The morning broke calm but cloudy with a slight chance of precipitation in the late afternoon. It was the time for the Yellow Lady’s-slipper orchids to be blooming just north of us in the DuPont State Forest near Cedar Mountain, North Carolina. I have photographed them during this time of year for several bloom seasons. So, I asked Walter Ezell if he would like to join me on a day trip “up the mountain” to see them.
There are two varieties of these yellow orchids in the Carolinas: Cypripedium parviflorum var. parviflorum or the Small Yellow Lady’s-slipper orchid and Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens or the Large Yellow Lady’s-slipper orchid. In our region, they are fairly easy to separate, with the Small YLS having a darker, reddish set of petals and sepals, and the Large YLS having a lighter, greenish set of petals and sepals. Of course, the size varies, but the Small YSL is considerably smaller, sometimes by half than the Large YSL.
In the words of Lynyrd Skynyrd:
Sweet Home Alabama
Where the skies are so blue
Sweet Home Alabama
Lord I’m comin’ home to you…
Although I am from South Carolina, these are appropriate words for a state that is 3rd in endemic species and rare plants. At least that’s what I read on the Internet. And if it’s on the Internet, it’s true, right? This weekend trip took me farther afield that I’m used to traveling and into areas that are underlain with sandstone and limestone, lending to a much different habitat/environment than I normally see in the foothills and mountains of the Carolinas. It’s always exciting for me to see these different environments, because I will inevitably see wildflower species that are new to me.
Recently, Alan Cressler, my good photographer buddy from Atlanta, Georgia and another good friend, Noah Yawn from Birmingham, Alabama decided they would let me tag along on a trip to three counties in northeastern Alabama to see some very rare plants. The target species was a newly described Wild Ginger/Heartleaf called Hexastylis finzelii or Finzel’s Wild Ginger. Several years ago a small population was found near Lake Guntersville in Marshall County, Alabama. Then Alan found a much larger population a few miles away also in Marshall County. As far as is known, these are the only populations of this rare plant. Here is an image of this strange wildflower:
*** 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:
Cypripedium acaule or Pink Lady’s-slipper orchids, that is…
After a full day and night of thunderstorms and heavy rain, the morning broke clear and cool. I would have preferred a bit of overcast, but you take what you can get. The trip up to one of my favorite South Carolina Heritage Preserves was fairly uneventful except for the thought of the flowers having been pummeled by the heavy rain. And the thought that I might be early for catching any Pink Lady’s-slipper orchid flowers in bloom.
I arrived at the first site, and as usual, I had nothing to worry about. After walking the short distance from the road into the woods to where the orchids grow, I began to see a few immature plants with their sets of two leaves poking up through the past winter’s leaf litter. A few more steps brought the first of about a dozen flowering orchid plants. Here is the first one I photographed. It is a pair of pouches in a pretty pose:
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: