Second flush of Spring wildflowers in the upstate of South Carolina — 2020-04-07

This is a long blog post. If you would like to skip the first section of this blog about the times in which we find ourselves, that’s OK with me. You are, to some extent, a captive audience, but I do not want you to feel burdened by my ramblings. But, it is something I feel the need to record…

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EDITORIAL: There is a razor-thin line between the real and the surreal. Today’s foray into the woods to participate in the annual cycle of life that has been with us forever, is my centering — my spring renewal. Walter Ezell and I had decided to visit some of South Carolina’s outstanding wildflower sites in the upstate after learning from our good friends, Rich Stevenson and Cindy Lemon, that the rare, Helonias bullata or Swamp Pink, was in full bloom in the upper reaches of Greenville County. We don’t usually see it until the third week in April!

Our governor has somewhat come to his senses and issued a stay-at-home order effective today at 5:30 pm. So we still had a window to get out and visit a few wildflower sites. Turns out, the stay-at-home order is so riddled with exceptions, that it can hardly be called effective for preventing transmission of the Coronavirus. One of the exceptions is “recreating”. Push come to shove, our wildflower adventure could be called recreation, because it allows us to get some needed exercise while refreshing our spirits. But my thoughts go to the Carolina lakes and beaches, and I wonder if they are as packed as they would be this time of year in normal times.

So, armed with my flimsy mask and nitrile gloves, I stand at the gas pump wondering who had previously touched the pump handle and wondering if the gloves were enough to protect me. Being in the age cohort whose life is at most risk of not surviving the onslaught of this evil invader was more than a bit unnerving, and I wondered if I should be outside at all, regardless of the reason. Hearing a guy on the other side of the pump give a slight but unmistakable cough, brought me to my senses, and I quickly finished at the pump, holding my breath as I replace the pump handle in its carrier.

A few minutes later, as we headed north from town, we passed by one of the bigbox stores whose parking lot was so crowded that I venture to guess no parking spaces were available. That’s one business that is not suffering in these trying times. There was not a queue outside the front door, so I suspect that all the shoppers were inside, shoulder to shoulder, getting supplies for their home improvements. “What are they thinking!?!”, I mumbled out-loud.

We, at least some of us, will survive and perhaps be better for the experience. We will learn that every minute is precious and that some of the things we take for granted should be treasured and held close — especially those we love.

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Back to our previously scheduled programming…

The day began as overcast, which is good for wildflower photography. But, before the day was over, the sun peeked through the clouds and created some challenges for macro photography. We got somewhat a late start, as Walter had an online appointment with his physician and a scheduled online meeting with his Toastmasters group. I spent that time getting my camera gear in order and making a sandwich for the trip.

We headed north on Hwy. 276 toward our final destination of a little-known state Heritage Preserve in the upper reaches of the county — just a stone’s throw from the North Carolina state line. In fact, one must cross into North Carolina at some point to reach the site. But along the way, I thought it would be prudent to drive the length of Persimmon Ridge Rode to check on the status of the wildflowers that usually show themselves during the second and third week of April. Not expecting much, I was quite surprised to find most, if not all, of the Spring wildflowers in full bloom! What has climate change brought us but a rejiggering of our calendars and a realization that climate change is, indeed, a real thing.

The first wildflower we spotted was Iris verna or Dwarf Iris, grouped in colonies of up to several dozen plants along the roadside. This may actually be the variety, smalliana, which is the Mountain Dwarf Iris, but I’m not sure if that nomenclature is still current. In any case, there were large numbers of them all along Persimmon Ridge Road. I suspect that if we had visited a couple of weeks later (during their “expected” bloom time) — or even one week later — that we would have missed them entirely. Thanks again, Rich and Cindy, for alerting us of this year’s early wildflower season.

Swamp PinkSwamp Pink

These Dwarf Iris are essentially Spring ephemerals, because each flower does not last more than a few days. Again, we were fortunate to find these in perfect bloom:

Dwarf Iris Dwarf Iris
Dwarf Iris Dwarf Iris

Dwarf Iris

Just a short distance from these Dwarf Iris plants, I spotted another Spring ephemeral, Uvularia sessilifolia or Sessile Bellwort aka Wild Oats. Who knows how it got the common name of Wild Oats:

Sessile Bellwort Sessile Bellwort

Sessile Bellwort

Among the many species of Spring wildflowers we saw were a handful of Violet species. Scattered among the Sessile Bellworts, were dozens of Viola hastata or Halberd-leaved Violet. Their bright yellow flowers perched on thin stems above the pointed leaves really brighten up the shaded roadside:

Halberd-leaved Violet

Halberd-leaved Violet

Halberd-leaved Violet

We spent quite a bit of time on this grassy roadside. Fortunately, there was almost no traffic, and we had plenty of room. Unfortunately, there has been no rain for a few days, and the dust from the gravel road had provided a thin coat on everything.

We finished up at this spot, packed our gear, and headed up the mountain road. As we were rounding a sharp curve, I noticed what at first looked to be a black stick in the road. When I realized what I was actually looking at, I slammed on the brakes and hurriedly got my camera gear. It was a beautiful Pantherophis alleghaniensis or Eastern Black Ratsnake! Note: I had originally identified it as an Eastern Black Racer, but a knowledgeable reader has set me straight. Thanks!

Eastern Black Ratsnake

Eastern Black Ratsnake

What a gorgeous creature! As we were finishing photographing the snake, a car rounded the corner, so we rushed to make sure the snake was safely on the other side of the road.

The next flower species was just up the road. This one is another Violet species — Viola pedata or Bird’s-foot Violet. This one comes in a variety of shades of lavender. Very rarely, I have seen a pure white one, and on this day, this is what we found. It was a small plant with just a single flower, but I have hope that it will eventually spread and provide many more years of beauty on the ground:

Rare white form of Bird's-foot Violet

BTW, the common name comes from the shape of the leaf structure; like a bird’s foot.

As I just mentioned, the flowers are some shade of lavender, from pinkish to bluish. Here is a selection of some of the many plants we saw and photographed:

Bird's-foot Violet Bird's-foot Violet

Bird's-foot Violet

Bird's-foot Violet

Patches of this Violet species were scattered on both sides of the road for almost a mile (1.6 km). Eventually, as we continued to climb in elevation, we spotted a Violet species that is uncommon in the upstate; Viola sagittata or Arrowleaf Violet. I had spotted this one a couple of years ago and was surprised to find it along the roadside:

Arrowleaf Violet Arrowleaf Violet

Arrowleaf Violet

We were close to Eva Russell Chandler Heritage Preserve, and I wanted to see if there was anything interesting in flower along the trail. Fortunately, the road had been recently resurfaced after the torrential rains had washed out part of the road near the preserve. We found a good roadside pull off, gathered our camera gear and walked to the trail head. Soon, we began to see lots of light blue Violets (of course, what else!?!) along the trail. These were Viola rostrata or Spurred Violet. This is one of my favorite native Violets with an extra-long spur sticking up on the backside of each of the flowers:

Spurred Violet Spurred Violet

Spurred Violet

We continued following the foot trail, and in no time, we found one of the largest Rhododendron periclymenoides or Pinxter Azalea I’ve ever seen, and it was in full bloom. The shrub (really a tree) was at least 20 feet (6 meters) tall. A couple of years ago, it suffered greatly during an ice storm and lost several of its largest branches. Its clusters of pink and white flowers are quite fragrant, and they attract bees and butterflies. Here are a few images of this remarkable species:

Pinxter Azalea

Pinxter Azalea

Pinxter Azalea

Beneath this huge native Azalea, were dozens of Anemone quinquefolia or Wood Anemone. Their bright white flowers were easy to spot among the dead, leaf litter:

Wood Anemone Wood Anemone

Wood Anemone

We had a couple of other sites to visit before returning home, so we gathered our gear and headed back to the truck. But, before we arrived, we took a short cut into the woods to check the status of a patch of Cypripedium acaule or Pink Lady’s-slipper orchids that I’ve been photographing for at least a decade. They were just coming up out of the ground, but I did find one that promised to be ready in a few weeks:

Pink Lady's-slipper orchid in bud

We left the preserve and headed up the road toward Hwy. 276. We were progressing quite well on our trip until I rounded a curve and saw a couple of large shrubs with yellow flowers. These belonged to a shrub called Symplocos tinctoria or Horse sugar. Apparently the leaves are sweet, and ones that horses love to munch on. It is said that hikers can consume the leaves for a refreshing trailside treat! The flowers are quite interesting in that there are no petals on the flowers — just dozens of stamens. The small purplish-brown fruit is a favorite of migrating birds. Here are a couple of shot of these “fuzzy” flowers:

Horse sugar Horse sugar

Now it was time to seriously get back on Hwy. 276 and head north toward our final destination. About halfway up the Blue Ridge Escarpment, I pulled over to check out another spot I’ve been visiting for many years. It’s a rich cove just full of a number of species of wildflowers in Spring, Summer, and Fall. Today, I was looking for one species, in particular; Uvularia perfoliata or Perfoliate Bellwort. Although a couple of our Bellwort species are perfoliate (stem appears to punch through the leaves on the stem), this one is easy to distinguish from the others due to the granules which appear on the inner surface of the tepals. Here are some images which show this characteristic:

Perfoliate Bellwort

Perfoliate Bellwort Perfoliate Bellwort

At this roadside spot, there were also hundreds of Iris cristata or Dwarf crested Iris. It was difficult to decide which ones to photograph:

Dwarf crested Iris Dwarf crested Iris

Dwarf crested Iris

It was getting late in the afternoon, and we still were not at our final destination. We had to enter North Carolina for a brief period before we could re-enter South Carolina and proceed up the two-track to the preserve. I was hoping that it was not gated, because it would be quite a hike to the boggy area if we had to walk. I was quite relieved to see that the way was clear to the preserve.

There are several locations for Helonias bullata or Swamp Pink in the preserve. So I stopped at the pull off for the first site. I figured that if the flowers were in bloom there, we would not have to hike to the other sites. This species is a federally threatened species, and the habitats are fragile and extremely rare, especially in the Southeast, so I will not provide further information about the location.

We parked in the pull off, loaded our camera gear. For Christmas, my son Dylan had given us Neos overshoes which fit over our standard hiking shoes, and this was our first chance to give them a good workout. The habitat for the Swamp Pink is wet and boggy, so some shoe protection is required. What’s good about these overshoes is that you do not have to remove your hiking boots before putting on the overshoes. They are very light weight and I can report that they worked perfectly. BTW, I am not a spokesperson for Neos, but I do highly recommend their products. 😉

After walking some distance, we arrived at the bog. It was just beginning to sprinkle rain, and I hoped that it was just going to be a light shower — which it was. We immediately began to find suitable photographic opportunities among the hundred or so blooming plants. My observations showed me that the plants appeared to be in stress. Perhaps it was the lack of suitable rain in the past couple of weeks.

The flowers were not quite the vibrant magenta color I am used to seeing, but they seemed to be in great shape, otherwise. In previous years, this region has suffered a mid-April hard freeze, and the flowers do not do well below freezing. The stems are hollow and turn to “jelly” when subject to freeing temps. This year, our last freeze was at least a month prior to our visit, and it was not a hard freeze at all. So, the plants were in pretty good shape.

Enough of that! Here is a selection of images of these highly fragrant and beautiful wildflowers:

Swamp Pink habitat

Swamp Pink Swamp Pink

Swamp Pink habitat

Swamp Pink Swamp Pink

Swamp Pink

Wow! These plants never fail to amaze me. The fragrance is strong and sweet. It takes a lot of work to manage the bogs, and the preserve staff should be applauded for their hard work to remove vegetation that would otherwise shade out the Swamp Pink rosettes.

As we were leaving, I decided to take one last shot showing the sprouting vegetative leaves of this member of the Lily family:

Swamp Pink leaf rosettes

We were both rather tired after a day of hiking and photography, and when we got back to the truck, we both let out a sigh, reliving what we had seen. On our way out of the preserve, I remembered a spot where I had seen a marvelously colored Epigaea repens or Trailing Arbutus a couple of years ago. I had not been able to locate it again, and figured it was gone, but I was careful to stop at the spot on our way out. The first couple of Trailing Arbutus plants which lined the roadside berm had either no flowers or the commonly seen white flowers. I had just about given up when I spotted a few bright magenta flowers peeking out from behind the leaves of a single plant. Turns out that we were a few days early to catch them at peak bloom, but here are a few images to give you an idea of the striking vibrancy of the flowers:

Trailing Arbutus Trailing Arbutus

Trailing Arbutus

Trailing Arbutus

We ended up having a full day out in the field. This is just the beginning of the wildflower season, and I hope to be able to bring you more samples of what we have in our area of the Southeast. We are hearing that the virus scare is beginning to peak, especially in the Northeast. But we all must stay safe and practice social distancing. I guess time will tell.

Be safe and love one another…

–Jim

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14 Responses

  1. Envious — of outing and the beautiful picture taking as usual. I’m on my way down to my basement to see what is blooming under lights.

  2. Beautiful post and photos. I’ve never seen a Swamp Pink but they are stunning with those colors! I’m much like Duane above: stuck in the basement mining my archives right now and trying not to think of all the spring flowers and scenes that are happening around me :-).

  3. Wonderful write-ups, exquisite photographs! I’m grateful for the treats and the smiles! — Jim

  4. Right on! I only wish you could bottle up the fragrance to send along. I forward a link to my mom (89+1 yo) to brighten her day. At an early age she taught us to love wildflowers in the woods of Wisconsin. You provide a bee’s perspective–Thank you!

  5. Beautiful pictures! I’ve never seen so many swamp pinks at one location! There are some swamp pinks in Alleghany Co., NC that bloom late April, early May. Based on the early bloom period this year need to go see if they are in bloom now. Thanks for the post!

  6. We’ve been feasting at the same banquet! I drove to southern NJ to see Helonias two days ago, seeing them at the same stage, or perhaps a few more just opening. I, too, stopped at a roadside to inhale Epigaea scent deeply. Didn’t have time for Neottia australis, but there’s always next week! Hugs to y’all; stay safe.

  7. Jim, what can I say? So many amazing images and each one edited flawlessly. Thanks for continuing to social distance in the woods!

  8. Gorgeous. I’ve never seen a Swamp Pink. So, thanks for taking me on your trip — through your blog. All the wildflowers on this one were fantastic — as always!

  9. Jim, Helonias bullata are 1 of few plants that are equal to orchids in flower royalty. When we lived in South Jersey I was a volunteer of a Federal monitoring group. Our plants usually were in moving,

    pure, fresh water at or near its source and often in the midst of Skunk Cabbage fields.

  10. Jim, thank you sharing these GORGEOUS photos and for your editorial comments on COVID-19 precautions. Over the past few weeks, the closures of parks and other frequented outdoor venues have resulted in gluts of people gathering to hike on easily accessible trails. Without practicing social distancing. SC (and other popular trails) have been behind the curve to flatten the curve. I welcome those who revere nature on any trail, but those who don’t socially distance pose a risk to others. I have an autoimmune disorder which puts me at high risk, and I also worry about others in high risk categories. Nearly half of the persons testing positive for COVID-19 in the NC county where I live are between the ages of 18-49. Stay safe and healthy and thank you for the beautiful images!

  11. I am glad you saw the swamp pinks! I had tried to email you two weeks ago that they were beginning to bloom, but I don’t think the email ever went through. I had swamp pinks on my calendar as blooming at the end of April but we were hiking over there anyway (to get away from people) so we stopped to look. We were surprised that a few were in bloom! I just now thought about notifying you through a comment here.

  12. Jim: Fantastic shots and great wildflowers. I got to see the Swamp Pinks in New Jersey years ago before I took up wildflower photography. Also, your snake is an Eastern Black Ratsnake. Keep up the good work!

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