Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Trilliums at Turkey Creek Nature Preserve

Last Saturday morning I woke up to cloudy and damp conditions with the occasional sprinkle of rain. If I had made the decision to stay indoors according to what I saw out the window, I would have missed out on a perfect day to go out and shoot wildflowers. It’s early April. There is one place I go every year that contains a large population of a rare plant. Since the blooming time for this species is rather short, not going would likely mean missing out on the peak bloom. What is it you might ask? Read on....

Along a roadside right-of-way in Nash County a protected preserved that contains one of the largest populations of Least Trillium or Trillium pusillum var. virginianum.

Least Trillium or Trillium pusillum var. virginianum

When it comes to trilliums, nothing is simple. The Least Trillium isn’t just a single species, but several varieties that, according the source you consult, varies. For those who are interested in the technical aspects I’ve included some botanical geek speak below from several sources including Flora on North America.

Believe it or not, trillium plants produce no true leaves or stems above ground. What?! Yes, actually the above ground plant is technically a flowering scape, and the leaf-like structures are actually bracts subtending the flower. The “stem” is an extension of the horizontal rhizome and produces tiny, scale-like leaves called cataphylls. 

The Trillium pusillum complex consists of five or six morphogeographical taxa distributed within the southeastern United States. Each widely disjunct, regional population have varied characteristics from other, and are quite variable within a single population as well. There are three varieties of T. pusillum that occur in North Carolina:

T. pusillum var. ozarkanum
T. pusillum var. pusillum
T. pusillum var. virginianum

Trillium pusillum var. viginianum flowers spring (Mar to early May). Acidic soils in low, swampy woodlands along streams, red maple (Acer rubrum) swamps, very wet in spring, plants often grouped on hummocks, with sphagnum moss. It is easily distinguished at sight by its “sessile” flower. Listed by the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program as a S1 in the state, Trillium pusillum var. virginianum has been documented in 7 counties.

Habitat for Least Trillium

Turkey Creek Nature Preserve is home to thousands of trilliums that extend from the roadside to several feet into the swampy woods. Singles, doubles, trios, oh my! The variety of petal forms are also quite interesting. From wide to very narrow and the occasional two petal variety.

According to Michigan State University website "[trilliums] can be infected with virus-like mycoplasmas, which are parasitic, subcellular organisms that often result in the normally white petals being streaked with green or pink…"

The trilliums were the highlight of the trip, but there are more botanical treasures to be found here too. Trout Lily or Erythronium umbilicatum blankets the woods with its danity yellow flowers.

Atamasco Lily (Zephyranthes atamasco) were just being to bloom. 

And no field trip would be complete without wild orchids. Southern Twayblade or Listera australis occurs in the swampy pine woods usually near sphaghum mounds. 

Closeup of the flower

In addition to the floral delights, several species of ferns inhabitat the moist woods near Turkey Creek. Fiddleheads just begining to unfurl.

Royal Fern(Osmunda regalis)

Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum)

It was a great day to be outside photographing the native flora at this special roadside, one of many that dot the landscape in the Old North State.


Sunday, February 24, 2019

A Winter Hike for Evergreen and Wintergreen Plants

During the dreary days of winter, most native wildflowers are fast asleep until spring arrives. There is not much to see flower-wise this time of year, but it is a good time go out in search of evergreen and wintergreen plants. A couple weeks I visited a favorite nature preserve, FlowerHill to photograph some of these botanical jewels.

So what are evergreens and wintergreens? While most native herbs died back once the growing season ends, evergreens have leaves that are persist all year long. Wintergreens are plants that have leaves that are alive during the winter months, and disappear in the spring or summer. At Flower Hill, there are several examples of both. 

Trail head view

My main goal was to photograph the wintergreen orchid Tipularia discolor or Cranefly Orchid. This orchid is more recognizable by its leaves than the flowers. The leaf variation in this species is quite interesting. There is one place at Flower Hill where 4 different color variations occur all within a few feet of each other. 

Solid green leaf

Leaf dark purple spots

Yellowish green leaf

Dark reddish purple leaves

Purple underside

T. discolor is the most common native orchid species in North Carolina occurring from the mountains to the coast and blooms in mid-summer.

After spending time admiring these wonderful leaves, I continued down the trail to a spot where I found another species of orchid, Goodyera pubescens or Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, an evergreen plant with attractive foliage. The intricate white lines against the glossy, dark green leaves resemble the foliage of tropical jewel orchids. G. pubescens blooms with white flowers in mid-summer. 

Goodyera pubescens

Close-up of the leaf design

Another evergreen that is ubiquitous in the mountains and extends to a much lesser extent into the Piedmont is Galax urceolata or Galax. At Flower Hill it grows near Rhododendron catawbiense or Catawba Rhododendron, but more on that plant later. Galax blooms with a spike of small, showy white flowers during the summer. 

Galax urceolata

A red-wine Galax leaf during it's winter coloration

Along the trail I found three other evergreens: Epigaea repens or Trailing Arbutus, Chimaphila maculata or Striped  Wintergreen and Hexastylis sp. or  Wild Ginger. The Trailing Arbutus was in bud. It blooms with cute white to sometimes pink flowers in late winter and early spring.

Epigaea repens in bud at the base of a pine tree

Striped wintergreen, also known as Pipsissewa, has attractive evergreen foliage and grows as a single plant or small groups in xeric, acidic soils. It blooms late spring and summer with nodding, waxy, creamy white flowers borne on a  stalk above the top whorled of leaves. 

Chimaphila maculata

Growing on slopes and along the trail is this evergreen plant commonly called Wild Ginger or Little Heartleaf depending on which species of Hexastylis. Absent the flowers(too early for it to bloom) I'm not sure species. Positive ID can't always be via the foliage as the leaf variegation(or lack of it) varies within the same species. So a return trip when flowering will be needed for species confirmation .

Hexastylis blooms in the spring with flowers at ground level. Most people would never notice them as they blooms are often covered by leaf litter.

Hexastylis sp.

At the first ravine crossing on the trail, I took a detour and climbed down into the ravine to the banks of Moccasin Creek. This wasn't easy as some steep banks and fallen trees made the task a challenge in spots. 

Here on the banks of Moccasin Creek I spotted mosses growing in the shady, moist, cool environment covering logs of fallen trees, rocks and on the moist ground. These mini evergreen plants are bryophytes, belonging to the division Bryophyta. They don’t have flowers or seeds, but they do produce spores, as do fungi. Mosses don’t have roots; they absorb water and nutrients through their leaves. There are approximately 440 species of mosses that occur in North Carolina and they do an important job(along with fungi) in breaking down organic matter into nutrients. 

Fern moss(Thuidium delicatulum) covering a rock

Closeup of fern moss(Thuidium delicatulum)

A fallen tree over time in a forest will be covered with a host of organisms including mosses. The wood from fallen trees,  will over a period of years return back to which it came. In the photo below are at least two species of mosses, I'm thinking belong to the genera Fissidens and Semtophyllum.

Combination of mosses on a fallen trunk

After photographing the mosses I headed back up the steep ravine. It was slow going as the fallen trees made for some tough obstacles in places. This actually turned out to be a good thing. As I made my way carefully up the ravine, I spotted a small clump of erect clubmoss at the base of a tree. Of course I had to get a closer look. It turned out to be a species that is uncommon to rare in the Piedmont. 

Shining Clubmoss or Huperzia lucidula, a species I had not seen before outside the mountains of NC. It grows in moist forests and ravines and its uncommon to rare in the part of the state.

Huperzia lucidula

After climbing out of the ravine I returned to the trail and continued on. One notable tree at the preserve is a large Longleaf Pine or Pinus palustris. I don't know the age of the tree, but it is the largest one I ever seen at least in this part of the state.

 a large Pinus palustris 

No field report would be complete without mention of what Flower Hill special. Along the banks of Moccasin Creek is the prize evergreen of this nature preserve Catawba Rhododendron or Rhododendron catawbiense, a natural population some 200+ miles east of its native range in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.  

It was North Carolina naturalist B.W. Wells on a visit in the 1930s that brought this geographic anomaly on the Johnston/Nash county line to national attention. Dr. Wells identified it as a disjunct mountain community that survived the retreat of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. It was deemed a freak of nature because of this species being so far from where is normally grows. The topography of the land is unique to the area here on the boarder of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain. The microclimate of the north west facing slopes provided a ideal place for this native evergreen shrub to hang on.

Catawba Rhododendron in bloom(April)

Blooming starts in mid-April and peaks around early May. Flowers vary from light to deep pink, and a small population on the high banks above Moccasin Creek have white flowers.

After enjoying the flora I returned back to my vehicle. Before leaving I noticed a several feet inside the woods at the parking lot  a dense mat of green. I had to go see what it was.  What I found was another species of clubmoss,  Running Cedar or Diphasiastrum digitatum. (Formerly belonged to the genus Lycopodium).

Diphasiastrum digitatum

Diphasiastrum digitatum

Large area covered with Running Cedar

Running Cedar is an evergreen subshrub that spreads by underground runners and also reproduces via spores. The leaves form flattened fans, somewhat reminiscent of conifers such as arborvitae. In the summer reproductive structures, called strobili, appear atop the plants. These strobili bear sporangia that contain the spores. Occurs in dry to mesic acid forests and openings, especially in disturbed sites, such as successional pine forests. Running Cedar is common in the mountains and Piedmont, uncommon in Coastal Plain. 

Visit Flower Hill anytime of the year and there is always something to see.  Spring is when the flush of flowers are seen, but in autumn and winter there are other botanical treasures to be found.

See you next time for another adventure in Scenic North Carolina.

Flower Hill Nature Preserve is located in Johnston County North Carolina and is owned by the Triangle Land Conservancy. Access to the parking lot is from Flower Hill Road. For more information check out the website

Light is the first element of creation