The Sandhills Lily and the Orange Fringed Orchid

The Sandhills Lily (Lilium pyrophilum) and the Orange Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris) can  occasionally be found growing together in the Sandhills Region of North Carolina.  However, their circumstances are very different.  The Sandhills Lily is one of nine species that are endemic to the Sandhills,  and is very rarely seen outside this harsh, low nutrient habitat.  In fact, even within the Sandhills, it is confined to areas with wet soils like stream heads and seeps.  Sandhills Lilies are protected by the state and are rated as status-Endangered, rank-Imperiled by the NC Natural Heritage Program.  They are tall lilies with beautiful blooms as seen in the following photographs.

Lilium pyrophilum
Sandhills Lily

Lilium pyrophilum
Sandhills Lily

As seen below, Sandhills Lilies can have up to five flowers blooming on a single stem.

Lilium pyrophilum
Sandhills Lily

In contrast to the limited range of the Sandhills Lily, the Orange Fringed Orchid can adapt to many moist habitats, and is found in both the Coastal Plain and the Mountains of North Carolina.  In addition, in the U.S. it ranges from New England to Florida.  The photograph below depicts an orchid in its early budding stage.

Platanthera ciliaris
Orange Fringed Orchid
Budding

These orchids have a true orange color, with delicate fringes on the lower petal of the flowers.

Platanthera ciliaris
Orange Fringed Orchid

Below, a closer look at the fringes.

Platanthera ciliaris
Orange Fringed Orchid
Fringes

The fringes occur on the margins of the lower flower petal, called the labellum.

Platanthera ciliaris
Orange Fringed Orchid
Fringes

The Sandhills Lily (Lilium pyrophilum) was identified as a unique species and described by Bruce Sorrie in 2002.  The species name, pyrophilum, is a reference to its fire-dependent nature.  A photograph of the Sandhills Lily also graces the cover of the definitive work on the flora of the Sandhills region:  A Field Guide to the Wildflowers of the Sandhills Region by Bruce Sorrie.

Herb Amyx

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B. W. Wells Paintings Traveling Exhibit

North Carolina State Parks has created a traveling exhibit on the paintings of B.W. Wells. They are re-creations/re-printings of digital images of the real paintings. Printed directly onto canvas material they look visually authentic. The display is now set up in the Falls Lake Info Center lobby, and will remain or return there in between traveling showings.

Click on the link below to see the exhibit and learn more details.

BW Wells Paintings Traveling Exhibit (3)

 

If you know of any organization that would be interested in displaying this exhibit for a few weeks, please contact Brian Bockhahn  at brian.bockhahn@ncparks.gov

Herb Amyx

 

 

 

 

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Early Whitlow Grass – Draba verna – and Another Dimension to Plant Blindness

Draba verna, Early Whitlow Grass, is not a grass at all, but an herbaceous winter annual, a member of the large mustard family, the Brassicaceae.  The Whitlow part of its common name came from its purported medicinal qualities for healing Whitlows.  Whitlows are boil-like infections of the tip of fingers or toes, and are usually caused by Herpes simplex virus, making it highly unlikely that its medicinal qualities were effective.

Small populations of Draba verna were noticed this past January in three separate locations in Wake County, NC.  Each location was a granitic flat rock community and the populations of about 10 to 15 plants were each at a barren edge of a flat rock, in poor, sandy soil.  A typical cluster of blooming plants can be seen in the photo below.  Magnification makes the coarse sand look like gravel.

Draba verna
Early Whitlow Grass
Plant Form

Draba verna is very small; its basal rosette of leaves is only about 3/4 of an inch to an inch in diameter.  The plants  are very early bloomers in North Carolina, blooming in January and early February. Draba verna is non-native, introduced from Europe into the U. S.

Draba verna
Early Whitlow Grass
Green Basal Rosettes

The plants are often bright red,  as seen below.   Draba verna is very hairy , and all the leaves are basal, leaving the short blooming stems bare.  These plants can also be found in disturbed areas and dry roadsides in addition to granitic flat rock habitats.

Draba verna
Early Whitlow Grass
Basal Leaves and Buds

Each flower has four petals, but each petal is so deeply cleft that the flowers appear to have 8 petals rather than four.  The deep clefts in the petals can be seen in the photo below.  On the left side of the picture, a young Diamorpha smallii (Elf Orpine) can be seen.

Draba verna
Early Whitlow Grass
Flowers

Abdra brachycarpa (Little Whitlow Grass) is a close relative of Draba verna, and was formerly in the genus Draba, until being split off recently into the genus Abdra.  Spoken together, they sound like something from the Arabian Nights!  Abdra brachycarpa can be seen below growing through a crack in a brick walkway at the Kerr Lake Visitor’s Center.

Abdra brachycarpa
Little Whitlow Grass
Flowers and Foliage

A closer view shows the flowers have four petals, with a slight, superficial cleft at the end of each petal.  Although it is called “Little” Whitlow Grass, it is larger than Draba verna and a little easier to see.

Abdra brachycarpa
Little Whitlow Grass
Closer Look at Flowers and Leaves

Why is it that so few people notice the individual plants that surround them outdoors in their daily lives?  For most, plants are merely a backdrop to the people, animals and equipment found in parks and recreation areas.  To explain this phenomenon, botanist/educators James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler coined the term Plant Blindness in 1998.  While there are many contributing factors to plant blindness, the simplest way to think about it is to understand how our brains visualize our  environment.

Put simply, our brain ” searches for movement, conspicuous colors and patterns, objects that are known, and objects that are potential threats. Since plants are static, blend in with the background, and don’t eat humans, they generally don’t get visual attention.”
“There is a kaleidoscopic array of visual information bombarding our retinas every waking second, and plants are so easy to ignore unless they are in bloom,” Wandersee says. “Plant blindness is the human default condition.”  *

Plants the size of Draba verna add size dimension as an additional complication.   Even professional field biologists can be forgiven for missing this plant.  After all, avid wildflower enthusiasts are not looking for blooming plants only one inch high, in January, in barren areas.  And consequently,  location  charts may understate its existence and distribution as well.

Herb Amyx

 

 

 

 

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Artifacts Found at Rockcliff Farm Provide a Glimpse into North Carolina Prehistory

Bertram Whittier Wells was an accomplished and influential ecologist and botanist, and an important advocate for studying plants as parts of natural communities.  His book “The Natural Gardens of North Carolina”, published in 1932, is a classic work on the natural history of North Carolina.  He retired in 1954, and moved to Rockcliff Farm, which was 150 acres at that time, and located on a peninsula at a bend in the Neuse River.  He continued to study plants and wildflowers while also becoming an accomplished artist.  It was during this time that Dr. Wells collected artifacts, mostly stone projectile points, along the riverbanks of the Neuse River.  Zeagle’s Rock was a towering 55 foot outcrop with a projecting ledge that provided shelter from the elements.  This landmark is known to have been a  source of artifacts for archaeologists in the past.    The entire base and lower half of the rock is now underwater due to the damming of the Neuse River to create Falls Lake.  Jimmy Ray, whose family and home were Dr. Wells’ closest neighbors, also remembers finding stone points when plowing the large gardens at Rockcliff Farm.  Dr. Wells, known as Uncle Bert to the neighboring children, fashioned homemade bows and arrows for the kids, later buying sets for them, and supervising them closely as they practiced.

The following are photographs of selected artifacts that Dr. Wells collected at Rockcliff Farm and their approximate cultural time periods.

MacCorkle/St. Albans
Early Archaic

There are four general cultural periods used in the study of the prehistory of North Carolina.  These are The Paleoindian Period (12,000 or more to 9,500 years before the present), The Archaic Period (9,500 to 4,000 years before the present),  The Woodland Period (4,000 years to 400 years before the present), and The Mississippian Period (700 to 250 years before the present).  All of these cultural periods, except for the Paleoindian Period, are represented in the projectile points that Dr. Wells collected.  We are extremely grateful to Assistant State Archaeologist David Cranford, PhD, who identified the projectile points and explained the cultural time periods they represented.

The projectile points in the photo above are from the Early Archaic period and are most likely MacCorkle/ St. Albans points.  They are the oldest points identified in the collection.

Guilford and Other Bifaces
Middle Archaic

The projectile points above are Guilford and other bifaces from the Middle Archaic period.  The Guilford points are the longer, narrower points in the photo.  Not all of the points in this or some of the other photos are readily identifiable, but they are included to show the diversity of the points that Dr. Wells collected.  Bifaces are pieces of stone that have been flaked on both sides but have not been completed, either because they broke or because they were inferior or unusable and were discarded.

Guilford and Savannah River Stemmed
Middle and Late Archaic

Above are Guilford and Savannah River Stemmed points from the Middle and Late Archaic Period.  The Guilfords are the longer, narrower points; the Savannah River Stemmed are on the right.

Yadkin or Caraway
Late Woodland

In the photograph above,  pottery shards are located on the left and the bottom middle.  The top center triangular point appears to be a Yadkin or Caraway point from the Late Woodland period.

The photograph below is possibly a Randolf point, from the Mississippian Period to historic times.  As such, it would be the youngest stone point in the collection.  It is a beautiful piece and quite sharp!

Randolph ?
Mississippian to Historic

An excellent article about the cultural periods in the prehistory of North Carolina is:  “The Prehistory of North Carolina: A Basic Cultural Sequence”.  Newsletter of the Friends of North Carolina Archaeology, Inc, Summer 1984, Volume 1, Number 1 .   Here is a link: https://archaeology.ncdcr.gov/articles/the-prehistory-of-north-carolina-a-basic-cultural-sequence

There is also an excellent projectile point chart specific to the Piedmont of North Carolina.  Here is a link: https://archaeology.ncdcr.gov/articles/projectile-points-of-the-north-carolina-piedmont

A special thanks to Jimmy Ray and Brian Bockhahn for their insights into where and when the artifacts were collected.

Herb Amyx

 

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The Enigmatic Dual Forms of Virginia Snakeroot (Endodeca serpentaria)

Virginia Snakeroot – Endodeca serpentaria –  is a common , low growing, native perennial that can be found in a variety of forest habitats in North Carolina.  It is a member of the Birthwort family (Aristolochiaceae) , a family primarily of tropical woody vines.  Virginia Snakeroot is a family outlier in that it is neither tropical, woody, nor a vine.  Its small size and low growing form make it very easy to overlook among other herbaceous plants on the forest floor.

Virginia Snakeroots are found in two different forms.  In this case, the form (forma) is part of its official taxonomic name.  Forma is the lowest taxonomic rank a plant can have and is rarely used.  It is the bottom of a descending rank of species, subspecies, variety, and forma.  Generally plants separated by forma differ only in minor characteristics like leaf color or shape.

Below are a series of photographs of Endodeca serpentaria forma hastata, which is the commonest one I see in Central North Carolina, but others may have a different experience.  These plants have smooth, narrow, spear-shaped leaves that sometimes have a flare at the base.  This shape is often called “hastate”, thus leading to the name.

Endodeca serpentaria forma hastata
Virginia Snakeroot
Plant Form

Endodeca serpentaria forma hastata
Virginia Snakeroot

Notice the small flowers on the ground near the base of the plant below.

Endodeca serpentaria forma hastata
Virginia Snakeroot
Plant Form

Endodeca serpentaria forma hastata
Virginia Snakeroot
Plant Form

The other form is called Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea.  This form differs greatly from the preceding plants.  The leaves are more rounded and oval, and the entire plant is highly pubescent.  The plant below is a second year plant.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Plant Form

Seedlings are very tiny and are extremely slow to develop.  See below.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Seedling

The leaf margins are covered with fine hairs.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Pubescent Leaf Margins

The stems are covered with a dense pubescence in contrast to forma hastata, whose stems are almost completely smooth.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Pubescent Stems

Forma convolvulacea can form small colonies.  In the area around the largest plants, young seedlings and second year plants can be seen.  This small population is approximately 7 to 8 years old.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Small Population

It takes about 3  years before plants begin to flower.   They may then flower profusely, with clusters of flowers surrounding the base of the stems.  The flowers are also densely pubescent.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Cluster of Flowers

Several individual flowers are pictured below.  The location of the flowers in debris along the forest floor and the structure of the flowers themselves seem to point to pollination by small flies, fungal gnats and possibly carrion beetles.  But those facts may be deceptive.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Flower

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Flower

The structure, color and location of Virginia Snakeroot flowers are somewhat similar to their relatives in the genus Hexastylis (Ginger Heartleaf), who are in the same plant family.  See the photo of Hexastylis virginica below.

Hexastylis virginica
Virginia Heartleaf
Flower

Descriptions of the pollinators of Ginger Heartleaf bear a remarkable similarity to those of  Virginia Snakeroot.  For many years the assumption has been that both flowers produce fetid odors that attract various flies and perhaps carrion beetles.  It is now known, through actual scientific experiments, that Ginger Heartleaf flowers have no odor, and that they are primarily self pollinated.

Here is a quote from an article by W. John Hayden in the Bulletin of the Virginia Native Plant Society, 2010:  “So, things are not always as they seem. Wild gingers look like they ought to be cross pollinated by flies but the best available evidence is that only some species are and then only some of the time; self-pollination, whether autonomous(in Asarum) or insect-assisted (in Hexastylis) appears to be the norm for these curious plants.”   It certainly makes one wonder if the same might be true of Virginia Snakeroot.  We will have to await further studies to know the answer.

The flowers of forma convolvulacea produce seed capsules very quickly, usually in about a week.  The capsules in the photo below are clustered in the same manner as the flowers around the base of the stems.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Cluster of Seed Capsules

The capsules dry quickly and become very hard.  Each capsule has six valves, and six well-defined ridges can be seen on the surface of each capsule.  As can be seen below, they retain their pubescence after drying and detaching.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Seed Capsule

Below is another look at the dense pubescence, with the style still hanging on at the top of this particular capsule.

Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea
Virginia Snakeroot
Seed Capsule

It would be of interest to know the distribution and specific habitats of the two separate forms, or whether they even have different habitats.  However, since they both appear in distribution charts simply as Endodeca serpentaria, those specific facts are unknowable.  We do know that only Endodeca serpentaria forma convolvulacea is found in New England, where it is rare and only found in Connecticut (  Allard, Dorothy J. 2002. Aristolochia serpentaria L. (Virginia Snakeroot) Conservation and
Research Plan for New England. New England Wild Flower Society, Framingham,
Massachusetts, USA. http://www.newfs.org)

The article on pollination mentioned earlier is :

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover: The Curious Case of Wild Ginger Pollination  by W. John Hayden    Bulletin of the Virginia Native Plant Society, Vol 29, No 1, Winter 2010.

Here is a link to the article:  https://scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1143&context=biology-faculty-publications

Herb Amyx

A special thanks to Bryan England for convincing me that  forma convolvulacea is really Endodeca serpentaria, and not a distinct species.

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Spring Flowers of the Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)

The Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) is a native tree known for its formidable thorns and its long, twisting pods.  The pods contain seeds that are surrounded by a sweet, honey-colored pulp.  The thorns and pods are shown below.

Gleditsia triacanthos
Honey Locust
Thorns

Gleditsia triacanthos
Honey Locust
Pods

The Honey Locust is definitely not known for its spring flowers, which are somewhat obscure and can be lost in the tangle of thorns and emerging leaves.  Male and female flowers appear on separate trees, but all trees (that are flowering) also have some flowers that contain both male and female parts.  The botanical term for this is polygamo-dioecious.    The flowers appear as catkins, and in the photos below, started emerging the first week of April.  They arise from the tissue surrounding branch scars and from the tissue at the base of thorns, which are simply modified branches.

Gleditsia triacanthos
Honey Locust
Early Catkins

 

Gleditsia triacanthos
Honey Locust
Thorn and Catkins

The catkins did not open until warmer weather the first week of May.  This tree turned out to be a male, and the stamens, with the large anthers at the tip, can be seen in the photos below protruding from the flowers.

Gleditsia triacanthos
Honey Locust
Male Catkins

Gleditsia triacanthos
Honey Locust
Male Catkins

Honey Locusts are very tough trees, and survive environmental extremes and poor soils.  What they do not tolerate is shade or fire.  North Carolina is not part of their natural range, which is the central U.S., but they are found in most areas of the state as a minor part of  forest ecosystems.  Thornless trees do occur naturally, and have been adapted to cultivation to produce city plantings that tolerate pollution and meager soils without the inherent hazards that the thorns present.

Herb Amyx

Gleditsia triacanthos
Honey Locust
Colorful Bark Patterns

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Eastern Gray Squirrels and the Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra)

Early blooming trees like Elms and Maples produce a bonanza of high energy seeds, greatly coveted by Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis).  Their frenetic activity high in the trees is a common sight in early spring.  In some areas, they appear to have an affinity for Slippery Elms (Ulmus rubra), and can be seen selectively foraging there while ignoring neighboring Winged Elms and Maples.  In one such case, pictured below, the squirrels appear to be chewing off fairly long portions of the terminal ends of twigs, littering the road below with the pruned debris, and apparently wasting large numbers of seeds.

Slippery Elm
Ulmus rubra
Cut Twigs Scattered on Pavement

However, a closer look through binoculars revealed a possible motive for this seemingly senseless activity.  Most of the Slippery Elm seeds seemed to be concentrated on the terminal portions of the outer twigs; the squirrels could not reach them safely, as the twigs were too thin and unstable to support their weight.  So some of them were chewing off the twigs at a spot that they could safely reach and then attempting, usually unsuccessfully, to grab the cut twig.  One squirrel was observed to hang on to a cut twig, only to mishandle it a few minutes later after eating many of the seeds.  Below is a closer look at one of the cut twigs.  Notice the white pith bared  at the end of the twig where it was chewed off by the squirrel.

Slippery Elm
Ulmus rubra
Cut Twigs

Slippery Elm seeds (called samaras) are round or oval shaped and have smooth wings that surround the central seed.  See below, with samaras on ruled notebook paper to gauge their size.

Ulmus rubra
Slippery Elm
Seeds

Below, the Slippery Elm samaras are contrasted with those of the Winged Elm (Ulmus alata).  Clearly, the Winged Elm samaras are much smaller and are more difficult for the squirrels to handle, with a smaller energy reward for the effort expended.  Notice their fuzzy margins and the hooks or claws at the end of the samaras.

Slippery Elm and Winged Elm
Comparison of Seeds

A closer view with better contrast shows the very fuzzy margins of the Winged Elm samaras compared with the smooth margins of the Slippery Elm samaras.

Slippery Elm and Winged Elm Seeds
Comparison

Most of the year, Eastern Gray Squirrels are obsessed with stashing  acorns and nuts in caches.  However, the abundant Spring tree seeds allow the squirrels the opportunity to increase their energy stores early in the year.  They eat the small seeds where they find them because they do not have cheek pouches to carry the seeds for storage.

Herb Amyx

 

 

 

 

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