlook. I’ll let you decide if we got it:

Fall color at Cloudland Canyon State Park

After photographing the landscape, we made our way back up the trail to the car. Henning spotted the flowers of Hamamelis virginiana or American Witch Hazel. It is one of the last trees to bloom in the year, and the branches are usually bare of leaves when the flowers open. However, there were a few branches that still had leaves that were showing great fall color:

American Witch Hazel

American Witch Hazel American Witch Hazel

I was so happy to see this species in flower, because, even though it is not uncommon in the area where I live, I have not taken the opportunity to photograph it. Thank you, Henning!

Alan wanted to take the Rim Trail that leads to a waterfall, but Henning and I stayed behind. While Alan was gone, Henning spotted a splash of pink through the trees at the edge of the canyon. He left the trail and made his way through the brambles and discovered a Rhododendron catawbiense or Catawba Rhododendron in bloom!!! This is something neither one of has seen in the Fall. It is usually in bloom in late June, for goodness sake, yet here it was in full bloom. In the image below, you can see the fall leaves in the distant background:

Catawba Rhododendron

When Alan finally returned, we piled in Henning’s car and headed back toward Atlanta.

What a great day we had. On the way back, we talked about other sites we wanted to visit in season. I managed to get both Henning and Alan to promise they would guide me to several locations in Georgia and Alabama where there will be some great photography opportunities next spring. I can hardly wait!

For me, part of the allure of being out in the field is being in the company of like-minded people who appreciate the natural world. Both Henning and Alan have been doing this longer than I have, and they have a deeper knowledge of the plants of Georgia than I will ever have, but they are so willing to share what they know that it makes it a joy to be with them.

This may be my last nature blog of 2018, but you never know…

Stay tuned,

–Jim

3 comments


  • Lucy

    Thank you so much Jim for those amazing pictures and your wonderful descriptions of such a special day!

    November 06, 2018
  • We also found a blooming catawba rhododendron this past week! Such a bizarre occurance, and definitely striking with a backdrop of autumn foliage.

    November 06, 2018
  • Sharon

    You’ve done it again, greatly enlightened my day with gorgeous photographs. Especially love the mushroom photos!

    November 07, 2018

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