More from last weekend in Pickens County, SC — 2021-03-19

This past weekend, several of us made separate field trips to Peach Orchard Branch, Nine Times Preserve, and Laurel Fork Heritage Preserve, all in Pickens County, South Carolina. The Spring ephemeral wildflowers were in perfect bloom. I have managed to visit these sites every Spring for several years, and I am never disappointed in what is displayed before me.

Several of my photography friends have said that this is an early Spring, and a few have said it is a late Spring, but what I found this year is that everything is blooming pretty much right on schedule. I chose to visit Peach Orchard Branch, because it is one of the few sites for Pachysandra procumbens or Allegheny Spurge in South Carolina. We visited Nine Times Preserve (owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy) to see the beautifully colored Hepatica acutiloba or Sharp-lobed Hepatica, as well as Sanguinaria canadensis or Blood Root, and the ever-present Erythronium umbilicatum or Dimpled Trout Lily. That bad boy seems to continue to produce flowers for a couple of weeks. I was even invited to join a few friends on a long hike to Laurel Fork Heritage Preserve near Lake Jocassee to look for Shortia galacifolia or Oconee Bells.

Allegheny Spurge
Allegheny Spurge

Sharp-lobed Hepatica
Sharp-lobed Hepatica

Oconee Bells
Oconee Bells

Peach Orchard Branch

We arose early that morning because we were to meet a group of out-of-towners from the Atlanta, Georgia area at the trailhead. Walter Ezell, Alan Cressler (photographer friend also from Atlanta) and I gathered our camera gear, loaded our vehicles, and made our way to the parking area at the trailhead. Alan had spent the night with us in order to get an early start to the day. When we arrived, we saw that Henning von Schmeling (Director of the Chattahoochee Nature Center, north of Atlanta) and Emma Rose Neigel (Conservation Horticulturist at Atlanta Botanical Garden) had just arrived and were eager to hit the trail.

The morning was crisp and overcast — perfect for wildflower photography. So, we proceeded down the narrow foot trail toward one of the small tributaries of Peach Orchard Branch. This area is what’s known as a rich cove forest — a lush, shady natural community with tall trees, including tuliptree and white pine, and many low-growing plants including Spring ephemerals. Many times these cove forests are characterized by rocky streams which flow between steep slopes. These rich cove forests are found in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

On the way down the almost 1-mile (1.6-km) trail, we saw large colonies of Trillium discolor or Pale Trillium still in tight bud. Here is an example of Pale Trillium in bud and in bloom:

Pale Trillium

Pale Trillium

As we neared the narrow flood plain of the tributary of Peach Orchard Branch, we began to see a number of Hepatica acutiloba or Sharp-lobed Hepatica along the side of the trail. Although I’ve seen, in past years, flowers with more of a pinkish tint, these were mostly pure white:

Sharp-lobed Hepatica

Here and there were scattered plants of Viola hastata or Halberd-leaved Violet. These bright yellow beauties always stick out even on the cloudiest of days:

Halberd-leaved Violet Halberd-leaved Violet

I looked and looked for good specimens of Obolaria virginica or Virginia Pennywort, but was able to find only a few small plants in flower:

Virginia Pennywort

Along with Virginia Pennywort, Stellaria pubera or Giant Chickweed was just begging to show some open flowers:

Giant Chickweed

The main lure of the trip to Peach Orchard Branch has to be the Pachysandra procumbens or Allegheny Spurge. There are just a handful of sites for this plant species in South Carolina, and the one we were visiting is perhaps the largest and best. The low-growing plants grow in a vine-like manner, rooting at nodes in the branches. We made busy photographing the many flowering spikes poking up through the leaf litter. Here is a sample of what we saw:

Allegheny Spurge Allegheny Spurge

Allegheny Spurge

Note how the flower stalks protrude from the plant’s main stem. Also, note the two types of flowers on each flower stalk. The uppermost, white flowers, are male flowers — just stamens with no petals. The lowermost, pink ones, are the female flowers. The term for this is “monoecious”; literally “one house”. The same plant houses different flowers, some being male the others being female. This plant’s flowers emit a spicy fragrance that can sometimes be very noticeable. Its foliage is a lovely blue-green and would probably work well in a shaded garden setting.

Pachysandra procumbens foliage

We spent a couple of hours wandering around the creek bank, photographing and discussing the plants. I believe the Allegheny Spurge was a new species for some of the crew. It’s always nice to be able to show someone a plant species that is new to them.

Nine Times Preserve

It was time to head back up the trail because we were supposed to meet a couple of other botanists/naturalists at Nine Times Preserve to see the newly described Micranthes petiolaris var. shealyi or Shealy’s Saxifrage. It had been discovered in the Preserve, and the crew (now including Keith Bradley, state botanist at SCDNR, and Wesley Knapp, Mountains Field Ecologist/Botanist at North Carolina Natural Heritage Program) wanted to be able to study and photograph it. I made a separate blog post just for this species. You can see it HERE.

After the trip up the mountain to see the new species variety, several of us returned to the trail at the lower section of Nine Times, on Little Eastatoe Creek. This is where there is usually a mass bloom of Erythronium umbilicatum or Dimpled Trout Lily around this time of year. I featured these plant in another recent blog post, HERE. There is one spot on the creek bank where I had found some beautifully colored specimens of Hepatica acutiloba or Sharp-lobed Hepatica in bloom. Unfortunately, in some years, the plants suffer from creek erosion where they are literally scoured from the ground or covered by feet of sand because of the overflow of the fast-running stream. This year, however, we found several clumps of Hepatica acutiloba just waiting to be photographed:

Sharp-lobed Hepatica Sharp-lobed Hepatica

Sharp-lobed Hepatica

It was very windy that afternoon, so I apologize for the blurriness of those images.

Nearby, were several Sanguinaria canadensis or Blood Root flowers in full bloom:

Blood Root Blood Root

And, we managed to find a bright pink form of Thalictrum thalictroides or Rue Anemone. Its flowers are usually bright white at the Preserve, so this pink one was a nice find:

Rue Anemone

Of course, I couldn’t leave Nine Times Preserve without taking one final shot of Erythronium umbilicatum or Dimpled Trout Lily:

Dimpled Trout Lily

Foothills Trail in Laurel Fork Heritage Preserve

The final field trip of the weekend was on the following day — Sunday. I had been invited by my friend Dan Whitten to join him and two other friends, Johnny Corn and Cynthia Radford, on a hike to Laurel Fork Heritage Preserve, in Pickens County near Lake Jocassee. We hoped to see a large patch of the pink form of Shortia galacifolia or Oconee Bells. Dan had seen it several years ago and figured he could remember where he had found it.

We met at the parking lot of the Laurel Valley Trailhead for the Foothills Trail. The 77-mile long (124 km) trail is one of the most scenic and well-travelled trails in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Most hikers walk it by section, meaning that they will pick a particular portion of the trail and hike it in a day or an overnight trip. The portion we were hiking was near Lake Jocassee, and we would end up fording several streams. Fortunately, there were some bridges on the trail that would allow us to keep our feet dry (most of the time).

We began at the trailhead and hiked down a gentle downhill slope for about 3.5 miles (5.6 km). It was a wonderful hike where we saw lots of beautiful scenery as well as a marvelous waterfall — Virginia Hawkins Falls. I didn’t have my long lens, and it is a large waterfall, so I’ll point you to a website for a view of the falls.

Here is a group shot at the Falls, compliments of Johnny Corn. Left to right: Jim, Dan, Johnny, and Cynthia:

Jim, Dan, Johnny, and Cynthia at Virginia Hawkins Falls

At the waterfall, we saw several groups of Sanguinaria canadensis or Blood Root in flower. Here is the best of the bunch. It was just behind that large tree in the above image:

Blood Root

We continued on down the trail to the place where Dan had seen the pink Oconee Bells, but alas, they didn’t show up this year. There were lots of the typical white ones, but no pink ones. That happens sometimes, and although I was disappointed, I still enjoyed the hike and meeting Johnny and Cynthia.

We eventually made it back to our vehicles where it was decided that we would visit an Oconee Bells site that Johnny had seen last year. He thought there might be some “pinkish” ones at that site, so off we go down the road… We arrived and it was obvious that this Oconee Bells site was a nice one, for sure. They covered the sides of a deep ravine next to the road, and we all proceeded to gather our gear and see what we could find. Here are a few shots of the Oconee Bells taken on the side of the ravine:

Oconee Bells Oconee Bells

Oconee Bells

Oconee Bells

Oconee Bells

Growing on the creek bank in and among the Oconee Bells were some wonderful, Viola rotundifolia or Round-leaf Yellow Violets, and I couldn’t resist taking a photo:

Round-leaf Yellow Violet

Just up the road, was a sight I had heard about and seen pictures of, but I had never had the opportunity to visit. We were so close, that it was decided that this would be our last stop of the day. The place is called Jumping Off Rock Overlook. It is a high ledge on the side of a mountain from which much of Lake Jocassee is visible. It is just a short walk from the parking area on Horsepasture Road, and I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a grand landscape view:

Jumping Off Rock Overlook - Lake Jocassee, Pickens County, SC

Well, what a wonderful weekend of wildflower adventures, spending quality time with old buddies, meeting new friends, and just being out-of-doors — especially during these trying times. Our region of the country offers hikers, photographers, botanists, and naturalists a wide variety of space to research many plant species, exercise, and enjoy nature. I’m truly thankful to live in such an area, and I hope to find new places to visit and new species to share with you.

Until then…

–Jim

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