Fringed Gentian in Northeast Georgia – Blue, Blue, Blue!– 2018-10-04

Because of its intensely vibrant blue (some would say “electric blue”) color, this beautiful Gentian species has evoked an emotional response from a number of writers/poets over the years. Here are two poems that come to mind:

Fringed Gentian
By EMILY DICKINSON

God made a little gentian;
It tried to be a rose
And failed, and all the summer laughed.
But just before the snows
There came a purple creature
That ravished all the hill;
And summer hid her forehead,
And mockery was still.
The frosts were her condition;
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North evoked it.
“Creator! shall I bloom?”

To the Fringed Gentian
By WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT

Thou blossom bright with autumn dew,
And colored with the heaven’s own blue,
That openest when the quiet light
Succeeds the keen and frosty night.

Thou comest not when violets lean
O’er wandering brooks and springs unseen,
Or columbines, in purple dressed,
Nod o’er the ground-bird’s hidden nest.

Thou waitest late and com’st alone,
When woods are bare and birds are flown,
And frosts and shortening days portend
The aged year is near his end.

Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye
Look through its fringes to the sky,
Blue-blue-as if that sky let fall
A flower from its cerulean wall.

I would that thus, when I shall see
The hour of death draw near to me,
Hope, blossoming within my heart,
May look to heaven as I depart.

For the past few years, I’ve set aside some time in early October to make the trip to northeast Georgia to see and photograph a large population of Gentianopsis crinita or Greater Fringed Gentian. This population, on private property, is the largest in Georgia, and it is possibly the southern-most population of this Gentian species in North America. There are only a couple of populations in North Carolina and a couple in Virginia — this is a northern plant. For me, it was important to visit the site this year, because I understand that the property is up for development. In fact, I did see a “For Sale” sign at the edge of the property, but it was mostly covered up by the weedy growth that makes up the preponderance of vegetation in the gently sloping, mountain meadow.

Greater Fringed GentianGreater Fringed Gentian

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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

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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

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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

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Pollination of Platanthera ciliaris orchids in the Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina — 2018-07-27

I am not a scientist (in the strict sense), and I don’t play one on TV. But, I do like to observe things in nature and attempt to explain some of the things I see. Case in point: The subject of today’s blog post.

Being a nature photographer often presents me with situations that make me go, “Hmmmmmmmm”. While photographing the beautiful Platanthera ciliaris or Yellow Fringed orchid (more aptly called Orange Fringed orchid), I usually like to take my time and enjoy the moment. At my favorite site for them way back in a secluded part of the Pisgah National Forest, I often see butterflies flitting back and forth on the flowers, frantically working them to retrieve the sweet nectar hidden deep down in each flower’s long nectar tube. This appears to happen more often during the heat of the day around noon, especially on sunny days.

These butterflies will work their way down the roadside, visiting each flower scape along the way. They will then fly back up the road to the beginning of the population of orchids, and make their way back down the road, again. Over and over this happens. If you are patient and sit in front of a particular orchid scape, you will be rewarded by seeing the pollination action over and over again as the butterflies (the same one in many cases) continue to come back for more.

The butterfly in question is Battus philenor or the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly. These appear to be the workhorses when it comes to pollinating the Yellow Fringed orchid, at least at this site. I did see yellow and black Papilio glaucus or the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies flitting around, but none of them seemed the least bit interested in the orchids.

Some really botanically geeky stuff follows:

I shall digress a bit here for some background. Larvae of the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly and those of the other swallowtails belonging to the tribe Troidini feed on plants in the genus Aristolochia (of which the Pipevine or Dutchman’s Pipe is a member), and are commonly referred to as the Aristolochia Swallowtails. But, because “Pipevine” is easier to say than “Aristolochia”, we will call them Pipevine Swallowtails. Here is an informative article from www.gotscience.org about the life-cycle of the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly.

The following is a shot of one of the strange flowers of the toxic, Aristolochia macrophylla or Dutchman’s Pipe followed by an image of the vine and heart-shaped leaves which the larvae of the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly feed on. These vines often reach more than 30 feet (9 meters) into the canopy of the forest, and the flowers are almost always toward the top of the vine, making them somewhat difficult to photograph.

Dutchman's Pipe flowerDutchman’s Pipe flower

Dutchman's Pipe vine and leavesDutchman’s Pipe vine and leaves

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