Saturday, May 31, 2014

Lake Waccamaw

Lake Waccamaw State Park rangers guide the NCNPS group.

The following morning the North Carolina Native Plant Society (NCNPS) group met at Lake Waccamaw State Park for a tour of the trails surrounding the Visitor's Center. Covering 36 acres, Lake Waccamaw is the largest of North Carolina's "bay lakes," a term for this type of oval-shaped fresh water lakes. On Friday evening, the Head ranger had given the group a talk describing some of the theories about the formation of these unusual lakes that occur in certain regions along the eastern seaboard. I remembered reading one theory in a National Geographic article years ago about a prehistoric meteor strike leaving these craters which later filled with water and developed certain type of ecosystems, but evidently this theory has now been dismissed as unlikely. The most plausible theory seems to be that the lakes formed as a result of a combination of the massive land and ocean processes that took place during the Pleistocene era, when this area was submerged. The lakes in this area all seem to have a high limestone shelf on their northwestern rims and sandy shores on the southeastern portions, and three varieties of bay trees predominate: sweet bay, red bay and loblolly bay.

Loblolly bay (Gordonia lasianthus), the leaves have crenulate edges.

As we began our walk, the Rangers explained that the park had recently begun to use managed burns to control the undergrowth and try to restore native habitats. The fire doesn't damage the established trees, and improves the overall health of the forest, but the rangers were of the opinion that a successful controlled burn is very much an art, and the precise weather conditions need to be taken into account if the fire is not to get out of control.

Prickly pear (Opuntia humifusia) growing among bracken ferns.

Pink spiderwort (Trandescantia virginiana)

I was surprised to see Prickly Pear blooming among the bracken ferns near the Visitor's Center, and was assured that these cacti are actually native to the entire east coast from Florida to Connecticut--I had always thought they had been introduced from the southwest and naturalized. We also came across a lovely pink-flowered Spiderwort --I've only seen the blue Spiderwort (Trandescantia virginiana) before.

Fetterbush (Lyonia lucida) growing under turkey oaks.

Honeybells (Zenobia pulverulenta) with Fetterbush  in back.

The forest floor was carpeted with bracken and other ferns. Flowering native bushes such as Fetterbush (Lyonia lucida) with small pinkish bells and the sweetly scented Honeybells (Zenobia pulverulenta) bloomed below the shelter of the turkey oaks. I spotted a tiny-leaved plant on the forest floor and was told this was Pixie Moss (Pyxidanthera barbulata)--it could make a lovely ground cover in the right garden.

Pixie Moss (Pyxidanthera barbulata)

All these were a completely new community of plants to me, a fascinating environment to be introduced to. There were also many birds here: a number of warblers, mocking birds, and brown thrashers were spotted by the bird-savvy among the group.

The time for our departure came much too soon--Linda and I needed to start our 7-hour trip back by noon in order to get home at a decent hour, so we said goodbye to our new-found friends in NC around eleven and started walking back to our car. One lone wild turkey crossed our path, and Linda lingered to identify an indigo bunting along the way.

I wished we could have stayed one more day--despite our precautions, we still encountered a huge backup on I-95 after we passed Richmond this Sunday evening, and spent almost an hour fighting the traffic to reach our exit. The sun was just setting on this beautiful spring day as we returned to the Shenandoah Valley.

The forest at Lake Waccamaw.

For more photos of our walk at Lake Waccamaw State Park and the Green Swamp see my Flickr album here.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Deep in the Ditches of North Carolina

Cleistes bifaria

Last weekend my friend Linda and I traveled to North Carolina to join the North Carolina Native Plant Society (NCNPS) on their annual Green Swamp excursion. Since this has been a very late spring and all plants are about 2-3 weeks later than usual, I had expected that we would not see some of the blooms I'd hoped for. In fact, we did not see the famous Rosebud orchid (Cleistes divaricata), but we did find some blooms of its smaller cousin Cleistes bifaria (above), an equally lovely sight.

We arrived too late on Friday evening for the roadside botanizing in the vicinity of Whiteville, NC, so on Saturday morning our guides took those of us who had missed that on to the roadside sites first. A huge storm system in the area (covering Virginia as well) had dumped over three inches of rain two days before, and as we left my house in Front Royal, the first two holes on the golf course at the entrance were under water.

As we learned, these areas of NC are usually wet anyway--we had to wade ankle-deep into a roadside ditch to reach our first site. Linda and I had brought only old shoes, so despite our best efforts to avoid sinking, there was no help for it. Once over the initial chill of the water, it was just fine. Later on in the day, in the heat of the afternoon, our soggy shoes felt even better.

Sundew (Drosera intermedia)

Our first sightings were sundews, small insectivorous plants: Drosera capillaris (very tiny), Drosera intermedia (above) and Drosera filiformis, a slightly taller variety, growing in the muck among spagnum moss. Pitcher plants (Sarracenia sp.) were plentiful, and we encountered several varieties in flower: S. rubra, S. flava, and S. minor. Our guide, David McAdoo, pointed out something fascinating--the spots along the top and back of the hooded pitchers are actually transparent "windows" that allow sunlight to reach the inner surface of the pitcher plant for photosynthesis.

Hooded pitcher plant (Sarracenia minor).

Blooms of Sarracenia minor.

Sarracenia flava.
There were Venus Flytraps here and there, the small plants were hard to see among the grasses. And other lovely spring flowers too, purple Skullcap and a very pretty orange clover-like one whose name I didn't note down, bracken and cinnamon ferns. Also Butterworts (Pinguicula), club mosses and  plants so numerous I couldn't write them all down.

Skullcap (Scutellaria intergrifolia?)

I didn't get a single photo of the lovely Lady's tresses orchid (Spiranthes praecox) in focus--there was also a flower spike very similar to Lady's tresses from a distance, white colic root (Alestris farinosa) which ironically, I did better with. One has to look closely-- in Spiranthes as its name implies, the tiny orchid flowers grow in a spiral form around the scape. 

Colic root (Aletris farinosa)

Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides)

Rose Pogonia orchid grew at this site in small clumps along the ditch. After about an hour and a half here, it was time to drive on to our second stop, the Billboards--a grassy elevation sandwiched between four billboards. Heading south on 130, there were so many other billboards it would have been hard to figure out which four were the right ones, if we hadn't been caravaning.

The Billboards.

Sarracenia rubra.

Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula)

Sarracenia purpurea.

Here were more pitcher plants in profusion, S. rubra, S. purpurea, and S. flava, Venus Flytraps (Dionaea muscipula) in bud and flower, Sweet Bay and Maleberry (Lyonia), which looks very like a blueberry. Farther down, finally, were a few of the orchids I'd come so far to see: Cleistes bifaria and one specimen of Calopogon pallidus (the pale Grass Pink). It was hard to photograph the flowers blowing in the breeze, but I managed to get a couple of decent shots.

Calopogon pallidus

Side view of Calopogon

From my orchid studies I've learned that most orchids are resupinate, which means the flowers are rotated on their stems to be updside down, so the lip (labellum) is at the bottom of the flower. This arrangement provides a landing pad for the pollinating insect. Calopogon orchids are the exception, as you can see from the photo, the labellum is positioned above the petals and sepals. Instead, the hairs on the labellum function as a lure for the insect, and when a bee tries to lands on them, its weight causes the hinged labellum to swing down and position the bee onto the column for pollination.

We left the Billboards around noon and headed south to Shallotte for a bathroom break at the local Popeyes. We ate our box lunches in the parking lot. After lunch it was finally time to visit the Green Swamp. The Green Swamp is actually not a swamp so much as a long-leaf pine savannah or "pocosin," the native American name for these local wetlands. They have acidic, peaty, poorly-drained soils that are oligotrophic, meaning nutrient-deficient, which is probably why so many of the plants found in this environment are carnivorous. The Green Swamp is noted for its amazing diversity of plants, over 50 different species have been counted in about a one square meter plot. We entered an area known as the Big Island Savannah by crossing another deep watery ditch.

Entering the Green Swamp
Our first sighting was a narrow-leaf Milkweed (Asclepsias longifolia), and more pitcher plants of S. flava and S. purpurea.

Narrow leaf Milkweed (Asclepsias longifolia)

After a while we drove on to another part of the Green Swamp where the scent of Swamp Azaleas (Rhododendrum viscosum) pervaded the air--thickets carpeted the shady parts of the savannah, and swallowtail butterflies flitted about. We came across one rather beat-up Grass Pink orchid (Calopogon barbatus?) but my single shot was not in focus .I hoped we'd come across a couple more specimens but that was the only one I saw.

Swamp Azalea (Rhododendrum viscosum)

After we left the Green Swamp we drove on to another site at Boiling Spring Lakes, where the most incredible display of Rose Pogonias I've ever seen stretched for what seemed like a mile along a ditch. According to our accompanying botanists, the Pogonia spreads by underground rhizomes, and here it had obviously enjoyed many years (hundreds?) of uninterrupted growth to cover such an expanse.

Rose Pogonias near Boiling Springs Lakes.
Rose Pogonias grow among Spagnum moss and ferns

Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossiodes)

By this time the second battery for my camera was running low, and I was trying to conserve power, so I limited the number of my shots--with an extra battery I could have gone on to take hundreds of photos here.

Our last site of the day was yet another roadside ditch where the Venus flytraps seemed to be unusually red in color--perhaps the lack or addition of a particular nutrient? There were several more Cleistes bifaria orchids in bloom here, but at this point, my camera battery finally gave out.  After covering so much ground in one day we were tired, so it was time to head back to Whiteville to clean up and rest before dinner at the Forestry Museum and the native plant auction.

Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula)

Blooms of Venus Flytrap

North Carolina has the most fascinating roadside ditches I've ever seen! Next time I'm here, I'll bring pair of oystering boots or Wellingtons. Sunday morning at Lake Waccamaw will have to be a separate posting, as this is already way too long.

For more photos see my Flicker album here.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Trillium Trail 2014

VNPS members on the Trillium Trail

On the last Sunday in April I hiked the Trillium Trail at Thompson Wildlife Management Area (Thompson WMA) with the Piedmont Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society (VPNS). Spring is so late this year that the thousands of trilliums (Trillium grandiflora) this area is famous for were barely out of the ground; only a few blossoms here and there and a few patches in the sunnier part of the lower portion of the hill were visible. At this higher elevation the tree leaves had not begun to unfurl yet, and it was much chillier at the top of the ridge than in the valley below.

Our hike leader Sally said that at one time it was thought that the trillium flowers started out as pure white and turned pink with age, but this is actually not so. Seeing is believing, and here was the proof--many of the just-emerging blossoms were a soft pink in bud and recently-opened blossom. I've heard theories that the trilliums in this huge stand are the result of many years of natural hybridization of several species such as T. grandiflora with T. erectum, but botanically, the pink variety is classified as T. grandiflora forma roseum and wavy edges on the flower are one characteristic of this variant.

Pink Trillium bud (Trillium grandiflora forma roseum)

We took the side trail leading to the Appalachian Trail (AT) with Sally pointing out many interesting plants, some of which I was familiar with, and others unknown to me, including a native mustard that is the host plant for the West Virginia White butterfly (Pieris virginiensis). I didn't know that this native butterfly has been steadily declining since the 1990's, and one reason is that the butterfly seems to get confused and lays its eggs on that invasive plague, garlic mustard, instead of its host plant. The caterpillars cannot survive on garlic mustard, and when the butterfly does not reproduce, the population in those areas can be wiped out.

A lady who befriended me on the previous hike, Mary Keith, told me that the Piedmont Chapter  maintains the Trillium Trail to try to keep the garlic mustard under control, and sure enough, as we walked she and several other ladies pulled up any traces of the noxious invader we came across and bagged them to dispose of them later. Evidently garlic mustard is so programmed for survival that even after being pulled up, any flowers on the stems can set seed and spread, so the plants can't be left lying around on the ground.

Turning left onto the AT we encountered many early spring ephemerals blooming along trail: bloodroot, wild ginger, blue and smooth yellow violets, and Canada mayflower.

Bloodroot flower (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Wild ginger flower (Asarum canadense)

Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense)

Blue and Smooth Yellow Violets.

I looked for the Showy orchid, hoping to catch a glimpse of some and eventually I spotted one nice clump emerging by the side of the trail. The fleshy leaves formed a curious vase-like cup with the tiny flower spike bud barely visible inside.

Showy orchid (Galearis spectabilis) emerging from forest floor

Further down the hill we encountered a seep, full of skunk cabbage and other interesting plants, among them the false hellebore I had seen last year at Big Meadows on Skyline Drive, and another type of saxifrage with toothed leaf margins.

False Hellebore (Veratrum viride)

 At the junction of the AT with the fire road we turned left to go up the hill. Many huge trees had come down during the harsh winter, the dead trunks and branches strewn all over the ground, cut only to allow passage on the fire road. The lumber on the ground obscured most of the areas where I'd seen Yellow Lady Slipper orchids in years past, but I found a few orchid plants emerging from the leaf litter. At this stage, the plant would have been difficult to identify if I hadn't known the location

Yellow Lady Slipper orchid emerging from the forest floor.

As we were approaching the end of our circular hike, near the parking area, a patch lovely of trout lilies greeted us by way of bidding our group good-bye. These plants had quite a few leaves, more than the usual two per blooming plant.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Calme's Neck

The Shenandoah River at Calme's Neck

A few Saturdays past I joined the Virginia Native Plant Society's Piedmont Chapter on a walk at Calme's Neck. This site is registered by VNPS as a unique area full of native plants, some quite unusual, and is on private land. One of the VNPS members who lives in this development hosted the group.

After driving up and around some steep curves on a gravel road for several miles, I arrived a little later than the announced 10 AM meting time. Our hike leader, Gary Fleming, a gentleman who has been mapping the flora of Virginia for the past 30 years for the Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora, was about to conclude his introductory talk. There is probably not a corner of the state that he has not covered at some time or another. There were about 25-30 of us in the group--some of the VNPS chapter members have been visiting this particular site for the past 21 years.

Gary Fleming with VNPS hikers

We started our hike near the top of a hill and walked towards some rocky high bluffs overlooking the Shenandoah river. The just-budding trees were bare enough to allow spectacular views of the farms on the other bank and the distant mountains on the other side of the valley.

The rock ledges sheltered a variety of mosses, early Saxifrage (Saxifraga virginiensis), and ferns, among them walking fern, which I've only seen once before in Maryland.

Flower Buds of Early Saxifrage

Rock ledge with mosses, walking fern (on upper left ledge) and saxifrage
Rare rose moss (Rhodobryum rosea)

Beyond the bluffs, the hill sloped down and the trail parallelled the river. Virginia Bluebells grew thickly along this floodplain, but with spring so late, their flower buds were still pink and rolled up tight. There were also both Dutchman's Breeches and Squirrel Corn plants here and there, and one of the ladies on the hike (they were all so knowledgeable!) explained the differences between these two very similar plants: the "breeches" of the Squirrel Corn are much tighter, resembling the Bleeding Heart, the leaves are bluer, and true to their name, the Squirrel Corn has a small underground tuber that resembles a grain of corn (we didn't dig one up to verify this).

Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
Squirrel Corn (Dicentra eximia)

After a while the floodplain narrowed out and we turned inland to walk up a very steep hill that was covered with spring flowers. Twin leaf, a low-growing plant with star-shaped white flowers that I had never noticed before, grew all over the slope. There were also trout lilies, but only one of these in bloom. The more knowledgeable members of the group explained that trout lilies must develop two leaves before they will bloom, and the individual plants found in these woods don't do this very often, although in other regions they do bloom profusely.

Twin Leaf (Jeffersonia diphylla)

At one point on the slope I found something among the carpet of leaves that I though might be a dead bird, but upon closer examination it turned out to be a huge owl pellet, with tiny bones imbedded. It was relatively fresh, indicating a large own had been here recently--a barn owl, or something more picturesque?

Owl pellet

Back at the top of the hill, I eventually saw our parked cars through the tree trunks, so we had hiked around in a big circle. I was among the laggards at the rear, and most of the other folks had already driven down the gravel road to have our brown-bag lunches by the river. Our picnic site was a lovely grassy spot  by the banks of the Shenandoah where the residents of this private enclave had placed a picnic table. It was nice opportunity to get to meet the other members, and quite by coincidence, one of the young ladies in the day's hike turned out to be someone I had been corresponding via Email at the botanist's office in Shenandoah National Park.

Cormorants perch on trees along the Shenandoah River

Our hostess, Blanca, had been born in Argentina, and naturally, we spoke a bit in Spanish.  As we ate our lunch, we were amused by a group of cormorants flying around on the other bank and diving into the river. I didn't know that cormorants strayed this far inland from coastal areas, but was told that they come regularly to the Shenandoah during their molting season.

All the folks I met were very congenial, and I will definitely be joining VNPS for more hikes in the future. It's a great way to get to know the many beautiful natural treasures in this area!

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)