Weekend orchid hunting along the Carolina coastal plain — 2016-08-12 – 2016-08-14

I was asked recently why I blog about my adventures in the field. I didn’t have a good answer then, so I have taken a while to think about it. With the posting of this, my 200th blog post, I’ve come to the conclusion that I want you, the reader, to like what I like; to feel the excitement that I feel upon discovering a group of blooming flowers that are on one hand, not unique, but on the other hand, never the same, no matter how many times I see them. That is my answer.

This past weekend fell in mid-August, the usual time for the fringed orchids to be blooming in the physiographic region of the Carolinas known as the Coastal Plain. These fringed orchids include Platanthera conspicua or Southern White Fringed orchid, Platanthera ciliaris or Yellow Fringed orchid, Platanthera cristata or Crested Fringed orchid, and Gymnadeniopsis (Platanthera) integra or Yellow Fringeless orchid. I know the latter is not a fringed orchid, but it blooms at the same time as the others, so I’m including it here. I also saw a large population of Habenaria repens or Water-spider orchid.

Although I visited several sites in both South Carolina and North Carolina, I will not distinguish between the sites in this post, but rather I will group them together by orchid species. At the end of this blog post, I will also picture some of the wildflowers I came across that are common to both states so that if you are visiting the Carolina coastal plain in the next couple of weeks, you might see some of them and be able to identify them.

The first of the orchid species I photographed on this trip is Platanthera conspicua or Southern White Fringed orchid. It differs from its northern cousin, Platanthera blephariglottis or Northern White Fringed orchid by several subtle characteristics, but I always rely on the position of the apex of the lip: it is generally shorter and tends to curl downward on the Northern White Fringed orchid while it is generally longer and tends to curl outward on the Southern White Fringed orchid.

Platanthera conspicua
Platanthera conspicua or Southern White Fringed orchid

Although the Southern White Fringed orchid tends to bloom a week or so earlier than the other fringed orchid species down our way, I may have been a few days early to photograph it. Only a few of the plants were in what I would call full bloom. Having said that, most of the plants I saw had some open flowers. Here is a close-up highlighting the fringed lip of one of the flowers of the Southern White Fringed orchid:

Southern White Fringed orchid

Southern White Fringed orchid Southern White Fringed orchid
Southern White Fringed orchid Southern White Fringed orchid

You will probably notice that some of the flowers have signs of insect attack and/or being affected by very hot, very wet, inconsistent weather. These particular plants are neither the most numerous nor the most perfect ones I’ve seen at these sites in the past few years. I’m hoping that next year will bring a better crop of Southern White Fringed orchids to the coastal plain.

I did manage to see many Platanthera ciliaris or Yellow Fringed orchids along the coast in South Carolina, but all were still in tight bud. Bummer! I had to get to North Carolina to see some of them in bloom. I find it rather odd that the blooming of the mountain populations of this species (blog report several weeks earlier) would be well ahead of those along the coastal plain:

Yellow Fringed orchid Yellow Fringed orchid

It is my observation that the size and quality of the plants along the coastal plain do not match those found in our Southern Appalachian Mountain locations.

The fringed orchid species that usually blooms earliest along the Carolina coastal plain is Platanthera cristata or Crested Fringed orchid. I managed to find many good specimens of this species in full bloom, reinforcing my notion that I was a bit early to find the other fringed orchids in full bloom:

Crested Fringed orchid Crested Fringed orchid
Crested Fringed orchid Crested Fringed orchid

Crested Fringed orchid

The best of the bunch, however, were the Gymnadeniopsis integra or Yellow Fringeless orchids. They appeared in large numbers this year. It looks very similar in size and color to the Crested Fringed orchid, except it does not have fringe on its serrated lip. I feared that the recent, temporary change in the cycle of burn regimen would adversely affect the bloom of this rather rare species, but I was definitely wrong. Here are some images of the many dozen flowering plants I saw:

Yellow Fringeless orchid

Yellow Fringeless orchid Yellow Fringeless orchid
Yellow Fringeless orchid Yellow Fringeless orchid

I was lucky to be able to share this trip on the last day with a couple of fine people from Virginia, Zach and Jean Bradford. Zach is the Chesapeake Bay Region Steward at Virginia Natural Heritage Program. He and Jean had come down to the North Carolina coast to enjoy a vacation with members of their family. I cajoled them into posing for a picture beside my truck as we were finishing our visit in the Green Swamp:

Zach and Jean Bradford at the Green Swamp

We had just finished spending a sweaty day out in the field in 92-degree (F) 33-degree (C), very humid weather. I really enjoyed their company and showing them some of my favorite spots in the Green Swamp. The orchids behaved quite well by being in great bloom. I believe they were able to see several of the species for the first time. It always gives me pleasure to introduce someone to a new orchid species.

The final orchid species for the weekend is Habenaria repens or Water-spider orchid. It’s relatively easy to find in bloom if you know just where to look. This is due to their lengthy bloom period. The plants begin blooming in early May and continually send up new plantlets from underground stolens. These new plants will eventually bloom, providing flowers until the first frost in late October. I have photographed the plants at this particular site for several years and am always happy to visit the site whenever I’m in the area. Here are some sample images of the Water-spider orchid:

Water-spider orchid Water-spider orchid

Here is a set of images showing the progression of the bloom stalks on many of the plants at this site:

Water-spider orchid Water-spider orchid Water-spider orchid

As promised, here is a selection of shots of the other wildflowers that were so plentiful in several of the coastal plain sites I visited:

Liatris spicata var. resinosa (Dense Blazing Star) Bluehearts (white form)

Left: Liatris spicata var. resinosa or Dense Blazing Star; Right: Buchnera americana or Bluehearts (white form).

Grassleaf Barbara's buttons Grassleaf Barbara's buttons

Marshallia graminifolia or Grassleaf Barbara’s buttons.

Sandbog Deathcamus Sandbog Deathcamus

Zigadenus glaberimmus or Sandbog Deathcamus.

Pine Lily Nash's Meadowbeauty

Left: Lilium catesbaei or Pine Lily; Right: Rhexia nashii or Nash’s Meadowbeauty.

One thing this trip impressed on me was that I’m not as young as I used to be. The oppressive heat and humidity took its toll in shortening the time I could spend in the field during the hottest part of the day. On the last day of this weekend trip, when I was showing Zach and Jean around in the Green Swamp, I decided to leave my camera gear in the truck. We found some gorgeous orchid specimens which I wish I could have photographed, but I was happy to be there to introduce my friends to these beautiful orchids. They were excited to add a couple of species to their life list.

Mid-summer always amazes me as it shows off some of its prettiest and most colorful wildflowers. I’m lucky to live as close as I do to a number of special places for these beauties. My next “planned” outing will be at the end of October or early November back on the Carolina coastal plain. Yes, we have early winter orchids in bloom. But, there may be other adventures that present themselves before the end of October — who knows? 😉



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  1. Thanks for spending the time blogging about your excursions Jim, almost feels like I’m along with you….
    Great information, awesome images and a chance to see habitats and plants I might otherwise miss.
    There are many great nature blogs, yours in one of the best IMO…. Seems like a mini photo and educational vacation every time I get a new one!!

  2. It is exactly as you say. I love our native orchids and the thrill of finding them; encountering the many other beauties along the way, as well as your description of getting to them. Thank you for taking us along!. (Next year I want to see all of these in person).

  3. Thanks, Jim, for all your blogs. They have helped me in discovering new plants I likely would not have found otherwise. For example, I finally after several years of searching saw some 3 birds orchids this year. Earlier, I found the beautiful purple fringed orchids at Mt. Mitchell. So, thanks again for your great blogs and look forward to many more.

  4. Thanks for blogging Jim. I’m hoping to see some of these orchids in the future when I have time to travel. Besides your photographs are outstanding!

  5. Congratulations on 200! I’ve very much enjoyed them and the ability to maintain a connection with some of my (our) most favorite areas is priceless!

  6. Another fine blog, Jim! Great photos and words! Add my name to the list of those who enjoy reading about your field adventures. I’m looking forward to the next 200 blogs. On this outing, you saw many species I’ve never seen. The only one of the orchids I’ve seen is P. ciliaris.

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