Visit to two spectacular wildflower sites in the foothills of the Carolinas — 2021-04-11

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Recently, Walter Ezell and I visited two special wildflower sites in the foothills of the Carolinas. They could be considered to be in the “mountains”, but technically they are at the base of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. The first of these sites is in the uppermost portion of Greenville County, South Carolina — spitting distance from the state border with North Carolina. It is a small site which has recently been added to Jones Gap State Park. This site is one of two or three locations for an odd Trillium species. It has been known about for a number of years, but only recently has work been done to nail down its true identity. Locally, it is known as the “Jones Gap Trillium”, but basically it looks like Trillium catesbaei or Catesby’s Trillium except that its flower is erect to mostly erect above the leaves/bracts rather than hanging below the leaves/bracts as does the typical Catesby’s Trillium.

My neck of the woods, the extreme northwestern portion of South Carolina (called “the Upstate”), is right in the middle of one of the richest Trillium regions of North America. I hesitate to enumerate the Trillium species in our region, but it is in the several dozens. And, as botanical progress moves onward, “new” species and forms are being identified.

This Upstate site is also home to a large population of Aplectrum hyemale or Puttyroot orchid aka Adam-and-Eve orchid. About a year ago, I posted a blog detailing the orchid plants from this site, HERE. Since they aren’t in flower until mid-May, all that was present on this visit is the large, single leaf, which generally withers before bloom time. There were also several other typical Spring ephemerals in flower at the time of our visit. But again, the target species was the Jones Gap Trillium.

Jones Gap Trillium
Jones Gap Trillium

We arrived early enough, I thought, to have a long time to photograph without any wind. But I was wrong! The wind was blowing constantly up the slope so that getting a fully focused shot was a challenge. But we managed to get a few without blur. As we approached the hillside, I was wondering if we would see any of the Trillium in flower. I don’t know why, but I’m always apprehensive when visiting a site for the first time of the season. As in almost every other case, I shouldn’t have worried. There were several dozens of them in full bloom. Many of the Jones Gap Trillium flowers open as pure white, but most of the others open with a slight pinkish hue. Eventually, each of the flowers will turn a nice, rose-pink before withering. These were in great shape. Here is a sampling of the ones we saw at this site:

Jones Gap Trillium Jones Gap Trillium
Jones Gap Trillium Jones Gap Trillium
Jones Gap Trillium Jones Gap Trillium

A group of Jones Gap Trillium

As a reminder, here is an image of the “typical” Catesby’s Trillium, whose flower hangs directly under the three large leaves/bracts:

Catesby's Trillium

We did find a couple of flowers of another Trillium species, Trillium grandiflorum or Large flower Trillium in the immediate area:

Large flower Trillium

While walking the hillside, we saw a number of other Spring wildflowers, typical for this area. One of these was Stellaria pubera or Giant Chickweed. At first glance, it appears that the flower has 10 petals, but in fact, it has only 5 bifurcated petals:

Giant Chickweed

There were also many groups of Viola sororia or Common Blue Violet scattered in the leaf litter:

Common Blue Violet

Earlier in this post, I made reference to the Puttyroot orchids that bloom on the shaded hillside. Here is a shot of a group of orchid leaves and one of last year’s flower stalks with seed capsules attached:

Puttyroot orchid leaves and seed capsules

One last item from this site: there were a good number of Sanguinaria canadensis or Blood Root leaves with accompanying seed capsule stalks scattered all around the site. Here is one of those and an image of what the flower looks like in full bloom:

Blood Root leaf and seed capsule Blood Root flower

It was yet early in the day, so we decided to finish up at the Jones Gap extension site, drive on into North Carolina and visit one of Polk County’s premier wildflower sites: Pearson Falls Road. This mountain road winds its way through a steep gorge at whose base is the North Pacolet River. On the hillside on both sides of the road are acres and acres of dozens of Spring ephemerals — too many to list here, but take my word for it, this a wonderland of blooms. Being Spring ephemerals, they do not stay in flower for long — mainly two weeks, at most, but the sight is spectacular. There is a fee site to see many of these wildflowers and the impressive Pearson’s Falls. This fee site is owned and managed by The Tryon Garden Club, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization located in nearby Tryon, North Carolina. However, there is no fee to visit Pearson Falls Road, and while we were there, we saw many sightseers taking advantage of the Spring weather and plentiful scenery.

One of the first wildflowers I saw (and I was especially looking for this one) was Uvularia grandiflora or Large-flower Bellwort. There is one particular section of the road that has hundreds of clusters of this plant with its yellow-green leaves and bright yellow flowers which dangle from the end of the stem:

Large-flower Bellwort group

This is one of several Bellwort species we have in the region, and definitely one of the showiest. Unfortunately, the flowers of this plant are genuinely ephemeral — there one day and gone a few days later. So catching it in full glory is a plus. Here are some additional shots of these bright yellow beauties:

Large-flower Bellwort Large-flower Bellwort

Large-flower Bellwort

Along the road, and in some of the wet areas were abundant clumps of the “fuzzy”-looking scapes of Tiarella cordifolia or Foam Flower. I don’t think this beauty gets enough respect, because up close, it cuts quite a striking pose. Its starburst flowers and reddish-orange stamens makes it a perennial favorite of mine. Of course, the botanical epithet, “cordifolia”, refers to the heart-shaped leaves. I’ll never know how I managed to get a few focused shots of this flower in the gusty wind:

Foam Flower Foam Flower
Foam Flower Foam Flower

This was one great show of Spring wildflowers, but I knew that there could possibly be more just down the road at the Melrose Falls Trail. We got there right in the middle of the day, and there was hardly any parking space available. The trailhead is situated right on the narrow road, and the cars were lined up all along the shoulder for some distance. We managed to squeeze in between a car and the bridge railing, so I felt somewhat lucky that we didn’t have to walk very far to the trailhead. Obviously, this is a local hangout, and it is also well known to botanists and naturalists in the area, so I knew it would be crowded. We gathered our gear for the hike in and proceeded to the trailhead.

Almost immediately, we began to see the first flowers along the trail. Walter asked what the purple flower was which was blooming in profusion just off the trail, and I told him it was Phacelia bipinnatifida or Fern-leaf Phacelia. The leaves are alternate, and they are lobed or divided or twice divided pinnately — thus, the binomial epithet. This was a new one for Walter. Fortunately, there were lots of specimens to photograph:

Fern-leaf Phacelia

Fern-leaf Phacelia

Across the path, on a large mossy boulder, were a number of Asarum acuminatum or Acuminate Wild Ginger growing at eye-level. Until recently, this wildflower was grouped in with Asarum canadense or Canadian Wild Ginger, but the taxonomists have agreed that it is different enough to make it a separate species:

Acuminate Wild Ginger

Probably the most abundant wildflower along this trail was Viola canadensis or Canada Violet. This plant, with its bright white flowers, can reach almost 12 inches (~5 cm) tall, which is pretty tall for a Violet. In any case, it makes for a pretty close-up:

Canada Violet

Canada Violet

However, I think most people who love wildflowers come to this trail, not just for the waterfall, but for the Trillium simile or Sweet White Trillium. There are many hundreds if not thousands of this white-flowered Trillium scattered all along the hillsides bordering the trail. It’s often confused with a similar white Trillium, Trillium Erectum or Stinking Benjamin, but what will become apparent upon sniffing the fragrance, Trillium simile has a slight sweet smell that some say is apple-like, while Trillium erectum smells like rotten meat! There are also some other, subtle differences in petal shape and stamen color. Here are a few images of the Sweet White Trillium we found:

Sweet White Trillium Sweet White Trillium

Sweet White Trillium

Scattered here and there along the steep hillside were flowers of Trillium grandiflorum or Large-flower Trillium. This species was more abundant out along Pearson Falls Road, but they were so high up on the steep hillside that I didn’t get any good shots there:

Large-flower Trillium Large-flower Trillium

As is apparent from the image upper left, the petals of the Large-flower Trillium also turn pinkish-purple as they age.

There were several wet cliff faces with a number of drip areas. One, in particular, held a large group of what I believe is Micranthes careyana or Golden Eye Saxifrage. The way that the rather lax flower stalks draped themselves on the wet moss was quite pleasing:

Golden Eye Saxifrage

To add a bit of color, I’ll show you a cute little pink wildflower called Claytonia virginica or Virginia Spring Beauty. Again, this is a very ephemeral wildflower and doesn’t hang around long:

Virginia Spring Beauty

Another plant we see from time to time is Prosartes lanuginosa or Yellow Fairybells aka Yellow Mandarin. It’s not so spectacular or showy, but it is interesting, none the less.

Yellow Fairybells, Yellow Mandarin

As we finished up for the day, and we were walking back to the truck and talking about the first flush of Spring, I spotted a large group of Polygonatum biflorum or Solomon’s Seal close to the truck. Since they were at about eye level and usually very difficult to photograph if on the ground, I decided to get some photographs of this strange plant. As the binomial epithet states, it is “biflorum” or has two flowers per pedicel. Well, this is usually the case, but a couple of the plants had 3 or more flowers per pedicel. Now, there is a name for this if it has 4 flowers, and it is called Polygonatum multiflorum or Eurasian Solomon’s Seal. I’m not sure if these multifloral plants we saw are just mutations of the bifloral variety, or if they are escapees, or if they are hybrids of the two species. In any case, here they are. Any thoughts???:

Solomon's Seal

Solomon's Seal

Well, what an exciting time we had this day out in the field. It was a long day, for sure, but I can’t think of a better way to get away from it all and re-center my soul than on a spectacular wildflower adventure. This is such a refreshing thing for me to do, and I can’t imagine what life would be like if I were not able to do it. Thankfully, Walter enjoys joining me on these day trips, and is always helpful at pointing out things that I have missed along the way. Sometimes I get “blinders” on when I’m looking for a specific species, and sometimes I miss the little things along the way.

I hope you are enjoying these forays into the Southeastern outdoors. I have another couple of posts waiting in the wings, so please be patient while I get my thoughts together and put it all in writing.

Until then…

–Jim

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8 Responses

  1. I am living vicariously through your floral adventures, descriptions and terrific photos. It is still snowing with a low of +5 today here in Wyoming. I long for green. You live in a beautiful place. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful post! So many beautiful wildflowers that bring back fond memories of growing up in Ohio walking the Spring woodlands with my mother. She taught me to identify plants. We often harvested edible wild plants and she would cook them as part of our meals. She grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky.

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