Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sketching the Purple Fringed Orchid, Finally

Close-up of flower showing the pollinia.

 Two days after our hike on the Mill Prong Trail, I went back to sketch the purple fringed orchids we had found near one overlook. It looked as if showers were once again in the forecast, but my window of opportunity for this rare species was closing fast--the flowers would not last much longer. If I wanted to sketch them for my certificate project, now was the time.

I started out a bit later than I hoped and didn't stop at any overlooks, but a cloudburst came as I was approaching Thornton Gap. I pulled in at one of the overlooks and ate my sandwich in the car while it rained. Watching other people stopping at the overlook was entertaining: traditional families with children or grandparents with grandchildren taking photos, climbing over rocks, couples admiring the scenery, motor-bikers stopping to pull on rain gear, many of these folks international in origins, all this activity was reassuring... the human reactions to the natural spectacle seemed so predictable, regardless of the cultural origins.

After the rain passed, I continued on to my site and parked at a pull-off. I put on my orange safety vest and backpack, and walked towards the orchids. I found six more flowering spikes I hadn't seen before very close to the pull-off. A couple of them were just at the perfect stage, the flowers pristine, but spring water pooled at their feet, and I would have to set my stool right in the middle of the flow to sketch them. I kept on toward the plant I had seen two days before--the lower flowers had been fertilized and were starting to form seeds, but the location was better--I could see the entire plant, including the lower leaves if I pushed the underbrush out of the way. I set my stool next to it.

Mosquitoes and bugs buzzed in the shade, and here I'd forgotten to spray myself with repellent (I'm so allergic to insect bites every sting turns into days of torture afterwards). I'd have no peace to concentrate on my art work, so it was better to leave my stuff there and go back to the car to spray myself.

Back at my task, the plant was not easy to sketch--or photograph. The individual flowers are less than one inch in length, and grow all around the spike in a spiral pattern. They have complex details, such as the long nectary spur at the back that is easy to confuse with the flower stem, and the showy lip split into three fringed lobes that has a spot of white at the base. I probed the flowers gently to better understand the arrangement of their parts and how they all fit together.

Platanthera grandiflora Sketch of the flowers.
Platanthera grandiflora Sketch of the leaves.

It took a while to do two sketches, which I split into upper and lower portions of the plant. After finishing, I took as many close-up photos as possible and headed home, happy to have accomplished my purpose. It took a lot of effort, but I finally got my sketches of the beautiful purple fringed orchid!

Purple Fringed Orchid, plant with leaves.
Flower spike.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Wealth of Unusual Plants on Skyline Drive

Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera grandiflora).

On the Fourth of July David and Herb joined me for a hike at Shenandoah National Park. I wanted to explore the Mill Prong Trail to look for another orchid new to me: the round leaved orchid (Habenaria orbiculata). David didn't arrive until early afternoon, and storm clouds were gathering as we set out toward the park's north entrance. It began to pour just as we were starting to rise on Skyline Drive, but we soon drove out of that one cloudburst, only to drive through a few more. The air became fresher and cooler as we gained altitude and the sky began to clear.

By the time we reached the area where the purple fringed orchids grow the rain was over; I thought we might as well stop for a quick check on the orchids. I had brought the digital camera David loaned me and his telephoto lens, so the three of us walked along the road, and lo and behold, there were a few more orchids growing along the bank, in a more accessible place than the four plants on the rock ledge from my previous visit. This was great! I could come back in a day or two to do the sketches for my project.

We pushed on towards Big Meadows and the Mill Prong Trail, stopping at the Visitor center for directions to the trail head and a map. It was about five by the time we hit the trail. The trail through the forest was quite muddy from the recent rains, but that made it seem more promising. Shortly after, Herb spotted the first of a colony of Indian Pipe flowers (Monotropa uniflora) emerging from the forest floor.

Indian Pipe Flower (Monotropa uniflora)

There were lots of other mushrooms too. I recognized the poisonous Russula emetica, and saw others that looked as if they might make a wonderful meal, like the one below.

Russula emetica

We crossed the first of several streams, and on the other side of the stream I spotted a spike of greenish-white flowers. The rounded leaves at the base left no doubt that this was the orchid Habenaria orbiculata that I was looking for. The flowers seemed a bit past their prime, and I found only two other specimens nearby. The light was fading fast, making it difficult to photograph.

Round Leaved Orchid (Habenaria orbiculata)

Looking down among the orchid leaves I saw a few tiny, odd-looking yellowish clusters and recognized them as seeds of squaw root (Conopholis americana); I had not seen the plant at this interesting stage before.

Conopholis americana setting seed

I would have liked to continue hiking down to the Rapidan Camp but it was getting late--it would take another hour or more to drive back to Front Royal, so it seemed wiser to leave our explorations for another day.

On the drive back we saw a wild turkey with one chick walking at a bend of the road. The location was so close to where I'd seen what I thought was a pheasant a few weeks earlier, I wondered if what I'd seen could have been this wild turkey instead. If it was the same bird, her brood had been three of four then.

Further north, a furry black creature crossed the road just ahead of us, in a flash. Herb immediately said "dog" until I reminded him that unleashed dogs were not allowed in the park--and, it didn't run like a dog--it could only have been a bear cub. Where was mama bear? It was late in the day and with most visitors gone, the wildlife was making the most of the opportunity.

David and I at Old Rag Mountain overlook.