Friday, May 24, 2013

Sketching in a Cloud Forest

The Trillium Trail at Thompson Wildlife

                                                                                                                                                   Last weekend I went out to do field sketches for my certificate project. I sketched the yellow lady's slipper from life on The Trillium Trail last year, so it seemed a logical extension to focus on terrestrial orchids for the certificate project I'm undertaking at Brookside Garden's School of Botanical Illustration. For this project students are supposed to concentrate on three species of plants, using the processes we have learned to develop field sketches into a finished painting of each.

I knew I'd find my second orchid, the showy orchid, also called purple-hooded orchid or Kirtle Pink, (Orchis spectabilis or Galearis spectabilis) on the Trillium Trail at Thompson Wildlife Management. I had not seen any there when Herb and I visited the week before, but I was sure the orchids would be opening their curious flowers by this time.

It was overcast in Front Royal when I set out, and the Blue Ridge was veiled in cloud. As I started to ascend Freezeland Road the fog became so thick one could barely see five feet ahead in places. Normally we think of cloud forests being in Costa Rica or in the South American Andes--who'd have thought Virginia had its own cloud forest?

The forest was lovely in the mist, the fading trillium flowers changing to pink among the lush green understory. The progression of blooms from the previous week was amazing--the violet flowers had disappeared and the May-apples were beginning to take over the forest floor. The crystalline trills of birds echoed in the stillness.

It was quite chilly, so I pulled on my jacket and backpack and started down towards the Appalachian Trail, where I slowed down to a naturalist's pace to study the ground closely. I spotted one of the plants, then another, and another--the flowers were open, and the orchids plentiful!
Orchis spectabilis

I selected one specimen and since there was not a soul around, laid out my waterproof poncho as a tarp to sit on the ground right in the middle of the trail, as close as possible to my subject. I was drawing intently, trying to keep the occasional raindrop from wetting my sketchpad when I heard a voice from behind say, "Hmmm, excuse me..." A hiker on the Appalachian Trail was trying to get by. I apologized, moved my gear out of the way as much as I could and asked him if he could step around me, which he managed to do loaded down with a huge, heavy pack.

I asked the gentleman if he was hiking the entire Appalachian Trail and he said yes, he'd started in Georgia back at the beginning of March. I wondered what his daily progress was like, and he responded that it varied, depending on the terrain and the weather, but he was averaging roughly 15 miles a day, and expected to reach the end of the trail in Mt. Katahdin, Maine by early August.

I allowed as someday I'd like to hike a good stretch if not all of the A.T., perhaps after I retire, and he confided that he had retired recently, adding that people were not often aware of the expenses associated with hiking on the A.T. How much did it cost? He had made a lot of his own equipment, but even then, it would cost about five thousand to fifty-five hundred to complete the circuit... then reflected that a 6-month vacation anywhere else would be much more expensive. I agreed.

Field sketch and notes.
Color study done in the studio.

After he left I went back to my sketch, and was finishing my notes when insistent chirps from above made me look up. A colorful small bird with bright orange markings sat on a branch very close to me. It flew away as I was taking my camera out of the case, but lingered nearby. I waited until the bird became visible again and snapped a couple of pix, which came out a bit blurry. I believe it was an American redstart, a small warbler that migrates through this area.

I picked up my gear and continued on down to the fire road loop and back up the hill, checking for yellow lady's slipper orchids along the way. Just as I had suspected, there were lots more flowers this week--I counted about a dozen in one stand, and more than 16 on the upper hillside where an older couple was photographing them. One plant had two flowers, just like the one I sketched last year. Squaw root was also emerging from the ground here and there. It finally warmed up enough on the trek uphill to shed my jacket. Back in the car, I looked down at the clock and was surprised to realize that four hours had elapsed--how time flies while sketching in a cloud forest! The clouds began to dissipate as I drove down the mountain and bright sunshine greeted me at the bottom in Linden.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Trillum Trail 2013

The Trillium Trail casts a special magic during spring. I was afraid to miss the annual miracle this year--too ironic to contemplate now that we live about 15 miles away rather than nearly a hundred. So, this week on a beautiful evening after work, I dragged Herb out to visit it.

We got there around six-thirty as the sun's rays were slanting low over the ridge. The one person at the site was just leaving. The Trilliums were at their peak as you can see, but at that time of the evening the gnats and insects were starting to become annoying. I looked for the Yellow Lady Slipper orchids and found only two blossoms at the usual place (there usually are more than three plants there). A lot of trees had come down on that side of the trail, so perhaps some of the other plants at this stand had been buried by the timber.

Still, there should have been a lot more plants further down the hill--I remember years when there were Lady Slippers all over the trail. I went off trail to look around and found one only more bloom. Then I saw that there were a few more orchid plants near-by: one of the other plants was in bud, but it hadn't opened yet. Perhaps it was a bit early for the Yellow Ladyslippers, and they are easy to miss among the undergrowth when not in bloom.

Yellow Lady Slipper with Trilliums and Star Chickweed

It was the same story with the Showy Orchis--I couldn't find any tiny plants, much less blossoms in the part of the Appalachian trail where I've seen so many of them over the years. I'll have to come back in another week or two to check. With the unusually cool spring this year, it's quite possible the orchids are late.

There was the usual range of lovely wildflowers found at this time of the year: several varieties of violets in yellow and blue, including halberd-leaved violets, star chickweed, wild geraniums, wood anemones, Early Meadow Rue and both Solomon's Seal and False Solomon's Seal not yet in bloom. Oddly, there was no Squaw Root--so plentiful in other years--to be seen, perhaps because it's been rather dry? I found a tiny plant new to me--only about 3 inches tall, with white flowers, which I have yet to identify. If any readers know what this plant is please let me know.

Poor Herb was having a hard time with the gnats, and trying to fend them off like this:

Birdsong resounded over the hillside on this golden spring evening. I recognized the crystalline music of the rose-breasted grosbeaks, and had hoped to spot some of the birds, but didn't see any. I managed to see a few small warblers, blue-gray above with yellow at the throat, perhaps a bit of rust--they might have been yellow-throated warblers or northern parula warblers--hard to tell in the fading light.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Orchids and Artichokes

Odontoglossum orchid, colored pencil drawing, 17" x 14."

Here's my most recent botanical piece, a colored pencil drawing of my second mystery orchid, which I believe may be an Odontoglossum species or hybrid. The orchid blossoms opened in the middle of March and I documented them here in this posting. The blossoms were starting to fade just as I completed my drawing about a week ago, the last week of April. As the tepals gradually become thinner and more papery with age, the flowers turn dark and eventually fall off.

Artichoke and asparagus, colored pencil drawing, 17" x 14."

Above is a view of the artichoke and asparagus colored pencil drawing done in class--my scanner is too small to do the full page of my sketchbook, so this is a photo showing my test marks for the colors in the upper left hand corner.

Dendrobium bud.

The Dendrobium orchid I bought last fall and painted for my class project has put out a new flowering spike. I wish it had done so a few months earlier as I was struggling to finish the watercolor painting, but considering the plant appeared to be dying, I'm happy to see the resurgence. The orchid has a new growing stem as well as the flower spike. Above is a photo of the buds developing their characteristic spur.