Monday, August 31, 2015

Mountain Lake Part III (Final)

View towards WV from SR613.

On Saturday evening at dinner, comparing notes with the folks I had met, Professor Henry Wilbur and his wife Becky mentioned that they had seen some Yellow Fringed orchids and another orchid with white flowers they hadn't identified yet, at two locations further down the mountain, outside of the Biological Station boundary. Naturally I was interested, and they agreed to give me instructions so I could find the orchids the next day .

After dinner, Mark told me about the high-powered microscope in Lewis and offered to show me how to use it. He gave me a specimen of Goodyera that I could examine, showed me how to mount it using toothpicks as makeshift pins, and explained about the herbarium collection in the same room. He didn't want to linger too long in the room with the herbariums open, since from long previous exposure he was sensitive to the mothballs used to preserve herbariums, so he left immediately after and I was on my own. The close-up look at the Goodyera flowers was fascinating and I wanted to sketch them, but was too tired to go back to get my sketch book. I decided to put that off until the morning and perused the herbarium files of the orchids--some of the specimens dated back to the 1930's and 40's! I did this until exhaustion overtook me, then I returned to my cottage for what I hoped would be a better night's sleep. I'd kept the windows closed all day and it was warmer in the bedroom--I was soon asleep.

The next morning at breakfast I met Dr. Rytas Vilgalys, from Duke University, and several of his students. He is a mycology expert and we chatted about the fascinating associations of native orchids with mycorrhizal fungi. He told me that the Coral Root orchids seemed to associate with the Russula genus of mushrooms in particular. Other native orchids, he said, actually parasitized the mycorrhizal fungi that had aided them in earlier growth stages and ended up eventually entirely consuming the fungi--who would have guessed?

After breakfast I went back to Lewis with my sketchbook and specimen and completed my sketches of the miniature flower's details then obtained detailed instructions from Becky about how to locate the orchids she and her husband had seen. Guests were supposed to check out by noon, so it seemed best to get everything ready before going out to search for orchids.

I gathered all my gear including the bag of garbage generated over the weekend, leaving the cottage ready for its next occupant, and packed the car. I figured it would be best to be able to start back home directly from the last site, leaving more time for exploration.

I rode off on the gravel road going down the other side of the mountain, passing by some folded bird capture nets on the outskirts of the station. Huge stands of rhododendrons hugged the mountainside, and a few driveways marked private led into seeming wilderness as far as I could see--these must be private hunting campsites.

A few scary hairpin turns awaited farther down. After one particularly hairy turn the view opened up at a clearing and I took several shots. The road dead-ended at another gravel road with no route numbers--I debated which way to turn--the right hand side seemed to go downhill, and I correctly guessed this was where 613 continued. I passed an area marked as White Rock Recreation Area, and eventually found a paved road where I turned left as instructed.

On my right there was a stream--Stoney Creek. I should have stopped to get some photos, it was so quiet and lovely, but my aim was to find the bog where the Yellow Fringed orchids were. I passed Glen Alton, and looked for the bog just before the Mohawk Flats sign. I passed the sign but there was no place nearby where I could pull off to park. I drove past the sign and turned around at the first opportunity, then found a place with a shoulder I could pull off on and walked back about 200 yards towards the area.

I looked for the dark flower heads of a sedge, the clue I'd been given about the location of the bog and they were all around. I stepped onto a mound of spagnum moss oozing water, but managed to not sink--so far, so good. Peering into the brush I caught a glimpse of several orange spikes--here were the Yellow Fringed orchids, lush and plentiful. I went farther in to photograph the best-looking ones. There was one that was seemingly huge, but on close examination, it was two of them intertwined--beautiful!

Two Yellow Fringed Orchids intertwined

Closer view of Yellow Fringed Orchids

Pleased with this great find, I decided to drive back to Glen Alton to try for the other orchid. Glen Alton appeared to be a little-used park: there was a caretaker's house and only one other visitor. I looked around the pond and stream, then took the path past the caretaker's house. This seemed to be the right path, now to look for a seep.

Stream at Glen Alton

About half a mile down, there was the seep, surrounded by large rhododendrons, but I couldn't remember if the white orchid was supposed to be on the right or the left. I looked for any traces of recent footsteps and followed what appeared to be a recently-trod path on the right. That vanished quickly and I continued downhill until I came to a thicket of ferns which seemed too dry for orchids, so I turned back, exploring underneath the rhododendrons along the seep, but nothing turned up. Back at the main path I tried the left side, stepping on some rhododendron roots along the bank of the seep, but that seemed to lead to impassable forest. I looked at my watch--twelve-thirty. I was loath to give up now, but I should be turning back to start the drive home soon. One set of great orchids out of two wasn't bad; it was time to call it a day.

I started to drive back up the gravel mountain road and then thought, why go up the gravel road again, when I might be able to get to the main road from this one? I turned around again and drove on--not a single road marker or route number, I had no idea where I was heading. At last a truck passed me and I hailed them to ask. The driver said I was about 15 miles from the main road--knowing I was on the right track, I pushed on and came out at Pembroke, just a few miles beyond where I'd turned off on Friday afternoon. It was about two o'clock, there was just enough time to stop by Pandapas Pond to look in on the yellow pinesap. I wanted to see how the specimens I had photographed two days before were developing. The flowers of the pinesap were unfolding and the stems more upright, but as you can see here, insects had begun to mar the pristine beauty of the tiny shoots.

I hope to visit MLBS again next year, perhaps in the springtime when the pink lady slipper orchids bloom. There is so much for a botanical artist to explore in this area of southwest Virginia!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Mountain Lake Biological Station, Part II

Coral Root Orchid (Corallorhiza maculata)

I woke just before the sunlight began to touch the tops of the trees visible from my bedroom windows--it was about seven. I got up to make some tea and dress for breakfast. The first bell rang at seven thirty and I started walking toward the dining hall before the second one sounded. After breakfast I went back to my cabin to get my sketching gear and camera, and set out towards Lewis.

I inspected the three specimens of Coral Root orchids there again, selected the one under the oak tree closest to the building and spread out my waterproof poncho in front of it. I sketched the outline of the stem quickly and placed the tiny flowers along it. I got out my magnifying glass to study the details of the few individual flowers that were open--the squarish white lip had several sets of purple spots on either side (hence the name maculata, Latin for spotted), the column with the pollinia was barely visible at 10X magnification. The three sepals and two petals were almost the same reddish-brown color as the stem, with perhaps a bit more greenish-yellow on the inside of the petals. After drawing a detail of one flower I got out my color pencils to put color into my sketch.

Field sketch of Coral Root

As usual, my limited range of color pencils seemed inadequate to render the subtlety of  the real live plant in front of me, and I struggled to blend the colors to something approximating the actual thing. It became warm enough to shed my light cotton sweater. Thus happily occupied, the morning wore on.

It was around eleven by the time I felt satisfied with the sketch--there was enough time before lunch for me to sketch the Rattlesnake Plantains on the other end of the campus. I picked up my gear, walked over and repeated the set-up.

Field sketch of Rattlesanke Plantain

The Goodyera's white flowers were even smaller than the Coral Root orchid's, and grew around the stem like gradually diminishing beads. Examination with the magnifier showed that the lip seemed to have a rounded shape, kind of like a Lady slipper in miniature, only with a spout--almost like a tiny pitcher. The flower, as well as the entire plant was covered with white hairs, as its Latin name pubescens would imply. My eyes were becoming strained from trying to take this in and draw it accurately. I had only started to color some of the leaves when the lunch bell rang, but I had enough information for my drawing to be usable.

Close-up of the Goodyera pubescent flowers.

Coral-like fungi: Neolecta irregularis? near the Rattlesnake Plantains.

I had planned to explore some of the trails around the station in the afternoon. During lunch I sat with to Dr. Mark and Miao, and they told me about their morning hike to Bear Cliff looping back to the station on the Spring Trail. They had come across some Twayblade orchids growing under the tree-sized native Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximus) and they said some of the Rhododendrons were still in bloom. That helped me decide--I'd take the same hike after lunch to see what I could find.

The Moonshine Dell Trail.

The trail started behind the pond and was marked with yellow blazes. In the first portion, leading to a place called Moonshine Dell, the woods were open and carpeted with ferns. A small stream flowed through Moonshine Dell and here were lots of huge Rhododendrons, some of them still covered with pale pink blossoms.

Moonshine Dell with Rhododendrons in bloom.

Rhododendron maximum flowers

I looked under them carefully as instructed, wandering back and forth across the rivulet several times, paying special attention to soggy spots near the mushrooms which were plentiful. After some thirty minutes with no luck turning up any of the Twayblades, it was time to continue on my way. I found my way back to the trail, passing by many colorful fungi, some that looked like tiny fingers, and wondered what genus these might be. The old forests on this mountain must be a gold mine for fungi experts.

Yellow mushrooms: Boletus?

Finger-like fungi: Clavulinopsis fusiformis?

Turkey Tail bracket fungi?

From Moonshine Dell the trail to Bear Cliff ascended through drier forest; a returning hiker passed by me. Large rock formations and hollows began to dominate the landscape, and the footing became more difficult. After another mile or so I came upon Bear Cliff, at 4000 foot elevation. Two small snakes sunning on the rocks scurried away as I stepped on the large rock that formed the base of the overlook. Trees blocked most of the view across the mountains, but the geological formation on the other side was impressive, dropping down a distance of several stories, the rock strata ran at different angles from the upper layers.

Approaching Bear Cliff.
The summit.
The drop at Bear Cliff

Gradually descending again, the loop towards the Spring Trail was much the same. My feet were starting to ache by the time I reached the spring. There were a bunch of cage-like structures built over the spring that I couldn't figure out--animal cages, or aquariums of some sort? They seemed abandoned now, probably the remnants of an old experiment or study. I looked around a bit, but saw only one of the Pink Lady Slipper orchids that were so plentiful. Perhaps there were more on the other side of the spring, but the cages distracted me and I didn't explore further.

Leaves of Pink Lady Slipper orchid.

I passed Jamie, the young lady from the office, running uphill on the trail with her dog--ahh, to be young and vigorous! I had just enough energy left to drag myself back to the station and take a couple of photos of the lovely butterflies on the milkweed growing around the pond before reaching my cabin. I'd never noticed it before, but milkweed has a wonderful scent--it seemed to be ordinary milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. Some flower heads had been covered with sewn mesh bags--must be part of a student experiment.

Hackberry Emperor butterfly on milkweed.

Back at my cabin I quickly took off my hiking boots and rested on the porch for a while before going in, wishing I could trade in my bunions for the feet I'd had fifteen years earlier. Well, I had one more day to wander and who knew, tomorrow might be a lucky day!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Weekend at Mountain Lake Station, Part I

Yellow pinesap (Monotropa hypopitys)

VNPS had announced a weekend at UVA's Mountain Lake Biological Station in southwestern Virginia at the end of July but the excursion was limited to a baker's dozen in number. Not sure that I'd be able to get one of those slots or keep up with their strenuous hiking schedule, I reserved accommodations for myself the weekend before. I figured that the orchid I was hoping to see, the Coral Root Orchid (Corallorhiza maculata) would be in bloom then, as well as other interesting plants. Being by myself, I would have time to sketch and set my own pace.

This remote mountain area is noted for its rich diversity of flora and fauna, some quite unique. The lake itself,  Mountain Lake, also called Salt Pond, is most unusual: unchanged for the most part of last century, a hotel resort had been built on its shore (the 1980's movie Dirty Dancing was filmed here in part). The spring-fed lake's water level began to drop precipitously in the early 2000's and drained completely. Fissures in the bedrock were found, and geological studies revealed that the lake actually has drained periodically, and fills up again. The lake has now returned to about half its volume.

I left on Friday at mid-morning for the three and a half hour drive down the scenic Shenandoah Valley. I was timing my arrival at the station for the afternoon check-in. This would allow enough time to stop along the way at near-by Pandapas Pond, a place I'd read about where another plant I was seeking could be found. Yellow pinesap (Monotropa hypopitys,) a member of the fascinating Monotropa family that I'd never seen, blooms at this time of the year, and I hoped to get photos for my illustrations.

Pandapas Pond

It was about one o'clock when I took the exit towards Blacksburg. The sign for Pandapas Pond was so inconspicuous that I almost missed the turn, but just managed to make the quick left. I parked towards the end of the last lot, and sat on a bench to enjoy my lunch in the company of a goldfinch browsing some thistles.

After putting my trash back in the car I was weighing which of the two trails to take when another car pulled up. An older lady with a mesh bag in her hand got out and was starting up the forest trail when I asked her what she intended to collect. Judging by her accent, she was local, and she was looking for edible mushrooms, something she called "swamp mushrooms." She told me she didn't have much time before her church service. I asked if she'd ever seen pinesap in the area and she responded no, but that I should look at the site of fallen trees, particularly pines.

I followed her at a respectful distance until she vanished from sight. I came across some Indian pipe and encouraged by this, went off-trail to look for pinesap. I didn't find any and continued up the trail which ended at a beautiful flower garden. The terrain here didn't look particularly promising, so I turned back to try the pond trail. On the way back I saw the old lady deep in the woods, bending over something--she must have found what she was looking for.

Fungi on the pond trail

The pond trail wound around a small hill covered with old pine trees; I climbed up the steep bank to look under them and saw the ground was covered with fungi and mosses, but no pinesap. I went back down and scouted around the pond, but the sandy soil there was not particularly promising either. I was almost back at parking lot, about to give up my search, when I happened to glance up at the steep bank now on my right. There it was--a tiny shoot of Yellow pinesap emerging from the mossy ground! I scurried up and discovered several more pristine stalks to photograph.

Yellow Pinesap.

Having accomplished one goal, I continued on my journey. Heading west the hills became steeper and traffic thinner. At the turn-off for Mountain Lake Lodge the two-lane road went through an area of rural properties and then started climbing steadily, becoming steeper and steeper with every curve.

Power lines at Mountain Lake

The forest canopy was thick until I reached this point where overhead power lines cut through. I couldn't resist the amazing vista that opened up, and pulled over to take this photo. The freshness of the mountain air took my breath away as much as the panorama--it was perceptibly cooler here than on the valley floor. This had to be at around 3,000 feet elevation.

I reached the lodge and asked some hotel attendants at the parking lot where the road to the Biological Station continued. They directed me to the left of the lodge, past the pool and some outbuildings. The paving ended a few miles later and the road became gravel. A few deep ruts here and there gave an indication of what the downpours in these mountains must be like.

After a few more miles the sign for the Biological Station appeared--I drove past some rustic cottages and buildings and parked at the main lot, looking for the building with the registration office. I was directed to Lewis, a two-story stone building to my left. I checked in at the office and received my information packet--I talked briefly with the young lady there about my pursuits and Jamie marked the locations of several stands of Coral Root and other orchids on the station map. One stand was right outside of this building. Another hand-out showed the trails around the station, and she marked those for me as well.

I'd been assigned one of the cottages, Burns, which turned out to have a small fenced-in garden surrounding it. I was cautioned to never leave the gate open, as the deer here were extremely voracious. After getting my gear and settling in, I went out with my camera to explore my surroundings.

The Burns Cottage and garden.

The cottage garden had been lovingly landscaped with all sorts of native plants in a charming arrangement, and conveniently labeled. There were Turk's cap lilies (Lilium superbum) and red and white bee balm (Monarda) blooming. A number of ferns, among them a huge variety of Osmunda (Osmunda spectabilis) which I had never seen before, and a rare trillium, Trillium sulcatum, with a peculiar maroon fruit (my photo of this didn't turn out well).

Turk's Cap Lily (Lilium superbum)
Osmunda spectabilis.
Burns Cottage garden.

After that, I went out to explore the rest of the station. The campus consisted of a series of small cottages and a few larger building arranged around an open grassy area, with the dining hall at one end and Lewis at the other end, and a pond and the large new lab building to the south.

There were three Coral root orchids by Lewis, three small flowering stalks under the oak trees, the flowers not yet open. I walked down the green towards the other area where Jamie had indicated more of these, and found two huge clumps near another cottage. These were better developed but the stalks seemed older, with some flowers clearly past their prime. Still, very exciting to see so many of them!

Coral Root Orchid (Corallorhiza maculata)

I checked out the purple fringed orchids by another cottage; they had been fertilized and were developing seed pods. Looking for other orchids, I entered an area where an old swimming pool had been--pieces of concrete slabs and piers remained in place. The ground here was spongy, lushly covered with several varieties of mosses, among them on that looked like miniature fern fronds. Here was Indian pipe and farther down, another orchid, Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens) with several flowering stalks.

Beautiful fern moss (Thuidium delicatum?)

Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora)

Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens)

What great finds! This would help me plan where to start sketching tomorrow morning.

The first dinner bell rang out as I was heading back to my cabin. I dropped off my camera quickly and headed back to the dining hall--I'd been warned the hungry hordes would claim every bite if one was late. There was a small kitchenette in my cabin with a refrigerator, but since I didn't know that in advance, I hadn't thought to bring any snacks, only some wine and my favorite teas.

After dinner I walked around again, enjoying the cool evening and the last of the light lingering on the pond. I came across a gentleman on a cottage deck readying some plant specimens for pressing and talked to him for a bit. Dr. Mark Whitten told me he and his assistant, a young Chinese man by the endearing name of Miao, were here to collect specimens for a project comparing the DNA of eastern North American plants with their counterparts in northeastern China. It's believed that these plants share a common ancestry from a time before the continents began to drift apart, and this project may add valuable information to prevailing theories.

After that it was time for an evening read, and then to bed. I'd brought a light wool blanket with all my linens, since MLBS warns that the night temperatures can drop into the upper fifties even in summer, but even then I wasn't prepared for just how cold it got. I couldn't get to sleep, and wished I'd brought an extra blanket. After closing all the windows and putting a sweater on, I was still too cold to sleep. Eventually I spread all the extra clothes I had with me over the blanket and managed to get warm enough to drift off, but it was one AM by then.

Next: Sketching Orchids, a hike to Bear Cliffs and more.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Yellow Fringed and Other Orchids in Fort Valley

Yellow Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris).

A month after the VNPS walk in Fort Valley I returned to see how the Yellow Fringed Orchids were doing. This lovely native is high on my list of plants to illustrate for the year, and it's great to not have to travel far to gather visual material for my sketches.

It was a very hot and humid afternoon, and I was glad to enter the shady forest cover. I recognized the first orchid I spotted as the one I'd seen in bud a month earlier, but the spike of this specimen was not in the best condition: small, with some of the flowers blighted. I looked around for more and found several others growing by the small pond.

The buds were showing color, but the flowers weren't open yet, so I looked further afield. Some ten feet beyond the first orchid I saw another deeper in the woods with its flowers open--a much more appealing specimen. As I was skirting around the undergrowth to reach it, I happened to look down, and right by my feet, the distinctive leaves of another orchid appeared.

                                    Leaves and flower stalk of Pink Lady Slipper orchids (Cypripedium acaule) with Indian Cucumber plant (five leaflets) to the right.
Some of the plants had a couple of old flowering stalks (the flowers long past), and by the shape of the leaves, could be none other than the Pink Lady Slipper orchid--what a great find! I'll make it a point to return next spring to check out the blooms. Prospecting around I found a few more plants, as well as another type of native orchid, the Rattlesnake Plantain, named for the distinctive markings of its leaves.

Rattlesnake Plantain orchid (Goodyera pubescens)

There were several of these, one with a tiny emerging flowering spike and another with a large dried seed spike. These other two orchids had not been mentioned during our plant walk a month earlier. I wondered if the VNPS folks didn't know about these other natives growing here, or if they preferred to keep the locations secret, since these are rare species, as is the Yellow Fringed Orchid. I feel so lucky to live near to these unusual and fascinating plants that provide inspiration for my paintings. There's so much here in Virginia for a botanical illustrator!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Shale Violet and New Works

Shale Violet (Viola sororia), watercolor, 11" x 15".

Here is the finished piece, finally -- Shale Violet, photographed under better light.

Below is my next work in progress, the native flame azalea (Azalea calendulacea), still a ways from finished, but coming along. This is the first piece on which I've used the palette of Winsor yellow deep, scarlet lake, and Winsor blue (green shade). The deep yellow seems just about the right color for the flowers, but I'm struggling to get the green shades accurately within the possible range for this palette.

Flame azalea painting in progress

The purples that can be mixed from the Winsor blue/scarlet lake combination can also be difficult--too gray or brown if the balance isn't just right, though beautiful when one can get them just so. You can see a bit of the purple washes in the underpainting of the flowers at this stage. I'm putting in those thin, long red pistils with colored pencil; later on perhaps I'll apply touches of scarlet lake straight from the tube to punch them up. It's always exciting to the working on a new piece!