Mid-Summer wildflower color along the Blue Ridge Parkway — 2020-07-15

The Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina is such a magical place for wildflowers that I just cannot hold myself back from visiting more than once during mid-Summer. The region experienced an awful lot of rain during the Winter and Spring, but late June and so far in July, it has been very dry. My target species for this trip was Lilium superbum or Turk’s-cap Lily, which are usually abundant along the damp roadsides in mid-July. On this trip, however, it was mostly absent, or the plants which I did find were brown and withered. Too bad, because this very showy species is a delight to find up there with its colorful flowers, sometimes 8-9 feet (2.5-3 meters) off the ground. Here is a shot of one of the three plants I found in bloom:

Turk's-cap LilyTurk’s-cap Lily

Here are a few more shots of the plants from that same location:

Turk's-cap Lily

Turk's-cap Lily

Turk's-cap Lily

Usually, I’m not a big fan of bright sunshine for my wildflower photography, but these flowers just seem to glow while being lit from above by the sun’s rays. This species is fairly easy to separate from other look-alikes by looking for the green “star” that appears at the base of the petals.

There were a couple of species of wildflowers which were numerous along the roadside. These are Oenothera tetragona var. fraseri or Sundrops, and Monarda didyma or Scarlet Bee-balm.

The bright yellow flowers of Sundrops are hard to miss. They usually do not fully open except in bright sunlight, which there was plenty on this day:

Sundrops Sundrops

Likewise, the vibrant color of the Scarlet Bee-balm is “in your face”. It is a favorite of bees as well as hummingbirds, although on this trip, I did not see the hummingbirds:

Scarlet Bee-balm Scarlet Bee-balm

Scarlet Bee-balm

Across the road, I found about a half-dozen white forms of Bee-balm, called Monarda clinipodia or, you guessed it, White Bee-Balm.

White Bee-balm

As I made my way South along the Parkway, I stopped from time to time to search the base of the wet cliff faces which were carved away by hand in the 1930s. These particular cliff faces host many rare species and are sometimes known as “vertical bogs”. They remain wet year around, providing a constant water source for those plants who like to have wet feet. One place I usually visit has a good supply of Gymnadeniopsis clavellata or Club-spur orchid aka Green Woodland orchid. I suspected that I was a bit early to find them in full bloom, and I was right. However, I did manage to find a couple plants with a few open flowers:

Club-spur orchid Club-spur orchid

I’ll definitely be going back in a week to 10 days to check on their status. They were quite plentiful in several locations I visited on this trip. Note the club-shaped spur, whence the common name was derived.

Another shrubby plant that was frequently seen at and above elevations of 5,000 feet (1,525 meters) was Diervilla sessilifolia or Southern bush honeysuckle. Its clusters of yellow-green flowers (turning orangy-brown as they age) were quite evident all along the roadside, at least where the mowing crew missed destroying the plants. Don’t get me started on the subject of mowing. It seems that for the past two years, the mowers have attempted to mow as far off the road as the machines will reach — often making several passes to go farther and farther until they reach the edge of the woods or until the edge of the road makes a precipitous drop into oblivion. A couple of years ago, a contract mower lost his life when he and his equipment slid off the side of the road. Anyway, here is a shot of the flowers of Southern bush honeysuckle:

Southern bush honeysuckle

I finally arrived at the place I never fail to visit when I’m on this portion of the Parkway — Wolf Mountain Overlook. This vertical bog always has something for the wildflower enthusiast just about any time of the wildflower season. And, I usually end up meeting some of my readers there! There was no one present at the overlook parking area when I arrived, so I gathered my gear and proceeded to walk across the road to inspect the vegetation on and at the base of the cliff face. The face itself stretches for quite a distance, and there are different micro habitats along the extent of the cliff face — some parts are quite wet, with constantly dripping water, and some parts are relatively dry. When I finally returned after about a half-hour’s photo session, I saw a couple standing next to their car. I introduced myself, and the gentleman, Joe Blevins, from Anderson, South Carolina, introduced his wife Sarah. We had a good chat about the blog and some of the plants at the overlook, and it was good to meet a couple of my die-hard followers. Thank you for your support, Joe and Sarah!

About the only things in bloom at the overlook were the Southern bush honeysuckle and a very nice population of Hypericum graveolens or Mountain St. Johns wort. These bright yellow flowers look as if there was explosion of stamens — almost as if you could hear the flowers pop open! Very pretty, in my opinion:

Mountain St. Johns wort Mountain St. Johns wort

Mountain St. Johns wort

Farther on down the road is a population of the rare (for North Carolina, anyway), Triantha glutinosa or Sticky Tofieldia. There are sticky glands on the stem which gives them their common name. Again, some of them tend to wander from the shallow ditch toward the road, and they are summarily mowed down… I suppose they haven’t learned their lesson yet:

Sticky Tofieldia Sticky Tofieldia

After I finished my work at the overlook, it was time for a couple of slices of pizza, which I had purchased before I left Greenville on my trip. I don’t know if you, Dear Readers, feel the same way as I do, but I don’t mind cold pizza — in fact, I rather enjoy it. So, settling down next to my truck with a couple of pieces of pizza, a cold drink, and a fantastic view of the mountains in the distance, what could be better!?!

After my lunch, I headed south to see what I could find. There are a few good wet cliff faces which I hadn’t fully check out before, so I was excited to see what awaited me.

At the first stop, I spotted large mats of a reddish Sphagnum draping on the rock wall topped with a creeping vine of Lycopidium clavatum or Wolf’s-paw Clubmoss. BTW, “Lycopodium” means “Foot of the Wolf” in Greek, and it was probably named for this or a very similar species. It’s at an elevation of about 5,500 feet (1,675 meters), so finding this particular Clubmoss at this location is not a big surprise. Here is the image:

Wolf's-paw Clubmoss on Sphagnum

Those structures that are sticking up from the plant are sporangia where the spores are formed. This species of Clubmoss usually has two sporangia per stem. Here is another specimen of Wolf’s-paw Clubmoss that was growing just a short distance away:

Wolf's-paw Clubmoss on Sphagnum

Note the glossy green leaves of Clintonia borealis or Bluebead Lily at the top of the cliff face.

I was just about to leave this spot when I looked down to my left toward my feet. The Sphagnum was quite deep at this spot, and growing directly in the bright green Sphagnum were many dozens (maybe a hundred) Neottia smallii or Appalachian Twayblade orchids! I have never seen so many of them in one place in my life! I had just photographed a few of them a couple of weeks earlier much farther north along the Parkway, so I was really not expecting to find them in bloom on this trip. Wow! This was just amazing!

It was quite difficult getting a good foot-hold with my tripod in such deep Sphagnum. I would set up the shot, and the camera would start slowly tilting to one side or the other. I use a photography process that necessitates a 2-second shutter time delay, so after I press the shutter button, I will position the fill-flash unit to get the best exposure. Well, the camera and tripod had a mind of their own. If things are not perfectly balanced, the image is blurred — sometimes beyond recognition. Fortunately, I managed to get a few OK shots out of the bunch:

Appalachian Twayblade orchid Appalachian Twayblade orchid
Appalachian Twayblade orchid Appalachian Twayblade orchid

In that last shot, above right, the orchids are growing completely surrounded by a mass of Wolf’s-paw Clubmoss!

After setting up and taking the first few images, I noticed something very unusual. There were some exceptionally light green flowers among the tan and reddish-brown ones. I have seen green Appalachian Twayblade orchids before, but not completely anthocyanin-free flowers. According to verywellhealth.com, “Anthocyanins are a type of flavonoid, a class of compounds with antioxidant effects. Found naturally in a number of foods [and other plant material], anthocyanins are the pigments that give red, purple, and blue plants their rich coloring.” Here are a few examples of these unusual, green orchids:

Appalachian Twayblade orchid green form Appalachian Twayblade orchid green form

Appalachian Twayblade orchid, green form

Appalachian Twayblade orchid, green form

I have to tell you that I have not been surprised by such a find in a long while. I made both a mental note and a GPS reading so that I can come back again next year to see if the plants are still there. Packing my gear, I turn around to take in the area one last time, feeling very lucky to have stopped to check out this wet cliff face for the first time.

Moving on, there was another such wet cliff face just a couple of miles farther south. I stopped at my “usual” place along the road and gathered my gear. There are two particular species I was looking for and which I have photographed here on previous visits. The first of these I saw only last year. It is a fern called, Phegopteris connectilis or Long Beech Fern. What makes it special is that it grows only in fissures in the cliff face. It has been found in only two mountain counties in North Carolina, and one in adjoining Tennessee, so it is quite a rare sight along the Parkway. It is a denizen of farther northern latitudes. Apparently it is happy here, because I have since found several new immature plants popping up in the cliff’s cracked rock face:

Long Beech Fern

The second of the two target species is an old friend — one I just recently photographed — Huperzia appalachiana or Appalachian Clubmoss. For some reason, several years ago before I became smitten with orchids, I became interested in the Clubmosses. There are quite a few of them in western North Carolina, especially in the mountains. The Blue Ridge Parkway provides the perfect habitat for these interesting species. Here are two shots from a fairly large population of these plants:

Appalachian Clubmoss

Appalachian Clubmoss with Round-leaf Sundew

Note the Drosera rotundifolia or Round-leaf Sundew growing at the base of one of the Clubmoss plants.

Speaking of Round-leaf Sundews:

Round-leaf Sundews

They were scattered in numerous flat places on the wet cliff face — usually growing along with Appalachian Clubmoss on top of a bed of Scapania nemorea, a Liverwort species. What a variety of plant life clinging to the wet cliff face!

Here is a shot of another Round-leaf Sundew, sprouting a few flower stems which are still in tight bud:

Round-leaf Sundew

I packed up and drove a bit farther south and discovered a small patch of Amianthium muscitoxicum or Fly poison growing just barely beyond, you guessed it, the mowed portion of the roadside. It causes me to wonder what it might have looked like if less of the roadside had been mowed. In any case, here are a couple of close-ups of these unusual flowers. The inflorescence begins opening at the bottom and works its way up over a couple of weeks’ time. Those older flowers at the bottom turn green or reddish green as they age, providing a bi-color arrangement on the stem. As I have mentioned in previous blog reports, this species gets its common name from the fact that when the rhizome is crushed and mixed with honey, the alkaloids that are present act as an effective poison for insects such as flies:

Fly poison Fly poison

It was now time to head back home. I had already spent about 7 hours on the road, and I still had one remaining site to visit in the Pisgah National Forest, near Brevard, North Carolina. It is the site for Triphora trianthophoros or the Three-birds orchid. I did not expect to see any blooming plants this early in the season, but global warming has moved the bloom date a couple of weeks earlier in the year in the past few years. What I did expect to see is some sign of the plants with buds. That is what I found:

Three-birds orchids in bud

I fully expect to see them in flower in a couple of weeks. Along with the Three-birds orchids, I expect to see the tall flower stems of Tipularia discolor or Crane-fly orchid. Here is a teaser for this species. You can see the numerous buds atop the stem which is poking through the protective sheath:

Buds of the Crane-fly orchid

Another wonderful adventure in the mountains of western North Carolina. As I have said before, one never knows what lurks around the next corner of the winding, Blue Ridge Parkway. I’m always open for surprises, and the one I got with the Appalachian Twayblade orchids on this trip was very welcome. In a couple of weeks, I expect to see Three-birds orchids, Yellow-fringed orchids, Northern Slender Ladies’-tresses orchids, as well as Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchids, Club-spur orchids, and Crane-fly orchids — all in full bloom.

Please stay tuned for further episodes of my wildflower adventures…

Until then,

–Jim

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20 Responses

  1. What an awesome variety of interesting and beautiful plants, Jim! I always enjoy your blogs, but I found this one particularly fun to read and see. Great photography, too, even better than usual, IMO!

  2. Thank you so much for taking us along on this wonderful trip of exploration with you. Your photographs are simply wonderful.

  3. Love the narrative and photos of your wildflower adventures. I agree with your comment about the parkway mowing the roadsides. I had been keeping an eye on 3 ragged fringed orchids and 1 pyrola growing about 6 feet from the road edge in Doughton Park, They were just starting to bloom last week when the dreaded mower cut them down in their prime! The road edges were looking so nice with lots of wildflowers before the mowers arrived.

  4. you really hit the motherlode this trip, all really nice specimens………….
    good job………….!!!

  5. Lovely shots as always, Jim. You might want to check on the Cheez-whiz orchids a bit earlier than usual, as the ones here in CT have already started. If memory serves, despite our distance, they bloomed around the same time. I so miss seeing you guys this year!

  6. Thank you for the wonderful accounts of your meanderings and botanical observations. They are the very bright spot in my weeks, and days, which are flooded by so much negative news with the pandemic. Flowers and your photography and the delight of the new turn my frown upside down.

  7. Jim, I am always amazed at your post, but this one just blows me away. I wish I could be a fly sitting on your shoulder for a day to see how and where you produce such incredible images of wonderful plants. This set is just amazing. It takes me back to the wonderful summers I spent in Highland Co, VA, running our college’s biological Field Station. Didn’t find the orchids like you do, but there were many wonderful creatures and plants there. What I wouldn’t give to be able to turn the clock back, while keeping my current photographic equipment, and try in my limited way to produce images like these.

    I get envious, nostalgic and contemplative all at the same time! Thanks so much for these wonderful displays.

  8. WOW! I love to read your posts and see your amazing photographs. Thank you for sharing these trips with us. I have been able to see so many wildflowers that I would never have known about as well as visit old friends I have not seen in many years. The Appalachian Twayblade orchids are stunning and that close up single bloom is breathtaking.

  9. So difficult to photograph Drosera flowers, but the vertical cliff is a grand opportunity to do do! Virtual field trips are such fun!

  10. Thanks again Jim for the adventure. Your writing is wonderful eclipsed only by your stunning photographs, Would that I had your talents as I traveled with Rudy doing our NatureScene shows around the world, Hope you will come see my forest of orchids at Pinnacle Falls. You are welcome always. Jim

  11. I’m hiking along the Parkway tomorrow with a buddy.

    Now, thanks to you, I can blow him away with my knowledge of the plants we see.

    Thanks, Jim !

  12. Beautiful! I am jealous of the Appalachian twayblade find. The patch of Turk’s Cap Lillies I watch (at about 2700 ft in Zirconia) are on an odd schedule. They just started to bloom last weekend. They have been much earlier previous years. Have you seen the mother-lode area of them a short walk off the parkway just north of Pisgah Inn? It’s like you are standing in a sea of orange. I would love to see the pictures you would take in that area.

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