The rare Swamp Pink and a few other surprises — 2021-04-18

If you have been keeping up with this nature blog over the years, you will know that this time of year takes me to one of South Carolina’s premier, but little known, Heritage Preserves. It’s called Watson-Cooper Heritage Preserve, and it hosts the Southeast’s largest population of the rare and threatened Helonias bullata or Swamp Pink. HERE is the US Forest Service plant profile for Helonias bullata. Although the bogs in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey are ground zero for this species, at last count (a couple of years ago) there were in excess of 5,000 plants in the 3 bogs that comprise the population in the Upstate of South Carolina. I know, because I and a couple of other brave souls counted them.

If you think you’d like to visit this Heritage Preserve, please give it another thought. It’s miles and miles of one-lane, winding, mountainous, gravel road in the middle of nowhere, and once you get there, it’s a grueling slog through the Rhododendron, Cat-briars, and Mountain Laurel Hells to the bogs where these plants grow. Due to the fragility of the habitat and rarity of the plants, needless to say, I will not be providing directions. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but it doesn’t take much to destroy a fragile population of plants.

Here is a sample of what the Swamp Pink flowers look like:

Swamp Pink
Swamp Pink

And as pretty and mysterious as the flowers may seem, they smell even better. They have a sweet floral fragrance quite unlike anything I’ve ever smelled. The bees love it, as well. In past years, I’ve seen bumble bees, honeybees, and other bees and beetles visiting the flowers and covering themselves with copious layers of pollen.

However, let me back off just a bit to show you what I saw going up to the Swamp Pink site.

The trip began with a side jaunt down Hwy. 288 north of Marietta, South Carolina. The site I like to visit is a roadside cut which exposes an Amphibolite outcrop which is high in Magnesium and Calcium, which when decomposed, produces a soil with a high pH. This is important to know, since most of the soils in the Upstate of South Carolina are neutral to acidic (low pH). So, high pH soils will support an entirely different plant community than what we normally see in the region. One of the plant species that is found at this site is Trillium rugelii or Southern Nodding Trillium. Here are a couple of images of this white-flowered Trillium:

Southern Nodding Trillium Southern Nodding Trillium

Disclaimer: Each time I post images of the Trillium from this site, I get feedback that these are actually another species. Please don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just going by what I have been told by botanists with much more knowledge than I have. I do know that it is odd for Trillium rugelii to have a white or cream-colored ovary and stamens, but I’ve been told that these plants are just a mutation/variation of the “typical” Trillium rugelii.

At the same location, but up in the woods, I found a number of Trillium catesbaei or Catesby’s Trillium. Here are some shots of those:

Catesby's Trillium Catesby's Trillium
Catesby's Trillium Catesby's Trillium

From here, I traveled northward back into Greenville County, and I headed toward Persimmon Ridge Road, which transects two of the state’s Heritage Preserves along the way. Persimmon Ridge Road has been featured every year in my nature blog, because it produces an abundance of wildflowers in both Spring as well as Summer and Fall. In the Spring, I’m on the lookout for one particular wildflower which is one of my favorites: Iris verna or Dwarf Iris. Its royal blue color is hard to miss even while driving along at speed:

Dwarf Iris Dwarf Iris

And just next to one of the clumps of Dwarf Iris was a patch of Viola pedata or Bird’s-foot Violet:

Bird's-foot Violet

Bird's-foot Violet

At one point, I stopped at a trailhead, walked a short distance, and found a scattering of Anemone quinquefolia or Wood Anemone:

Wood Anemone Wood Anemone

After photographing a few of these tiny white flowers, I made my way back to the truck, packed my gear, and headed to the end of Persimmon Ridge Road where it intersects with US Hwy. 276. This is the highway which winds up the Blue Ridge Escarpment and provides access to excellent habitat for Spring wildflowers. There is one particular place I try to visit when I’m in the area, and it contains dozens of wildflower species including a few orchids. This time, however, I figured I would be too early for the orchids, so I sought out the other Spring ephemerals I knew would be there.

I arrived and parked on the wide shoulder of the curvy road. I had to be careful that I didn’t block any traffic while I was in the woods. As I made it across the road, I could already see hints of yellow and blue on the forest floor, nestled in the leaf litter. The blue color was coming from hundreds of Iris cristata or Dwarf Crested Iris. I just love Iris species — their crisp petals and color patterns make for great photography. There were so many flowers in perfect bloom, that it was a challenge to select just the perfect ones to photograph. Most were single flowers, but I did manage to find a few that were nicely grouped. Here is a selection of those plants:

Dwarf Crested Iris Dwarf Crested Iris

Dwarf Crested Iris

Dwarf Crested Iris

Another species I was searching for was just a short distance away. It is Uvularia perfoliata or Perfoliate Bellwort. In my last blog post, I mentioned that a defining characteristic for this species is the granular or lumpy appearance of the inside of the sepals and petals. I believe this selection of images will show that characteristic much better:

Perfoliate Bellwort

There were many hundreds of these plants in full bloom, and again, it was a challenge to find the perfect ones to photograph:

Perfoliate Bellwort Perfoliate Bellwort

Perfoliate Bellwort group

Another wildflower I had seen before at this location is Amsonia tabernaemontana or Eastern Blue Star. It’s baby-blue, star-shaped flowers are always a delight to photograph:

Wild Bleeding Heart Wild Bleeding Heart

I was just finishing up and gathering my camera gear when I spotted a bit of purple and white. Lo and behold, it was an orchid! This one is Galearis spectabilis or Showy orchis. The several plants I ended up finding were not large for its species, but here they were in full bloom. I’m sure there were more, but I was running out of time and had to get back on the road. What a surprise!

Showy orchis Showy orchis

Showy orchis

So, I head farther up the mountain and into North Carolina. The Heritage Preserve can be reached only by going into North Carolina and turning off onto a mountainous gravel road which leads back into South Carolina. We haven’t had a lot of rain the past week or so, and that made the gravel road very dusty. I was creating a giant plume of dust as I wound my way to the Heritage Preserve, coating any and everything beside the road as I went. The importance of this fact will become clear later on, but just picture everything covered by a light gray powder…

I finally arrived at the pull off where I parked my truck. I gathered all my camera gear and pointed myself toward the almost non-existent path through the woods that would eventually lead me to one of the Swamp Pink bogs. Walking through the brush and dead leaves made quite a noisy arrival, so any wildlife would definitely be aware of my imminent arrival. Fortunately, I saw no ferocious lions, tigers, or bears or other woodland beasts, so I entered the bog.

I was immediately enveloped in the sweet floral fragrance of the Swamp Pink flowers. There were perhaps 200 or more of the plants in full bloom just in this one area. With bright sunlight on part of the bog and dappled shading on other parts, it is quite difficult to photograph a large area competently, but here is an idea of what it looks like:

Swamp Pink bog

Many of the clumps of plants produce multiple flower stems, but there are also quite a few that produce only a single flower:

Swamp Pink Swamp Pink
Swamp Pink Swamp Pink

Swamp Pink

Swamp Pink

Swamp Pink

What a spectacular sight! It’s almost like being in a jungle garden, surrounded by these thigh-tall plants with bright pink, pom-pom blooms! No wonder poachers and plant thieves would love to get their hands on these beauties.

After I finished my photography, I just sat down on a stump for a moment to take in the beauty that surrounded me. Soon, the flowers will go to seed and, for another year, nothing will be left of this awesome beauty except my memory of it. As I write this, I’m hearing that we might be in for the late April freeze that we sometimes get in this neck of the woods. If that happens, and it has happened before, the flower stems will turn to jelly and the flowers will turn brown, meaning no seed production for the season. A couple of years ago, I was going to show this bog to an out-of-town Department of Natural Resources staff person, and it froze the very night before our visit. I considered it a disaster for the field trip, but he managed to find a couple of plants that had been sheltered by the native Rhododendron plants on the edge of the bog. It was not a total disaster for him after all, so he says…

Well, I packed up my gear and headed the long way back to my truck, feeling comfortable that I had been able to enjoy the Swamp Pink one more season. But there was one more wildflower I wanted to check out before I returned home. This particular species is along the drive into the Swamp Pink site. It is on the road embankment that has been covered with dust these past weeks. I had thought ahead and brought a spray bottle of water just in the case there was road dust everywhere. So, I arrived at the spot and saw that, in fact, all was covered in a layer of dust. I sprayed carefully and blew off the remaining water with a can of air. Who pays for air in a can!?! Well, I must have…

Anyway, here is the result. First, though, I must remind you that the species in question, Epigaea repens or Trailing Arbutus is typically found with white or light pink flowers. This particular specimen is almost a neon red! I’ve never seen one like it anywhere:

Trailing Arbutus Trailing Arbutus

Trailing Arbutus

Trailing Arbutus

A great way to end the day, I think. And, I believe I am now caught up with my blog adventures for a while. I do have a couple of outings planned for a week or so ahead, and also for the first week in May. Remember that April and May represent the height of the wildflower season for this part of the Carolinas. It will probably settle down a bit after the end of May. But who knows? I’m always looking for different places to visit and different wildflower species to study and photograph.

Thank you for all of your thoughtful comments both on this blog and on my Facebook page. It means a great deal to me and makes the hard work of putting together this blog much easier.

Stay tuned for more wildflower adventures…

–Jim

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19 Responses

  1. Wow! What spectacular plants. The fuschia trailing arbutus was especially interesting too! I was delighted to find a small patch that species in my northern Minnesota yard when my husband and I moved into our new house last June. I guess it was short enough to survive mowing. I’m eagerly watching and hoping it blooms. Spring is coming upon us slowly here- no Hepaticas yet, even.

  2. Thank you. Your photos are beautiful and remind me of rare ventures into the S Jersey woods following my mother and grandmother, searching for trillium, trailing arbutus, indian pipe.

  3. Thank you, Jim, for the wonderful work! I visited Mountain Laurel Hell once in an earlier life and decided in the depths of that experience that I would prefer the real thing. I appreciate your saving me the agony of the trip to Swamp Pink, etc.

  4. What a spectacular find in the swamp pinks. So wish i could find them in western NY. Thanks for sharing a photo of the habitat. Really like the percolate bellworts in bloom and of course the awesome showy orchis. Wow!

  5. Such a cool trip! Your descriptions feels as if we are on the journey with you! I see a children’s book in your future 🌈

  6. Wow! Swamp Pink looks so other-worldly. What a wonderful experience to see them! Thank you for sharing and caring!

  7. Absolutely stunning shots. And I hope you took a deep sniff of the Trailing Arbutus – – it’s one of my favorite scents.

    1. I wish I could have smelled them. I photographed the Trailing Arbutus just after visiting the Swamp Pink, and I still had their heady fragrance in my nose!

  8. My favorite is the trailing arbutus, which I have never seen in the South or in New England, where it sometimes comes up through the snow. The arbutus was a great favorite of folks like Emily Dickinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe and other New Englanders, who searched for the first bloom in April- a sign of Spring after a harsh winter.

  9. Your photos are exceptional! Thank you for sharing your fieldtrips and knowledge with us, I look forward to opening your photos everytime!!

  10. Ha ha Jim. Air in a can is something essential for a professional photographer. I will think of that as I try to shoot flowers that are covered in pine pollen. What beauties you uncovered when you used that canned air. So, so gorgeous.

    The vibrant colors of the flowers in the blog are amazing. I have always loved your photos of the Helonias bullata. Will be revisiting them in flickr.

    Wonderful, informative blog, as always.

  11. Shazam: Look at all these great comments. I love the photo by Walter of you 1) in situ w/ gear in hand and 2) looking “earnest” getting into your vehicle. Obviously, I sure like the quality your images, but I am delighted w/ your descriptions and horticultural details. Thank you – Jim!

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