Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Southern Kentucky and the Rosebud Orchid

Roasted, toasted, and fried to a crisp.  That about sums up your blogger after spending a day botanizing the steamy hot and humid southern Kentucky county of Laurel this past memorial day weekend.  With high temperatures topping out in the mid 90's and a sticky, saturated feel and look to the air, it wasn't the most pleasant of atmospheres or experiences on the body but boy did the wildflowers make up for any physical discomfort.  I'll be the first to boast about the diverse arrangement of plants my beloved home state supports but any chance to head south into its different habitats, ecosystems, and flora should be quickly taken advantage of.

I made the four hour one-way drive down to the Laurel Lake region with the high hopes of successfully searching out and photographing a species of wild orchid that had slipped through my grasp last year.  While orchid hunting for some other summer-blooming species last July I fortuned upon some specimens of the Rosebud orchid (Cleistes bifaria) in a power line cut within Daniel Boone National Forest.  Unfortunately I was greeted with maturing fruit capsules instead of their highly unique and tropical-looking flowers, so I knew a bit of patience would be needed before being rewarded with their exquisiteness the following May and June.  Fast forward to this past weekend and it was time to give it a go and see what luck nature would bestow upon me this time around.

I decided it would be wise to explore and seek out some other intriguing southern species while in the area and spent the first part of my day slowly driving along some gravel forested roads within the national forest.  The feel was quite similar to my countless experiences within Shawnee state forest or Wayne national but a distinct difference in the plant community's composition is evident; especially when my eye's caught the day's first botanical beauty.

Cumberland Azalea (Rhododendron cumberlandense)

Hiding under the shadows of the leafed-out canopy were the burnt-orange colored flowers of the Cumberland Azalea (Rhododendron cumberlandense).  This was the first time I'd ever laid eyes on this wondrous native shrub and it swiftly made quite an impression on me for its stunning beauty and delicate appearance.  At first glance many are probably tempted to place this under the banner of the flame azalea (R. calendulaceum) for it's comparatively orange-colored blossoms but luckily several characteristics help to distinguish the two.  Cumberland azalea's flowers are smaller and darker colored than the flame azalea's, ranging from burnt orange to blood red.  The Cumberland azalea's leaves are also completely leafed out during antithesis against the flame's leaves just starting to appear.  Notice the flowering time as well to separate the two.  Flame azalea blooms in April through early May while Cumberland azalea typically doesn't flower until early June and into July.

Cumberland Azalea (Rhododendron cumberlandense)

The Cumberland azalea gets its name from its restricted natural distribution to the Cumberland Plateau of Kentucky and Tennessee.  It is hardly found elsewhere outside this region with some isolated populations in the northern mountains of Alabama and Georgia as well as western North Carolina and Virginia where it grows on ridges and upland mixed deciduous forest.  It was a real treat to see this uncommon and delightful species just starting to bloom and was a pleasure to add to my growing list of native azalea's I've come across.

White Milkweed (Asclepias variegata)

Growing frequently alongside the forest roads were the showy umbels of the white milkweed (Asclepias variegata) coming into bloom.  Relatively rare and state-listed as potentially-threatened in Ohio at the northern fringe of its range; this southeastern species of the Appalachians and coastal plain becomes much more common the further south you travel.

White Milkweed (Asclepias variegata)

This species is easily one of the most attractive milkweeds with its diagnostic purple ring around the snow white corolla of each inflorescence.  I just wish it was as common an occurrence here in Ohio as it is to the south.  Its habitat preference of rocky, dry upland woods, roadsides and thickets sounds right at home in southern Ohio where it still hangs on in select pockets and locations.

Carolina Thistle (Cirsium caroinianum)

As I made my way to the selective spot for the rosebud orchids, I noticed some tall, aggressive-looking plants topped with purple flowers that one rarely sees back home.  The purple flower heads belonged to the Carolina Thistle (Cirsium carolinianum), a threatened species in Ohio that much like the aforementioned white milkweed, becomes more common the further south you are.  The thistles can be a pain to differentiate and identify to species but the early blooming time; sticky, white-tipped phyllaries; and spineless peduncles helps set this one apart.

Power line cut choked full of botanical goodies

I finally arrived to my premiere destination and reluctantly exited my air conditioned car to hike a shrubby and sun-drenched power line cut choked full of botanical goodies.  Late last summer I posted about the white fringeless orchid (Platanthera integrilabia) in a sphagnum seep in this very same location, so it's no surprise it would be home to another fascinating member of Orchidaceae.  

The sun beat down on me as beaded sweat dripped down my back and face; sawbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) clawed and ripped at my shins and pesky clouds of flies and gnats annoyingly buzzed overhead.  They all did their best to break my careful concentration at the vegetation around me, my eyes scanning back and forth in hopes that a blip of pink would catch my gaze.  Was I too late again?  Did the extremely hot temperatures and early start to the year already fry my bounty?  I pushed on as my camera equipment weighed heavier and heavier in the heat with no shade to be had in the open swath of grasses and shrubs.  Suddenly my peripheral vision caught something suspect and my attention narrowed to see that I had indeed lucked out and found the unrivaled splendor of my foray.

Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes bifaria)

Surrounded by taller, maturing vegetation was a small scattering of the rosebud orchids (Cleistes bifaria) in varying degrees of freshness and color.  I slipped off my backpack and sank to my knees to get a closer look and appreciation for this long awaited find.  Of the over 50 taxon of native orchids I've had the pleasure of seeing, none share the same bewildered looks of the rosebud orchid.

Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes bifaria)

Similar to other orchids, the rosebud seems to suggest a beast of myth or legend opening its mouth and waiting for an unassuming victim to come too close.  Looking into the 'throat' of the orchid shows off a gorgeous and delicate display of pink, cream, and yellow lines and shading with the greenish pollinia tucked away inside.  The spreading sepals curl back and vary in color from honey gold to dark brown, adding a fitting crown to this king's head.

Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes bifaria)

The plants only rise about a foot off the ground and can be quite difficult to see among the taller, competing vegetation.  The rosebud orchid prefers well-drained acidic soils in meadows, savannas, and openings in upland mixed oak or pine forests in Kentucky.  It is known to respond well to fires and prescribed burns which help to keep the open and sunny habitat it needs; such as this managed power line cut.  Another species of Cleistes, the larger spreading pogonia (C. divaricata) can be found further towards the Atlantic on the coastal plains in lowland savannas.  It differs from the featured lesser spreading pogonia by having larger flowers that also feature a light fragrance.

Closeup look at the Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes bifaria)

Even sitting in the open under a blistering sun and suffocating humidity wasn't enough to draw my attention away from this remarkable orchid I had long dreamed of seeing in person.  There's just something about the complex beauty and design of these impossibly cool plants that just pushes my botanical buttons like nothing else.  It's just an insatiable drive and passion in searching out and seeing these plants in their natural habitat that keeps me going and I don't see it stopping anytime soon.

Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes bifaria)

After a couple hours getting to know my new friends stunning faces and capturing their portraits with my camera, I slowly sauntered back to my car and proceeded to let the air conditioning blast my face and down a couple bottles of water in an attempt to recover from the southern Kentucky heat.  It was worth the burden indeed as I marked off yet another wild orchid on my list.  I can never get enough of that feeling of accomplishment and wish myself many more in the near and distant future.

8 comments:

  1. There's no burden too great, and no price too heavy, if you find and photograph a new species of orchid in the wild. Congratulations Andrew. You're having a banner year with the family orchidaceae.

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  2. A.L. - Great photos and blog!
    Ron G.

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  3. Amen, Pete! I couldn't have said it better myself. Thank you very much, I'm really going as hard as I can this year to see as much as I can; don't put off next year what you can do this year.

    Thanks, Ron!

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  4. Looks like all your suffering was worthwhile! Great post and that Rosebud Orchid is exquisite. Would like to see some of the east's treasures sometime, but time and other commitments make it difficult to get out that way.

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    1. Preaching to the choir, Ron. If you ever have the time or opportunity to head out my way please let me know! I'd love nothing more than to share and show you some of the East's orchid treasures.

      When I make it back out to the PNW someday I'd love to team up with you; you certainly would be the man to get out in the field with!

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    2. Your photographs of the Rosebud Orchid were a great help in identifying the ones we saw this week when we visited the lakeside cabin of friends. It is a mountaintop location near the Foothills Parkway in the Great Smoky Mountains (Tallassee, TN, near Townsend). The rosebud orchids were scattered at the edge of the lake behind the cabin. I made a couple of pictures, and could hardly wait to get to my laptop to research the wildflower options. At first I thought they might be trout lilies, but the petals on the rosebud orchids weren't pointed. I was so delighted to find your photos. Beautiful little miniatures!

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  5. Andrew, you sure have a nose for orchids! I am simply amazed at the lengths you will go to to find the rare ones. But then, I would do the same.

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  6. ...glad I stopped by today. What a gorgeous flower--the Rosebud Orchid. Loved reading all about it. You always teach me so much about flowers. Congratulations on the find!

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