Triphora trianthophora (Three-birds orchid) — Pisgah National Forest — 2014-08-01

Well folks, I am so excited! Today, I went to an area of the Pisgah National Forest north of Brevard, North Carolina in search of some mid-summer orchids — specifically, Platanthera ciliaris or Yellow Fringed orchid and Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis or Southern Slender Ladies’-tresses orchid. I did actually find those two species in bloom, but before I got to the location where those two were growing, I stopped at my favorite spot for Triphora trianthophora or Three-birds orchid.

This is a spot that my naturalist friend, Neil Jacobs told me about several years ago. He and his wife, Jen Modliszewski found it while he was fishing and she was photographing wildflowers along the Davidson River. I’ve been back to the site several times each year for the last five or six years, enjoying the Three-birds orchids in season.

Funny thing about this particular orchid species: It blooms only after a few, rather specific meteorological conditions have been met, and then for only a few hours that day. After those flowers are past, it may be a week or two before it blooms again. Here are the specific conditions I rely on to predict a wave of blooms:

There must be at least a 5-degree (F) drop in morning low temperatures over 48 hours. Then, 48 hours later, there will be a mass blooming — all the flowers at a certain stage of “readiness” will all open together. It’s that simple! Over the next few weeks to a month, there may be several of these mass bloomings, so if you miss the first one, there’s usually another.

So, for the past few days, I’ve been checking my charts to see if a bloom will be happening anytime soon. I refer to the website, www.wunderground.com/weatherstation/WXDailyHistory, and go to the weather station information for Pisgah National Forest. I check the morning low temperatures and plot them on a simple graph. From Sunday, July 27 through Wednesday, July 30, there was a 15-degree (F) drop in morning low temperatures — from 67.5 degrees (F) down to 52.5 degrees (F)! This meant that 48 hours later (today, Friday, August 1), there should be a mass blooming.

On our way to the Blue Ridge Parkway for some wildflower photography, my Atlanta photography buddy, Alan Cressler and I had visited the Three-birds orchid site the previous Saturday, but saw only tightly closed buds. Today, however, was a different matter. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many of these dainty little orchids in bloom at one time. Most of the plants are scattered, single plants or groups of three or four, but there can be some rather large clumps. Here is an image of the largest clump I found today:

Triphoa trianthophora forma alba

At this site, the flowers vary in color from almost pure white, to white tinged with pinkish-purple. What I have always been looking for, though, is the alba form of this orchid. It will have pure white sepals and petals with no hint of pink or purple, and rather than rows of green ridges on the lip, it will have rows of bright yellow ridges. The only image I have ever seen of this form is in Phil Keenan’s book, “Wild Orchids Across North America”, [Timber Press, 2000]. He saw only a single plant in New Hampshire, but he saw it bloom over several seasons. He named the form, Triphora trianthophora forma albidoflava.

Well today, I found not one, but two flowering plants exhibiting these characteristics! Here are a few images of the single-flowered plant (with an unopened bud) as well as a two-flowered plant:

Triphora trianthophora forma albiflora

Triphora trianthophora forma albiflora

Triphora trianthophora forma albiflora

In that last shot (directly above), notice the pinkish-purple flower above the two white ones — that’s a typical flower from a different plant. Note the green ridges on its lip. I was photographing this trio, when I noticed that the two white flowers had yellow lip ridges. Now, unless you are a botanist geek, you probably won’t appreciate my excitement, and the bad thing about it is that I was alone today and didn’t have anyone to share it with. I have seen probably hundreds of thousands of these tiny 1/2-inch (1 cm) flowers since I have been visiting this site over the years, and I have always been on the lookout for the alba form. It’s rather difficult to do when your eyes are about 6 feet (2 meters) above the flowers. The plants are only a few inches tall. Over the years, I’ve spotted many, many white flowers that turned out to have green lip ridges… I usually try follow Phil’s admonition, “Get down on your hands and knees, and use a hand lens to see what all the fuss is about.”

Phil called the one he saw, Triphora trianthophora forma albidoflava. Since the ones I saw are slightly different than the one he saw (mine don’t show a yellow ovary), I’ll use the name, Triphora trianthophora forma albiflora.

I spent several hours in and around the area, photographing lots of these beauties in full bloom, knowing that by late this afternoon, all of the opened flowers will close and droop. As I stated earlier, it may be up to several weeks before the next wave of blooming occurs.

Here are some more images of the plants I saw at this site in the Pisgah National Forest, north of Brevard, North Carolina:

Three-birds orchid Three-birds orchid
Three-birds orchid Three-birds orchid

Three-birds orchid

Three-birds orchid Three-birds orchid
Three-birds orchid Three-birds orchid

Three-birds orchid

Three-birds orchid Three-birds orchid
Three-birds orchid Three-birds orchid

Three-birds orchid

Knock on wood — so far, this has been an exceptional year for us in our pursuit of North American native orchids. We live in an area that is so floristically diverse and provides many hundreds of species of wildflowers and orchids to photograph during the year. There is always something new to see around the next bend. The year is not over, by a long shot, but I should be staying in the Carolinas for the next few adventures. Stay tuned…

–Jim

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    1. Thanks, Noreen. The plants are from 2-5 inches (5-12.5 cm) tall rarely 8 inches (20 cm), and the flowers are about 1/2 inch (1 cm) wide. They are small, but not as small as some of the orchids we saw in the Churchill area… 🙂

  1. As usual, Jim, your photos and commentary have floored me.I so enjoy your blog. Usually I love the combination of lavender and spring green, but I’m voting for the white and green Triphoras or the gaudier, ruffle-lipped yellow ones. I guess the pollinators hire their own meteorologist to tell them when it’s time to buzz in and do their work.

  2. Jim,
    Aug 1 was Friday not Sat. Albidoflava is different in meaning from albiflora in that Albi is white as common in both but flora means flower and flava means yellow. So I didn’t understand when you said they mean the same thing. I have had 3 Birds Orchid on my wish list for several years and would dearly love to see them in bloom sometime. I recommend a pair of Pentax Papillio binoculars that are very close focus and light weight that keep me on my feet to see the tiny aspects of plants and animals at or near my feet as well as leaves and birds up in the tree tops. 8.5 X 21 and min. focus of 0.5 meter. Price of $112 on Amazon.com

    1. Thanks, Dan, for the close read and pointing out the incorrect dates. Since I retired, I have a problem knowing just what day of the week it is anymore. I have made those corrections in the blog.

      As far as the forma name is concerned, I have just removed the comment about those two being practically the same. I thought I could get away with that, but you busted me! 😉 Even though many of the Triphora trianthophora flowers at that location have white petals and sepals, the tip of the column is usually pink and the pollinia are always deep magenta. In the case of the “albiflora” flowers I found, the tip of the column is white. From the images I took, I cannot tell the color of the pollinia with certainty, but I know it is not deep magenta.

      Regarding the binoculars, I already have plenty of equipment to carry around without the additional burden of possiby losing the binoculars when I lay them down to take pictures of the flowers. For now, I’ll just lean over or squat down to get a better view — it’s better exercise, after all.

      Thanks again, for your support.

      –Jim

  3. you are fortunate to have such an area with such treasures close enough to visit so frequently. Someday I hope to get down and see this wonderful area you write so eloquently about.

  4. Jim, great blog entry (as usual), and fabulous photos of the three birds orchid!!! So many different color variations! Seeing such a display with the addition of the very rare white form must have been super exciting for you!

    I haven’t seen this orchid in a few years, and plan to look soon. There are still many Indiana orchids for which I have no digital images, so I want to work on getting images of a few more of them this year. I’m confused about how one predicts flowering for this plant. It seems to me that your example was a 15 degree drop over a 72 hour period, not a 48 hour period. Why didn’t you look for them a day earlier? Also, when you say there has to be a 5 degree drop over 48 hours, is that a 5 degree drop each day (for a total of 10 degrees), or a total of 5 degrees over the entire 48 hour period? Thanks for whatever clarification you can provide for me.

    1. Thanks for the good words, Lee! You are correct that the 15-degree drop was over 3 days (72 hours), but I added that extra day’s measurement for impact. The two-day drop was 11 degrees.

      Had I gone up there the day before, I may have seen some in bloom, but the added extra 5-degree drop the next day, gave them an added boost.

      The “rule” still says,”a 5-degree or more drop of low temperature mesurements in 48 hours”. Usually, there is a two-day drop, then the low temps rise in the following days. And, it doesn’t have to be 5 degrees each day; just a total of 5 degrees or more in 48 hours.

      Hope this helps some,

      –Jim

  5. What a great find! I was thinking it would be a bit later in August before they bloomed. Outstanding photos of a wonderful orchid.

  6. I’m glad someone else said they were confused about the temperature drop over 72 hours then bloom 48 hours later. I read that a couple of times and didn’t think it was what Phil use to say? We went up to the N.H. site with Phil many years, the year he saw the white with yellow he went alone that day, but we got to see the plant with the drooping flower and waited years to see another one at the same site, never did. We did see one with 4 flowers open at the same time once.

    We don’t usually see that many plants with the dark purple color, beautiful photos! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Shirley, I used Phil’s book as a starting point to formulate the “5-degree drop over 2 days; then 2 days later, a bloom” that seems to work for the population in the Pisgah NF. In his book, he was pretty cagey about fully divulging his “secret” regarding their bloom pattern.

      My bloom predictions for our area are right about 90% of the time since 2007, and I think that is pretty good. The patterns never seem to jibe with two or three days drop in temp of 5 degrees or more, so I have to work around what is given. With a 15-degree drop over three days, I was quite sure I’d find them in bloom.

      I know you were good friends with Phil, and maybe he shared his “secret” with you and his other friends. As I said, I had to figure out what works for us in our region.

      Thank you for your support of my blog.

      –Jim

  7. These are incredible. I got my first photos last year and I was ecstatic when I found 4-5 stems. You were lucky enough to find a bush! Thanks for the blooming info because I was waiting for the end of August when I found them last year.

  8. Wow!!! I live in Brevard and love finding wildflowers…would you mind sharing where exactly you found these? I found some of the Yellow Fringed Orchids yesterday, but would love to happen up on some of these ~ gorgeous! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  9. For a publication I am looking for some good high resolution pics of Triphora trianthrophora. Could you please let me have high resolution pics and give me permission to use them. I am lookinhg for the following pics:
    14618418250_7f68663521_z;
    14618488939_025b1b4108_z
    14824975513_a2fa32cc62_z

    Thanks in advance and best wishes

    Rudolf Jennyx
    Secretary general of the European Orchid Council (EOC)
    Research Associate of the Jany Renz Herbarium, University Basel, Switzerland
    BibliOrchidea, the most complete literature-database for Orchids existing: http://orchid.unibas.ch/bibliorchidea.index.php

    Rudolf Jenny, Moosweg 9, 3112 Allmendingen, Switzerland

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