|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)|
|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.