Sunday, June 23, 2013

So Near and Yet so Far

Purple Fringed Orchid buds.

Last Saturday I went back to Skyline Drive for another try at the purple fringed orchid. After corresponding with the park botanist, I had narrowed my search to one area where I had looked before. The morning was gorgeous, clear and pleasantly cool; hikers, bikers, campers and all sorts of visitors were out enjoying it. I headed straight for my site without stopping at any of the overlooks, and got there around noon.

I put on a neon orange safety vest I'd taken on the advice of the botanist, who had warned me that the orchids grew very close to the road. I took only my camera as I started walking north, facing the oncoming traffic. It was obvious why I'd been warned--there was only a ditch perhaps 18" wide between a steep rock wall and the pavement, and blind curves. Water dripped from springs below the rock wall and flowed along the ditch into storm drains that took it under the road to continue flowing down the mountain side.

The vegetation along this stretch consisted of Virginia waterleaf, yellow daisies (hawkweed), saxifrage, violets, mosses, ferns, nothing very unusual. Then I looked up--about 6 or 7 feet above the ground on a ledge, I saw a small flower stalk with round lilac-pink buds--could this be it? The leaves were orchid-like, the overall size about right. There were a couple of similar plants near by, the buds not yet showing color. This had to be my orchid! I took a few shots with the zoom on my telephoto, but it was not enough to get any details of the plant. How could I get closer?

I continued walking by the side of the road, hoping to spot another orchid or two growing closer to the ground, or in the ditch. I walked all the way past the springs, and back. No, it seemed the orchids grew only on that particular rock. Why only there? Other than the moisture from the springs, I could see no other clues as to how it came to grow there. Most terrestrial orchids need mycorrhizal fungi to develop, which is why they are usually found in forests where these fungi grow on tree roots. Could these orchids have grown further up the wooded hill and have washed down onto the rock during a powerful storm? It was worth checking out.

I looked around for a likely place to climb up the steep bank and found a spot some twenty yards beyond the rocks. I pulled myself up with the help of low-hanging tree branches, taking care of where I stepped. The uneven rocky surface was carpeted with a thick layer of dry leaves, masking holes and other hazards (perhaps even snakes!), and I wasn't wearing hiking boots, only my beat-up garden shoes. The terrain didn't look very promising for orchids-- too dark and dry, with only a few saplings on the forest floor. I managed to pick my way towards the orchid rock, hoping to at least photograph from above. Sketching in situ would be impossible. It proved way too steep for me to get any closer, so I finally gave up and turned back.

On to Big Meadows for lunch. Afterwards, I decided to break in my new hiking boots on one of the easy trails there.  I came across a thicket of false hellebores (Veratum viride) on the Story of the Forest trail. The hellebore leaves bear a resemblance to the yellow lady's slipper orchid, but are huge, so at first I thought these might be orchids, but their small six-petaled green flowers gave them away as members of the lily family. Out west in the Rockies there is a plant with similar leaves that they call corn lily.

False hellebore (Veratum viride)
There was fly poison in bloom all along the drive--such an unappetizing name for a pretty flower--and here was some along this trail. My feet began to rebel against the new boots on the last mile, and the morning's adventure had tired me out more than I cared to admit. Much as I wanted to prolong  the lovely day, it was time to head back.

Fly poison (Amianthium muscaetoxicum)

I guess if I want to sketch the purple fringed orchid for my botanical project, I must find another population of them in a more accessible place. In the meantime, I may continue to look for other native orchids on Skyline Drive.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Flowers Among the Clouds

Mountain Laurel on Skyline Drive.

My search for native orchids took me to Skyline Drive last weekend. The day was overcast, the mountains veiled in cloud as I approached the north entrance to the park (Shenandoah National Park). As my car began the curving ascent along the ridge, it was as if the season was being wound back to spring--here the honey locusts were still blooming, and at the higher elevations, the oak leaves were just beginning to unfurl.

The star of the forest at this time of the year is the mountain laurel. Thickets of Kalmia latifolia grow as the understory plant for miles along Skyline Drive as it winds its way around the mountain tops. The native rhododendrons had finished blooming and were sending out new green shoots amid dried blooms. I wished I had been able to see them at their peak, but the gorgeous mountain laurel was more than a consolation.

For some weird reason, the portion of Skyline Drive just south of Thornton Gap and Mary's Rock Tunnel seems to be where the mist becomes thickest. No matter how many times I pass this spot, it always seems to be enveloped in cloud, and today was no different. At times the fog was so thick one couldn't see more than a few feet ahead.

 I continued on towards Big Meadows, stopping off at an overlook here and there. I was getting back on to the road after a stop when I spotted what looked like a moving stick poking out of the underbrush. The stick moved farther out and I could see a large bird with a long tail walking across the road. Could it be a wild turkey? No, not big enough--the bird was leading her brood of chicks across the road--what could it be???  Why it was a pheasant! I stopped right there in the middle of the road to try to get a photo, and was just getting my frame in focus when a car coming the other way hurried the pheasant and her brood onto the other side. Once the car passed, still holding my camera, I stopped again (no one was behind me) but the pheasants had vanished into the brush without a trace. Who would ever believe me without a photo?

Once at the Big Meadows Visitor Center I asked if they had anyone knowledgeable on wildflowers, and they pointed me to ranger Mara. She knew the orchid I sought and pointed me towards two possible sites--she wasn't sure which one, both were a bit farther north, the way I'd come. It was worth a shot.

At the first site I walked beside the road going south and came upon one yellow lady's slipper orchid (by now I know the plant well so I can spot it easily). The spent blossom was completely dried but still hanging on, and a  seed pod appeared to be forming, an auspicious sight. I continued for a pace, until the terrain seemed less promising and turned around to explore the northern portion. No purple fringed orchids here as far as I could see.

Yellow lady's slipper orchid plant

I drove to the next possible site and repeated the procedure. I didn't see any orchids, and realized of course it was probably futile--I didn't know the plant well enough to recognize it when not in bloom, and by all accounts, the orchid would probably not bloom until a couple of weeks later this year because of the very cold spring. It would be best to go back and try to find some photos on line to get a better idea of what the plant looks like.

No sketches for today. I stopped to photograph other wild flowers, which were plenteous: bowman's root along shady banks of the road, goat's beard, and bladder campion, which I don't think I've ever seen, or at least noticed before.

Bowman's root (Gillenia trifoliata)
Goat's beard (Aruncus dioicus)
Bladder campion (Silene cucubalus)

While driving back, the sun began to emerge from behind the clouds. My eyes could pick out wild columbines in the sunlight here and there, though never at a place where one could stop to take a photo. I'll be back next week to search again. Perhaps by then the orchids may be in bloom.

Looking west at the valley.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Hunting for Orchids on Wildcat Mountain

Looking down the trail

Last Sunday I went hiking on Wildcat Mountain, a nature preserve owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy in Virginia. I had read in "Finding Wildflowers in the Washington-Baltimore Area" by Cristol Fleming, Marion Blois Lobstein and Barbara Tufty (a book that has been an invaluable resource), that three species of orchids I had never seen before could be found on Wildcat Mountain: Wister's coralroot, lily-leaved twayblade, and puttyroot. Coming across any of these unusual species for the first time would be exciting, and the need to complete my sketches before the orchid blooming season ended spurred me to try the hike as soon as possible.

The Wildcat Mountain website had very useful information about the trails and a map, both of which I printed and packed along with my sketchpad and gear. The written guide and topographic map revealed that it would be an uphill climb with several switchbacks up to the top of the ridge. From there, the main trail circled along the crest of the hill in a wide loop, at times paralleling old stones walls that marked the boundaries of former farm properties.

As I got out of my car, a loud buzz pervaded the entire mountainside. I asked a couple parked next to me if they knew what the noise was, and they replied that it was the hum of the17-year locusts. I had forgotten that the intermediate brood, as these are called, was due to hatch this spring. The main brood was last seen in 2003 and won't be hatching again until the spring of 2020. We've seen none of the locusts at our house in Front Royal, but my co-workers who live in northern VA tell me they have been hatching in their area.

I started up the trail--the terrain was heavily wooded--huffing and puffing my way to the top where the trail split in two. The map indicated that there was an old farm pond and a spring-house at about the halfway point of the loop. I figured this might be the most likely spot for orchids, so I took the right fork. The trail  paralleled an old stone fence, and further down I noticed small holes on the ground. I deduced these must be insect holes, and sure enough, saw several newly hatched cicadas nearby, drying their wings amid the foliage. Oddly, the buzzing sound was not as pervasive here as on the western slope. The breeze among the treetops seemed to be the only sound.

Swallowtail butterflies, both the yellow and dark, fluttered around me, performing their mating dances. I passed the partially-drained scummy pond and poked around the spring-house, slowing down to look more closely at clumps of vegetation off the side of the trail--nothing. The orchids were not likely to be conveniently located by the side of the  trail as at Thompson Wildlife. How would I ever find them?

I started looking for side trails--perhaps other orchid lovers had been here, found them and left tracks that would be noticeable?  I called out to the orchids in my mind, hoping their inconspicuous flowers would materialize in front of my eyes, and prayed my eyes would become sharp enough to discern them.

Stepping across a rivulet, I saw an unmarked but definite trail going off to the left--and decided to take it. After walking a bit I started having second thoughts--it was not wise to wander off trail in an unfamiliar place, and I should go back. I peered into the shadows of the trees, hoping for a glimpse. And then I spotted it--a small spike in the shadows. Could it be? Getting closer I could see the flowers were half-open, yellow-green with reddish brown, and there was another smaller spike nearby. Yes, this had to be one of the orchids I sought, but which one? Did it matter? The important thing was to sketch it.

Puttyroot orchid (Aplectrum hyemale)

I pulled my sketchpad and pencils out of the pack, laid my parka on the ground and sat down to sketch. The orchid seemed to have no leaves, though I found one dried, heavily veined leaf clinging to the stem, which I collected for identification. How could the leaf become so dry in so short a time, unless it was last year's? I looked for other leaves but found none.
Puttyroot leaf

Could this be Wister's coralroot? The flowers were so tiny I took out my magnifying glass to get a closer look. The lip had a few purple spots but so tiny as to be barely noticeable. The flowers were half closed, perhaps a little past their prime. In fact, it was really hard to photograph the entire plant in the dappled light--my camera's settings kept wanting to focus on the background rather than the flowers.

I finally resorted to using my sketchpad as the backdrop to photograph the flower spike so it could stand out from the background.

After compelting my sketch and notes I packed my stuff and poked around a bit more--where there are one or two orchids, more can usually be found nearby, and I spotted another three plants that I had walked by without seeing before. I thought of trying to find one of the other species, but there was no time. I headed back to the main trail and down the mountain, thinking how fortunate I had been to find one of the orchids.

It wasn't till I got home and did an internet search that I realized this was not Wister's coralroot, which is saphrophytic and has no leaves, but puttyroot, Aplectrum hyemale. The dried leaf was the main clue--the leaves of the puttyroot emerge in the fall and live through the winter to die back the following spring. The orchid's common name derives from the fact that in colonial times, a sticky paste could be made from the corms that was used to glue broken pottery. Each plant has two corms connected by a rope-like tissue, hence its other common name of Adam-and-Eve orchid.