Fall orchids and other wildflowers in the Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina — 2016-09-10

Just the other day, one of my blog subscribers let me know that she had found Spiranthes ovalis var. erostellata or October Ladies’-tresses orchid near the Davidson River in the Pisgah National Forest. This area is in Transylvania County, North Carolina, and I am somewhat familiar with the site she described. So, this morning, I loaded the truck with some snacks and my camera gear, and headed up the road about 1 hour and 45 minutes to the site. The only other sites I know for this orchid species are much farther away in the central or eastern central portion of the state, so I was pleased that some had been found closer to home.

It was quite easy to locate the exact spot where the orchids were growing because she had gone the extra mile to give me detailed directions. When I arrived, though, there were throngs of kids preparing to go tubing in the river. In addition, there had been a stocking of trout recently, and the fishermen were out in droves trying to catch the last one. Some were lucky, proudly showing off their strings of foot-long trout.

I’m used to getting curious glances and questions from onlookers, it’s a professional hazard, and I do my best to determine if the onlookers might be a threat to the plants. The majority of the time, I tell people I’m photographing mushrooms or “wildflowers”, and they accept that as truth. Sometimes, they want to examine the plants/flowers, but since the plants/flowers are usually quite small, they soon lose interest. That’s fine with me.

Anyway, back to the orchids…

These particular ones were quite a bit smaller than others of the same species I’ve seen. These were from 3 inches (7.5 cm) to 10 inches (25 cm) tall. As you will notice, the flowers do not fully open. But opening is not necessary, since the flowers are self-pollinating, so the need for a pollinator such as a bumble bee is moot. I found 12 flowering plants and two leaf rosettes without flowers. Here is an image of the nicest one:

October Ladies'-tresses orchid.
October Ladies’-tresses orchid

This Spiranthes species keeps its leaves when it is in bloom. Some of the other Spiranthes species have withered leaves at bloom time. Not only does it have its basal leaves, it also has several leaves on the flowering stem, each smaller than the lower one on the stem. These stem leaves appear up to about the half-way point of the stem. Here is an image of the stem leaves:

Stem leaves of the October Ladies'-tresses orchid

And here is what the basal rosette of leaves looks like on a non-blooming plant. This one was about 3 inches (7.5 cm) across from leaf tip to leaf tip:

Basal rosette of leaves of the October Ladies'-tresses orchid

The following images are of three of the other blooming plants at the site:

October Ladies'-tresses orchid

October Ladies'-tresses orchid October Ladies'-tresses orchid

After photographing these plants, I wandered down the river bank. curious as to what else I might find. The entire area was made up of open woods, and that is the perfect place for other orchid species. I knew it was near time for Corallorhiza odontorhiza or Autumn Coral Root orchid to be in bloom. It prefers a damp, not wet environment made up of deep natural humus or duff. Sure enough, as I began to wander a trail along the river, I found several of the orchid plants within a short distance of the trail.

The plants are not very big — about 3-4 inches (7.5-10 cm) tall. And the flowers are certainly not what one would describe if one were describing an orchid flower. There are two flower forms for this species. One, the most common, at least in our region, is the closed, self-pollination form. The other is the open form which is thought to require a pollinator. Although I have never had the opportunity to photograph the open form, I understand it is more common in the northern states. Some even give it a varietal name: Corallorhiza odontorhiza var. pringlei. The first plants I found were of typical yellow-green color with the typical, closed flowers:

Autumn Coral Root orchid Autumn Coral Root orchid

The swollen portion is the seed capsule. The flowers of this form are self-pollinating and begin producing seeds shortly after the plant pokes out of the leaf litter. They don’t need to waste any time waiting for a pollinator to visit. The beak-shaped portion at the apex of the seed capsule is the corolla or flower. The white portion of the flower is the underside of the lip. Not much to write home about — eh? It was good to see these again, because it had been a full year since I had photographed them.

After photographing these plants, I continued my wandering and soon found something quite unusual. I found another patch of Autumn Coral Root orchids, but these were very different. The stem, rather than being greenish tan, was a reddish tan, even dark red in a few of the plants. Here are a couple of images of the largest of the plants in this population:

Autumn Coral Root orchid Autumn Coral Root orchid

Notice how the red color has also migrated into sections of the seed capsule. Also notice the white portion of the flower which is the underside of the lip. Here is another one with a magenta-red stem and golden seed capsules:

Autumn Coral Root orchid

I finished with these plants and made my way back up the trail toward my truck. On the way back, I found another smaller population of 5 or 6 plants. Again, these had reddish stem, but low and behold, there were a few with open flowers!:

Autumn Coral Root orchid Autumn Coral Root orchid
Autumn Coral Root orchid Autumn Coral Root orchid

These don’t look like the ones in the pictures I’ve seen from the northern states, but they none-the-less have open flowers.

I found one particular plant that had a few flowers positioned at such an angle that I could photograph inside the open flower parts:

Autumn Coral Root orchid Autumn Coral Root orchid

Autumn Coral Root orchid

I was really pleased to have found these.

Across the trail, I could see some pink flowers, so I decided to check it out. These are the flowers of Desmodium paniculatum or Panicledleaf ticktrefoil, the seeds of which are those awful round green things that stick to your pants leg, shoe laces, and socks. I was very careful not to get in among them while photographing the flowers:

Panicledleaf ticktrefoil Panicledleaf ticktrefoil

Panicledleaf ticktrefoil

Having finished my photography at the Davidson River site, I wanted to visit another location for Autumn Coral Root orchids that my friend Sam and I found this time last year. It was about 6 miles (10 km) north of my current location, and there are several wildflower spots in between. As I was getting into the truck, I caught a glimpse of a blue flower next to the parking area. This turned out to be the beautiful although fairly common Lobelia puberula or Downy Lobelia:

Downy Lobelia

I took a quick shot and drove up the road, dodging the dozens of bicyclists that were participating in a bike race. I don’t know why they let bikers and motorist drive on the same route, but I think that’s what happened. I soon made it to the other Autumn Coral Root orchid site, not being able to pull over at some of the other wildflower sites because of traffic and lack of parking spots which were taken by fishermen. Fortunately, there are a number of wildflowers at the site, and several of them were in bloom.

The first one I saw was the colorful, Chelone obliqua or Red Turtlehead. These plants grow in the wetter portions of the roadside and have long stems that drape over the ditch. The flowers were just beginning to open, and the next couple of weeks should bring quite the show. There were only two clusters of Red Turtlehead open on this visit, and I took some shots with varying magnification:

Red Turtlehead Red Turtlehead
Red Turtlehead Red Turtlehead

The second cluster of open flowers was particularly colorful:

Red Turtlehead

Next to the Red Turtlehead plants were the vibrant red clusters of the fruit of Arisaema triphyllum or Jack-in-the-Pulpit:

Jack-in-the-Pulpit fruit

This is what the Jack-in-the-Pulpit looks like when it is in flower:

Jack-in-the-Pulpit flower

As I approached the spot where we had seen the Autumn Coral Root orchids last year, I spotted some plants of Collinsonia canadensis or Horse Balm:

Horse Balm

Horse Balm

I don’t know why it takes me so long to get to the finish line. Yes I do — I am easily distracted by shiny objects… I found what I think are the leaves and flower stem of Liparis liliifolia or Lily-leaved Twayblade orchid. I hope so, because they are so easy to get to. I’ll make sure I visit this spot next spring:

Lily-leaved Twayblade orchid

Finally, I reached the Autumn Coral Root orchids. Last year there were less than a dozen blooming plants; this year, there must have been almost three dozen of them! These were the typical green-stemmed ones:

Autumn Coral Root orchid Autumn Coral Root orchid
Autumn Coral Root orchid Autumn Coral Root orchid

And growing right next to that last one, what do I find but the seed capsule of Triphora trianthophora or Three-birds orchid! They must be everywhere in the Pisgah National Forest:

Three-birds orchid

I saved the best for last. There was one group of about eight plants of Autumn Coral Root orchids, growing right next to the road:

Autumn Coral Root orchids

Another great day in the field! I like to go out with one goal in mind and end up finding something entirely new. Thanks to one of my blog subscribers, I now know a new site for October Ladies’-tresses orchid. I’m thinking that I’ll be visiting one of my favorite overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway next week if the weather holds out.

Until next time,



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0 Responses

  1. Hi Jim,

    So yes that orchid you think was Liparis liliifolia is definitely that. Nice find. The ones up here in MA are dying back., especially with the severe drought we are in. So interesting how good that one looks. Are they rare down that way? Here in MA they are, but luckily I have been in charge of keeping track of the 10 known sites in my area. So I know the orchid well. As always I just love your pictures and wish I could go see all the plants you get to find. But at least I can enjoy them and dream thru your blog. Maybe I will actually make the conference next year. I was wanting to go this year, but the death of my mother just was a lot to handle and I just could not manage it. Anyway sounds like you are finding some great plants and have fun.


  2. I so enjoy your photos and reports! Thanks so much for your expertise and research on our wildflowers as I learn so much from you.
    Happy journeys,

  3. Jim- In Burke County, NC, where I grew up folks referred to the seeds of Desmodium paniculatum (the awful things that stick to one’s pants, socks, and shoelaces) as “beggar-lice,” but I’ve never heard anyone here in Transylvania County call them that.

  4. I have heard that name too- beggar’s lice. As usual, the photos are gorgeous, Jim; I love your enthusiasm and never get tired of the high that I experience when I am out in the woods in search of wildflowers. I also enjoy the narrative that accompanies the photos.

  5. Lovely shots; it’s always great finding the C odontorhizas that are showing lip. It looks like your L lilifolia suffered the same fate a few of my CT ones did – – no capsules.

  6. Those are fantastic pics of the Coralroot. Especially inside the flower!!! We have a small stand of Pringle’s here by the house, maybe 20 or so plants. Around them though are thousands of Autumn Coralroot and the color variations are vast. Including the pink one we photographed a few years ago

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