The other side of Turtletown — 2021-04-14

This post is pretty long, so before you begin, go get yourself an adult beverage and some snacks. Here goes…

Recently, I received an email from a man whom I have known for a long time but have never met. His name is Shannon Spurling, and he is quite the naturalist. Due to his persistence and diligence, he has managed to find locations for many wildflowers which I have wanted to photograph for quite a while. When he mentioned Turtletown, Tennessee, I had to look it up, because I had no idea where it was located. Turns out, it is situated in extreme southeastern Tennessee — Polk County, to be specific, which is on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. His family is from the area, and he has spent many years roaming the mountains and hills in the vicinity of Turtletown. Many thanks go out to him for trusting me with the location information.

The wildflower species that created the most interest for me was a native orchid called, Corallorhiza wisteriana or Wister’s Coralroot orchid. The last place I photographed it was in the Francis Marion National Forest, Berkeley County, South Carolina. I know it must seem odd that a coastal plains species would be found in the mountains, but it happens more times than one might imagine. Often, orchid species in particular will have a very narrow habitat preferences that can be found only in certain locations, e.g. sandy, loamy, high pH, low pH, wet, dry, etc. Fortunately, this orchid species seems to be more tolerant of growing conditions as long as they are moist and shaded.

Here is a close-up example of this orchid species:

Wister's Coralroot orchid
Wister’s Coralroot orchid

It was a 3+ hour trip for Walter Ezell and me, but it took us through some absolutely wonderful Southern Appalachian Mountains countryside. We arrived in Turtletown only to begin to wind our way down into a gorge that contains the Hiawassee River. The one-lane, gravel forest service road was treacherous in places, especially where portions of the side of the road had washed out due to heavy winter rains. The forest service had not made repairs, but they had marked the areas with copious, brightly colored survey tape, so it was easy to determine the hazardous areas before we reached them. In places, the road was quite narrow, with rocky cliffs on one side and a steep drop-off on the other side. Most of the time, I was wondering what I would do with my big pickup truck if I were to meet another one coming in the opposite direction. We were lucky that this did not happen. There were also quite a few places where large trees had fallen across the road, but the forest service did manage to clear these away before we arrived. Shannon had mentioned in his last email to me that it might be prudent to bring along an axe or chainsaw if I had one… I was glad I didn’t have to use one of these manly tools. LOL!

As you can easily imagine, the 6-mile (~10-km) drive down into the gorge was exciting! Along the way down, I had to stop in several spots to enjoy the wildflowers which grew in the wet seeps and cliff face drips. I posted Walter on the road to look out for other traffic, since I was blocking the road while I was doing photography.

One of the first colorful wildflowers we saw along a sharp curve around a wet cliff face was Dicentra eximia or Wild Bleeding Heart. It’s easy to see how it got its common name. We were probably 4-5 days too late to catch it at its peak bloom, but I was happy to finally see it in the wild.

Wild Bleeding Heart Wild Bleeding Heart

The cliff face was covered with blooming plants up to 20 feet (6 meters) above our heads. I can only wonder what it must look like at peak bloom. I fully intend to revisit the site next year at the proper time.

Another wildflower that seemed fairly ubiquitous along the roadside shoulder was Viola blanda or Sweet White Violet. I finally managed to stop at a place where there were several large groups of blooming plants. Here is the image:

Sweet White Violet

Speaking of Violets, there were two other Violet species we saw in large numbers. These are Viola sororia or Common Blue Violet and Viola rostrata or Long-spurred Violet.

Common Blue Violet

Long-spurred Violet

The particularly wet places at the base of the cliff seeps seemed to host the most wildflower species. Here are a few of them. First, is Cardamine diphylla or Crinkleroot. How it got its common name is beyond me. I cannot find any articles online about the name. However. HERE is a link to good description of the species that I thought was interesting. I believe this is the first time I have seen and photographed it in the wild:


The next most plentiful roadside plant was Tiarella cordifolia or Foamflower. We see a good bit of it in the foothills and mountains of the Carolinas, and I was not a bit surprised to see it here in Tennessee:


Back in a little cave-like spot in an especially wet drip face, I spotted one of my favorite Liverwort plants, Conocephalum conicum or Cat’s-tongue Liverwort. I have photographed in the higher, wetter regions in the Carolina mountains. Its primitive nature appeals to me for some strange reason, and I’m always on the lookout for these unusual plant species:

Cat's-tongue Liverwort

On some of the more sunlit hillsides, I began to spot flashes of blue. These turned out to be the diminutive, Iris cristata or Dwarf Crested Iris. There are two main species of Dwarf Iris in the region, but I did not see the other on this trip:

Dwarf Crested Iris Dwarf Crested Iris

Dwarf Crested Iris

We saw only two species of Trillium on this trip, and I had expected to see a few more, but these were in perfect form. The first of the Trillium species was Trillium catesbaei or Catesby’s Trillium. It is a fairly common species in the region, and I’ve been seeing a lot of it lately, especially in the Carolinas. BTW, Mark Catesby was a noted English naturalist who botanized in the southeastern US in the early to mid-1700s. HERE is a brief article about his life. Two of the many Catesby’s Trillium plants we saw:

Catesby's Trillium Catesby's Trillium

Note how the flower hangs below the leaves/bracts. This is a diagnostic characteristic of this particular species. In the image (above right), I have tilted the plant back a bit so that I could photograph the yellow stamens and get a more “frontal” image of the flower.

Near the spot where the orchids were supposed to be, we rounded a corner, and there was a flash of bright red. I knew I could be only one thing: Silene virginica or Fire Pink. “Fire Pink“, indeed! There are few wildflowers which have such a vibrant red color. Here are a couple of shots of this spectacular cousin of the domesticated Carnation:

Fire Pink

Fire Pink

We finally arrived at a sandy pull off that was designated as our “parking spot” for the day. Walter and I gathered our gear and proceeded to hike up the road to a spur of the forest service road. Here is where we were expecting to see the first signs of native orchids. But, just before we arrived at the spot, I saw a bit of creamy yellow out of the corner of my eye. These were Uvularia perfoliata or Perfoliate Bellwort. If you will notice that the flower pedicel or stem seems to protrude through the leaf just behind it. I’ve noted this in a few of the other Bellwort species I’ve photographed, but this particular one has this characteristic as part of its botanical name, perfoliata:

Perfoliate Bellwort Perfoliate Bellwort

It’s a bit difficult to see in these images, but there is a granular nature or small lumps just inside each of the tepals of the flowers. This is a distinguishing characteristic of this species.

As we get closer to where the orchids are, I spot the second of the two Trillium species we would see on this trip. I was particularly pleased to see this one, because it had been more than a few years since I had photographed it in northeastern Georgia. Actually, I smelled it before I saw the first of many plants we would find. The fragrance is difficult to pinpoint, exactly, but I’d liken it to Lemon Meringue Pie! It is a sweet, citrusy fragrance, and it stays with you for quite a while. For the remainder of the afternoon, I was being pleasantly brushed with the sweet scent.

The Trillium species I’m referring to is Trillium luteum or Yellow Trillium. I have never seen this one in South Carolina, although others have reported seeing it after actually seeing the yellow form of Trillium cuneatum or Little Sweet Betsy. Many Trillium species do have variable color form, and Trillium luteum is no exception. First, allow me to show you the “typical” color form of this species:

Yellow Trillium Yellow Trillium

The color forms vary in shade from a golden-red to brownish-yellow to almost a coppery color. Some have said that these represent a hybrid with Trillium cuneatum, but I don’t accept that. Although most Trillium species are notoriously promiscuous, there were no Trillium cuneatum that I could find anywhere nearby. Here are some of the color forms we saw:

Yellow Trillium color form Yellow Trillium color form
Yellow Trillium color form Yellow Trillium color form

There was a large population of Trillium luteum occupying the open woods. And where you find large populations of Trillium plants, you will probably find many mutations or odd expressions of the species. I photographed several of the most outrageous of these, and here they are:

Yellow Trillium mutation Yellow Trillium mutation

Note image upper left, the sepals, which are normally positioned just between the flower petals and the leaves/bracts, have taken on the characteristics of the leaves/bracts. And the petals are misshapen and twisted. Note image upper right, the petals have been replaced by additional, huge stamens. What an odd expression of this mutation.

We eventually reached the site that was designated on my map as the spot for the Wister’s Coralroot orchid. Initially, we had a bit of a problem locating the plants, because they blend in so well with the dead leaf litter on the forest floor. But soon enough, we were spotting plants here and there and settling down to photograph them:

Wister's Coralroot orchid Wister's Coralroot orchid
Wister's Coralroot orchid Wister's Coralroot orchid

The orchid plants were mostly found as single plants dotted here and there, but there was one larger group of 8-10 plants. It was difficult to photograph because the plants were growing up against one another, but here are my best attempts:

Wister's Coralroot orchid Wister's Coralroot orchid

Wister's Coralroot orchid group

We spent about two hours studying and photographing these unusual orchid plants. Again, I feel very fortunate to have a friend who lets me know when these beauties are in bloom. We finished the photography and took some more time to search the area for additional wildflower species. What we found was not surprising, but it was neat to see the Arisaema triphyllum or Jack-in-the-Pulpit plants grouped in a nearby area of open woods. This is the dark-striped color form which I find quite pleasing. They look somewhat like our carnivorous Pitcher Plants from a distance, but this is not an area where Pitcher Plants live. Here are a few shots of these unique flowers:

Jack-in-the-Pulpit Jack-in-the-Pulpit


Wow! What a great outdoor adventure we had! This is one location I had never visited, but I will surely return next year. Moreover, I’m hoping that Shannon will report back to me that there are additional botanical wonders in this area awaiting our discovery later this season. Stay tuned, for sure.

Thanks for sticking with me on this somewhat rocky rollout of the “new” blog. Although I made great efforts that it looks as much like the “old” blog, there were a few stumbling blocks along the way that caused me to get a bit backed up as far as timeliness of the blog posts. I’m just about caught up, but there is one more post in the wings waiting for your viewing. I’ll wait a couple of days before I upload it in order to give you some time to enjoy this one.

Until then…



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9 Responses

  1. As usual, Jim, your blog is a wonderfully written and visual treat! I see in your Wild Orchids of South Carolina that the range map shows county records of Wister’s coralroot in the mountains of your home state. Here you mention having seen it in the coastal plain, but not in the mountains. Have you not seen it in the mountains near where you live?

    1. I got most of the location data for my Wild Orchids of South Carolina book from visiting herbarium sites in the Southeast. I saw actual herbarium sheets that were mounted with this orchid, so I knew historically that it was present in the Upstate of South Carolina. But I was never able to find it up here. That’s why I was so excited to see an actual mountain population. I was interested in seeing what habitat it preferred and seeing if there were any morphological differences, which I did not see any. Thanks for asking, friend! –Jim

  2. Great pictures, Jim! Glad the new blog is up and running. Been a great as well as early spring ephemeral season here in MO, though I’m not sure if the snow today will change that!

    1. Thank you Jim for displaying the beauty from our neck of the woods as only you can, I knew you would do those mountain Wister’s justice…Beautiful!

      (p.s. the Crinkleroot is know in the area as Crow’s foot. Its often mixed in with other wild “spring greens” and eaten as a salad with hot bacon grease drizzled over it. It has the “bite” of horseradish.)

  3. Fantastic! I really enjoy your marvelous photography and your descriptions of the sites and plants you discover there. I’ve been looking for Wister’s coralroot here in Virginia where I live. Would love to join you for an orchid field trip sometime. Could we arrange something?

  4. Spectacular. Amazed at the diversity of trillium. Awesome coralroot photos. So fun to read your adventures.

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