Springtime in the Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina — 2021-05-02

*** Warning: This is a particularly long post filled with dozens of images. So, grab a snack and a favorite beverage before plowing ahead… ***

About a month ago, I received a note from a friend whom I had not seen in almost 15 years. He said it would be coming down to Asheville, North Carolina from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with his wife to attend a wedding, and was I interested in getting together and botanizing in western North Carolina? Because I was already planning a trip to the Pisgah National Forest and the adjoining Blue Ridge Parkway around that time frame, I said, “Of course!”. That is how the weekend began…

The fellow’s name is Steve Baker, and we initially met at a Native Orchid Conference symposium in the Miami, Florida area in the Spring of 2007. I explained to him what we might have in store for us if the Spring wildflower season held true to past years, and he was excited to hear the list of species. So, we made plans to meet on Sunday, May 2 (also his birthday) and explore the Pisgah National Forest around Brevard, North Carolina and then head on up to the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway. We decided to meet at the Pisgah National Forest Visitor’s Center and Ranger Station around 9:00 am. Walter Ezell joined me on this trip, as well, and we decided to all pile into my truck for the day trip.

The first target species on the list was Isotria verticillata or Large Whorled Pogonia orchid. There is a special spot in a private cemetery in Brevard, and although the 26th-27th of April is prime time for this species to bloom, I had my fingers crossed that there would still be a few decent specimens to photograph. We got into my truck and headed toward the cemetery. Luckily, there was ample parking, and there were no other visitors to slow down our progress. We proceeded to the spot where I had photographed the orchids in previous years and began the search. These beauties are quite difficult to spot against the low-growing vegetation found in this rather unkempt cemetery, but our efforts finally paid off. Although we found about a dozen blooming plants, only 2 or 3 had any photographic potential. I pointed out those plants to Steve and Walter, and we began our photo shoot. Here is probably the best of the bunch:

Large Whorled Pogonia orchid
Large Whorled Pogonia orchid

We also saw lots of Galearis spectabilis or Showy orchis at almost every site we visited in the Forest. Here is a prime example of this orchid species:

Showy orchis
Showy orchis

As well, we found a large population of Cypripedium acaule or Pink Lady’s-slipper orchids:

Pink Lady's-slipper orchids
Pink Lady’s-slipper orchids

We thoroughly searched the cemetery for additional orchid plants, but none were to be found. Here are some additional shots of the Large Whorled Pogonia orchids that we did find:

Large Whorled Pogonia orchids Large Whorled Pogonia orchids
Large Whorled Pogonia orchids Large Whorled Pogonia orchids

I did manage to find a rare, double-flowered one, but it was well past peak bloom:

Large Whorled Pogonia orchids

We finished up at the cemetery and headed back into the Pisgah National Forest to see if we could find some of the hybrid Trillium species that inhabit one section of the Forest near a creek. I have photographed them at this location for the past few years, and I am always amazed at the variety of color and form that the flowers exhibit. Steve had shown a lot of interest in finding these plants.

When we pulled onto the gravel road, it was apparent that anything within 50 feet (~15 meters) of either side of the road would be almost unrecognizable due to the layer of road dust that had accumulated over the past week or so due to lack of rain. Fortunately, most of the Trillium species would be farther off the road than that. We arrived, and with much anticipation, gathered our gear and headed into the open woods. In short order, we found our first hybrid Trillium.

It would be in order here to described what I “think” is going on at this site. There are two, maybe three species of Trillium that grow sympatrically at this site. These are Trillium vaseyi or Vasey’s Trillium, Trillium rugelii or Southern Nodding Trillium, and Trillium erectum or Erect Trillium aka Red Trillium and Stinking Benjamin (apparent when sniffed!). Trillium erectum blooms at least a week or so before the other two species, so we did not find any of those in bloom. There is sometimes a bit of overlap in bloom times with these species even though one of them blooms earlier than the other two.

In Fred Case’s well-known and authoritative monograph called, “Trilliums”, [Timber Press, 1997], he mentions what I believe is the specific area we were visiting at the top of page 139. He further states, “In our opinion, there is so much hybridization among the Trilliums related to Trillium erectum (of which T. rugelii is one) in the Southern Appalachians and Blue Ridge that some specimens cannot be placed with certainty in any presently described species.” This certainly seemed to be the case for the plants we were seeing. I’m not even sure that a “pure” species still remains at this site, since so much time has elapsed to create this hybrid swarm.

Without further ado, here are some images of the huge variety of color forms and shapes we saw. I will withhold my own opinion of how each of these falls into a particular species category — I’ll let you, the reader, decide for yourself. Also keep in mind that Trillium vaseyi and Trillium rugelii are both “nodding” forms, with their flowers appearing beneath the leaves/bracts. For this reason, I was motivated to tilt the plants back in order to be able to photograph the full flower. [Disclaimer: While photographing flowers for this blog, no flowers were harmed…]:

Trillium hybrids Trillium hybrids
Trillium hybrids Trillium hybrids
Trillium hybrids Trillium hybrids
Trillium hybrids Trillium hybrids
Trillium hybrids Trillium hybrids
Trillium hybrids Trillium hybrids
Trillium hybrids Trillium hybrids
Trillium hybrids Trillium hybrids
Trillium hybrids Trillium hybrids

And finally, here is an unusual, 4-petaled one that Steve found:

4-petaled Trillium hybrid

After beginning to suffer from Trillium overload, as I’m sure you are probably feeling, by now, we packed our gear and headed up the road to an orchid site. The target species at this site was Galearis spectabilis or Showy orchis. No, I didn’t misspell “orchid”. Orchis is an old term used for orchid, and it stuck around when Showy orchis was provided its common name. An interesting tidbit of knowledge from Wikipedia, “Orchis is a genus in the orchid family (Orchidaceae), occurring mainly in Europe and Northwest Africa, and ranging as far as Tibet, Mongolia, and Xinjiang. The name is from the Ancient Greek ὄρχις [orchis], meaning “testicle”, from the appearance of the paired subterranean tuberoids.” So now you know…

I have to confess at this point that I had visited this site on Saturday, the day before this visit, to make sure I’d have something to show Steve. I had located a number of Showy Orchis plants that were in good bloom, so I knew where to take him. The first bunch were clustered around a large oak tree, where seven or eight plants were blooming. Here are images of some of those plants:

Showy Orchis Showy Orchis
Showy Orchis Showy Orchis

Showy Orchis group

Showy Orchis

The next target species was Cypripedium acaule or Pink Lady’s-slipper orchid. I wanted to show Steve a premium stand of these orchids even though I know he sees them in his home state. The particular site I had in mind was about 5 miles (8 km) up the road and produces the Pink Lady’s-slipper orchids in some rather impressive groups. But, I wasn’t sure that they would be in full bloom yet. It’s always a roll of the dice when it comes to predicting exact bloom dates — for me, anyway.

So we arrive, gather our gear, and make the short hike to the orchid site. There were lots of hikers/campers around, so we had to make our way around them on our way up the trail. We arrived and almost immediately, we could see some large groups of orchids. But, they were still mostly in tight bud. But there are so many groups of them, that I felt sure we would find some good ones. We photographed a few singles and pairs at first. I found one particularly dark-flowered one, which is a bit unusual for this region. Most of our Pink Lady’-slipper orchids are medium to light rosy pink, but this one was quite dark:

Pink Lady's-slipper orchid Pink Lady's-slipper orchid

Soon, we found some larger groups. One in particular had 13 blooms, but it had a few days to go to be in perfect bloom. However, I had to photograph it anyway:

Large group of 13 blooms on Pink Lady's-slipper orchid group

I think my favorite of the day was a group of 4 flowers in the most delicate shade of pink:

Light shade of pink flowers of Pink Lady's-slipper orchids

The fourth orchid species was Aplectrum hyemale or Puttyroot orchid. Unfortunately, all that could be seen at this early date was the plant’s single leaf and a sheathed flower spike. In about two weeks, it will be in full bloom, as is seen below right:

Puttyroot orchid Puttyroot orchid

We took a short break for a noon time snack/lunch, and then we headed up the road toward the Blue Ridge Parkway, enjoying the Spring scenery and new leaves in the roadside forest.

I know of a site on the Parkway where, in the past, I have found quite a few multi-petaled flowers of Trillium undulatum or Painted Trillium. I really wanted to show Steve these plants, but I wondered if we were a bit early for them. There was no way to know except to check out the site. Painted Trillium is a species that he was hoping to see while he was down in the Southern Appalachians, and it is one of my favorites, as well. It is native to his home state of Michigan, but I believe he doesn’t live very close to where it normally blooms.

We arrived and parked on the Parkway road shoulder. We gathered our gear and headed into a thick layer of Rhododendron maximum or Rosebay Rhododendron. We finally broke out into a fairly open area where I had seen the flowers a couple of years ago. Try as we might, we found only a single flowering plant, and it was the typical, 3-petaled form. I was really disappointed that we could not show him these rare multi-petaled forms. Whether they have disappeared or whether we were just too early, I don’t know. But, there was another site about 10 miles (16km) farther south on the Parkway. So that’s where we headed with hope in our head about finding some plants for him to photograph.

On the way to that site, we began to see a rare Rhododendron, Rhododendron vaseyi or Pink Shell Azalea. To me, it’s the prettiest native Azalea we have in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

Let me take a minute, though, to tell you a bit about this Vasey fellow. His name has already appeared in a Trillium name, and now his name appears associated with a Rhododendron. Who was he? Well, I tried to sort out the muddled distinction between George S. Vasey (February 28, 1822 – March 4, 1893) and his son, George R. Vasey (November 11, 1853 – August 24, 1946), but kept running into a roadblock when it comes to the species names. Apparently, Rhododendron vaseyi was named for his son, George R. Vasey. I also found a record of George R. Vasey’s collection of an isotype of Trillium vaseyi in North Carolina in 1878. Isotype (in plant taxonomy): A plant specimen that is a duplicate of or very similar to the type (original, first found) specimen and can be used as a reference specimen if the type specimen is lost. Trillium vaseyi was named for George R. Vasey by the botanist, Thomas Grant Harbison (1862 – 1936). From 1897 to 1903, Harbison was employed as a collector for the Biltmore Herbarium operated by George Washington Vanderbilt II’s Biltmore Estate. But I digress…

Here are a few images of the Pink Shell Azalea named after George R. Vasey:

Pink Shell Azalea Pink Shell Azalea

Pink Shell Azalea

We found a place to park to photograph the Pink Shell Azalea, and while doing so, I located a couple of colonies of Trillium undulatum or Painted Trillium in full bloom! This got Steve excited, and we all proceeded to find those special plants to photograph. Here are some of the images we captured of this glorious Trillium:

Painted Trillium Painted Trillium
Painted Trillium Painted Trillium

Painted Trillium

In addition, I managed to locate the rare, “unpainted” form of this Trillium species called, Trillium undulatum forma enotatum:

Trillium undulatum forma enotatum --

We finally finished at this site, but I wanted to show Steve one more spot, just up the road a bit. This is the location for the largest population of Erythronium umbilicatum subspecies monostolum or Mountain Dimpled Trout Lily that I’ve ever seen. There is no way possible for me to estimate the number of plants blooming on the mountain side — on both sides of the Parkway. There are yellow flowers as thick and as far as the eye can see in all directions. When we arrived, I just sat down and tried to take in the glory of the sight before me. It was quite the challenge to find a good direction to point the camera. First, I’ll show you a couple of single plants so that you can see the flower by itself:

Mountain Dimpled Trout Lily Mountain Dimpled Trout Lily

Mountain Dimpled Trout Lily

Mountain Dimpled Trout Lily

Now to the larger colonies:

Mountain Dimpled Trout Lily

Mountain Dimpled Trout Lily

Mountain Dimpled Trout Lily

Almost as an afterthought, I decided to photograph the diminutive Anemone quinquefolia or Wood Anemone which was blooming in pretty impressive numbers in and among the colonies of Mountain Dimpled Trout Lily:

Wood Anemone Wood Anemone

I am often accused, and rightly so, of not showing many people-pictures in my blog posts. Well, fortunately Walter was taking some pictures of Steve and me while we were busy with the wildflowers. Here are a couple of Walter’s shots and finally ending up with a group selfie by Steve and his iPhone:

Steve photographing a Painted Trillium

Yours truly and Steve deciding which plants to photograph

Finally, the group selfie with Looking Glass Rock off in the distance. Left to right: Steve Baker, Walter Ezell, and Yours Truly, Jim Fowler:

Group selfie at the end of the day...

What a way to end a long day of botanizing in western North Carolina. This might just be the longest of my 325+ blog posts, and I appreciate that you made it all the way through to the end. This is the middle of our Spring wildflower season, especially in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, and there are plenty of additional opportunities for us nature photographers in the near future. But I will need a bit of a break before the next adventure — maybe this weekend??? LOL!

I hope you have enjoyed this trip with me, and I hope you will come along on future trips, as well.

Until then,

–Jim

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20 Responses

  1. Looks like all of you had a great time. There are some great finds here. I still search for a number of these.

  2. What a wonderful blog on photographing wildflowers in western NC! Your photos were absolutely gorgeous and I loved being able to go along on your field trip. You indeed live in a beau part of the country. Thanks again for sharing your fantastic wildflower photos with us. Trilliums are my favorites, but the azaleas were gorgeous also.

    Henry Robison

  3. Thank you so much for doing this. I travel so happily with you from Hendersonville.

  4. A fabulous read and blog post, Jim!!! You out did your self with most of the images, they are exquisite.. just like the flowers!

  5. Oh, my….this one of the best blogs….the trilliums are marvelous, Galaris spectabilis …unbelievable beauty. This made my entire evening. I save all your blogs to reread on long snowy nights. Thank you, Jim!

  6. You have the best photos! I appreciate the blend of botany (how to identify each flower) and history (Thanks Messrs Vasey!).

    1. From about 2000 feet (orchids and hybrid Trilliums) to around 5500 feet (trout lilies and painted Trilliums).

  7. What a fantastic display. We were camping at Lake Powhatan all last week and running up an down that same section of the highway – how I would have loved tagging along with you! We did have some pink ladyslippers in the woods right beside our camping site. Re the masses of trout lilies – 1st weekend in June we were camped in Northern NH about 20 miles from the Canadian border and I saw large masses of them like that – large swarths along the main road and when we turned onto a side road they were carpeting the woods as far as you could see. Also the painted trillium were very abundant at that time there and were about 3 times the size of ones I had seen in the Smokies.

  8. Hi, Jim,
    Enchanting images. Is that an insect pollinator deep in a Galearis in the 4th row of Galearis pictures? Just a couple of little black legs visible. Perhaps a fly? You enjoy capturing insect interactions, I know! Funny that we often do not see them until we “develop” and study them later.

  9. What lucky fellows you are; friends sharing a special interest and what a day you had. The Trout Lilies are magnificent and I oohed and aahed at all the photos, but the hybridized Trilliums are like jewels – each one a treasure. I enjoy all your posts but this one is a standout. Thank you for sharing.

  10. I’m always happy to see your very interesting blogs and your photographs are just magnificent! Thank you for sharing

  11. great folksy story telling and as always spectacular nature photography. Your trillium closeups are probably the best I have ever seen.

  12. Wonderful! I always learn so much from your posts, and the photos are to die for! I wish I could paint these botanical lovelies as beautifully as you photograph them.

  13. Absolutely stunning blog Jim!! What a treasure trove. Kudos to Walter for spotting that 4 petaled trillium… The variety of trillium color forms and shapes is incredible! Like a box of chocolate bon bons, it’s impossible to choose a favorite. I imagine this was one of Steve’s best birthdays ever. Thanks for bringing us along.

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