Friday, March 1, 2013

Cranberry Glades Botanical Area of West Virginia

I was very fortunate last summer to do quite a bit of traveling throughout Ohio and the surrounding states. From the sandy shores of the Great Lakes in northern Michigan to the steamy confines of jungle-like southern Kentucky and many places in-between; I've seen some incredible habitats and ecosystems full of rare and fascinating flora. This past late June I decided to make a day trip down to southeastern West Virginia and pay a long overdue visit to the famed Cranberry Glades botanical area.  It had been a region that sat high on my list of botany hot spots to acquaint myself with for a long time and now was the chance to see the main source of my attraction to the place: orchids.  What else right?  While an orchid was the primary reason I went, I knew there would be plenty of other surprises and 'lifers' along the way.  Little did I know just how true a statement that would end up being.

Cranberry Glades Botanical Area, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

Deep in the bowl-like valley of the surrounding mountains lie the millennia-old open bogs of the cranberry glades. This antiquated relic of the last glacial epoch is a prime representation of a habitat and ecosystem typically found hundreds of miles to the north.  While the glaciers never made it far enough south to physically alter or shape West Virginia, their climatic influence and boreal conditions allowed northern plants to invade its borders.  As the massive sheets of ice receded back to the north, they left those unique plants behind in the refuge of the higher elevations that managed to replicate their cooler habitat requirements.  Once the temperate deciduous forests began to creep back from the south, they displaced these disjunct plant communities until just about all that remained are the ancient, peat-filled bogs of the cranberry glades.  Given enough time and a warming climate even this famous place could end up lost to the ages.

Sweeping view across the peat bog and surrounding mountains

At an elevation of about 3,400 feet above sea level, the cranberry glades remain relatively cool during even the summer months; especially with the supplementary chilled air flowing down from the surrounding mountains that rise an additional 1,000+ feet.  It was late June during my visit and while I left a hot and muggy Ohio, I was greeted by temperatures in the low 70's upon my arrival to the glades.  It's impossible to not be instantly impressed at first sight of the large expanse of the sphagnum and cranberry-filled bog.  Aesthetic marshmallow clouds passed by at a leisurely pace and cast their shadows across the rolling emerald mountains that encompass you at every turn. I'd only been there for ten minutes but in that time I had already fallen deep in love with this botanical paradise.

Rosebay Rhododendron (R. maximum)
Rosebay Rhododendron (R. maximum)

The first thing I noticed upon walking into the forested margins of the glades was the evergreen rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum) thickets in full, glorious bloom under the spruce, hemlock, birch, and ash.  While rare and state-listed here in Ohio, that is hardly the case in West Virginia, where it has the distinction of being the state wildflower.  Its large, thick leaves only add more beauty to the show with the cluster of pinkish-white blossoms above.  I've never seen rosebay rhododendron flowers exhibit such a striking olive-yellow pattern before either.

As I wandered around the moist boreal-style forest I kept my eyes peeled for the primary reason of my four hour drive.  I knew they wouldn't be hard to spot among all the lush green vegetation around but I had a slight fear I may have timed them too late after such an early season.  Suddenly, I spotted a tall wand of the most majestic purple I'd ever seen in the shadows of the under story and instantly knew my trip was worth every second and mile!

Large purple fringed orchid (Platanthera grandiflora)

I couldn't have asked for that first specimen to have been in any more perfect shape or condition.  The large purple fringed orchid (Platanthera grandiflora) had been on my radar for several years as one of the handful of Ohio indigenous orchids that required some out-of-state expeditions.  It had only been collected a few times in the far northeastern quarter of our state and not seen since the late 20's.  So off I went to southeastern West Virginia where it grew in select areas of Monongahela national forest.

Large purple fringed orchid (P. grandiflora)
Large purple fringed orchid (P. grandiflora)

I can't count the number of hours I've spent in severe anxiety at the prospect of successfully finding the wildflowers I'm after during a long drive.  The miles tick by slowly as the mind races at the odds and chances I may come out the other side triumphant.  I have had a few swing and misses but the large purple fringed orchids ended up being a home run!

Albino large purple fringed orchid
Albino large purple fringed orchid

Even more shocking was the surprise discovery of an all-white albino plant growing right alongside its regularly pigmented neighbor.  What an added bonus!  I've seen a handful of albino orchids specimens during my countless forays and explorations but I think this particular one may take the cake.  Little did I know this was not the last of my unexpected orchid discoveries for the day but more on that later.

Fringed sedge (Carex crinita)
Allegheny Brookfoam (Boykinia aconitifolia)

It wasn't just the large purple fringed orchids growing in the vicinity that caught my eye but also the dainty and charming white flowers of a plant I didn't quite recognize.  I deduced it was something from the saxifrage (Saxifragaceae) family almost instantly but couldn't put my finger on the species.  Once I was back in the car I consulted my Gleason & Cronquist manual and came up with Allegheny brookfoam (Boykinia aconitifolia); definitely something I'd never seen before.  In addition to the brookfoam was one of my favorite sedges, fringed sedge (Carex crinita) in full fruit all throughout the wet woods.

Boardwalk through the open peat bog meadow

I followed the boardwalk through the margins of the forest until it finally broke out into the main glade of open peat bog.  For those with a bit of luck on their side it's not too uncommon to share the boardwalk with a roaming black bear!  What a sight that must be to turn the corner and see our area of the country's largest carnivore and predator.

The vast, thick mat of sphagnum seemed to stretch on for miles, full of rare and fascinating flora that can be found few other places this far south.  In fact, the southern most station known for the bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia) occurs in the cranberry glades.  Taking a look at its distribution map you can get a real understanding and appreciation for just how disjunct and far away from its typical home it is!

N. pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea)
Swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus)

One of the most immediately recognizable and noticeable of plants emitting from the spongy sphagnum bog mat are the peculiar saucer-like flowers of the northern pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea).  I suppose it's only appropriate for a plant with the most intriguing and unique of leaves to also claim arguably the most unrivaled of floral structures.  Mixed in among the sphagnum was large, dense colonies of the swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) as well as the trailing plants of large and small cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon, V. oxycoccos) from which the glades get their namesake.

Rose pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides)
Rose pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides)

The purple fringed orchids weren't the only showy members of the orchid family flaunting their seasonal charm. Literally hundreds, if not thousands of rose pogonias (Pogonia ophioglossoides) painted the open expanse of bog with their delicate pink blossoms.  Fittingly, the genus name of Pogonia is derived from the Greek word pogon, meaning 'beard', and is used to compliment the beard-like structure and appearance of the plant's lip (labellum).

Grass pink orchid (Calopogon tuberosus)

Speaking of beards, another lovely member of Orchidaceae in full bloom throughout the cranberry-laden bog was the grass pink orchid (Calopogon tuberosus).  These architectural masterpieces rank high on my list of most-anticipated of wildflowers each year and never fail to impress!  The grass pink's beard sits at the top of the flower as a bundle of 'false stamens' which trick its pollinators into landing in anticipation of a meal. Instead, the beard sits on a hinge and with the weight of a passing pollinator bends down and causes the insect to come into contact with the orchid's column bearing the pollinia.  With luck the pollinia stick to the insect's back and are carried on to the next flower, where in a moment of short-term memory loss the insect will repeat the process.

Red spruce (Picea rubens)
Red spruce cones

The most common species of tree in the bog forest and surrounding glades is the red spruce (Picea rubens). Typically found further north in the New England states and Canada maritime provinces, it can be found growing only in the highest of elevations throughout the southern Appalachians where it still clings to existence in the post-glacial habitat.  The cooler climate of the glades results in a lower diversity of canopy species than the surrounding areas.  Aforementioned red spruce, yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), and eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) dominate with an association of red maple (Acer rubrum), black ash (Fraxinus nigra), and pitch pine (Pinus rigida) mixed throughout.

While tree diversity may lack in the cranberry glades the same cannot be said for the shrub layer.  A very diverse list of unusual and rare woody plants can be found here including: mountain serviceberry (Amelanchier bartramiana), hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides), Canada yew (Taxus canadensis), speckled alder (Alnus incana), mountain holly (Ilex mucronata), and the Appalachian-endemic long-stalked holly (I. collina).

White wood-sorrel (Oxalis montana)

Another surprise life plant I finally got to see and photograph was the psychedelic white wood-sorrel (Oxalis montana).  Endangered back in Ohio, it is a very common wildflower growing on the mossy hummocks under the spruce and hemlocks of the bog forest.  The flower's striking yellow center and radiating purplish-pink lines create a look unmatched by anything else and really stood out in the damp, dim lighting under the conifers.

After spending all morning and afternoon tediously creeping my way around the boardwalk a couple times I decided it was time to pack back into the car and make the four hour drive back to the Athens area.  My head was still spinning from such an exciting and fulfilling day as I pulled back onto the main road when a glimpse of purple happened to catch my eye on the lower slopes of the forest along the road.  I immediately found a spot to pull off and jumped out with the camera to grab a few more shots of some large purple fringed orchids. Not a bad way to end the day if I do say so myself!  As I approached the plants I noticed many were still in bud and just beginning to unfurl their flowers.  Interesting.  Then I began to notice subtle differences in the inflorescences and my heart jumped into my throat and I felt weak in the knees.  Could I really have stumbled into something I never dreamed I'd have the luck of seeing?!

Shriver's frilly orchid (Plantanthera shriveri)

Staring right back at my astonished face was the recently described to science Shriver's frilly orchid (Platanthera shriveri)!  Some will be quick to argue these are merely a different form of the large purple fringed orchid but I disagree and think they are fully deserving of their new elevation to species status. This post is already long enough as it is, so I will be back to detail this plant and its differences and fascinating story in an upcoming post soon enough!  I hate to tease and introduce this at the end without much explanation but I couldn't leave it out entirely.

Panorama shot of the open bog of the cranberry glades

Few things are more gratifying than after a long day of botanizing and exploring to look at one's plant list and see so many check marks as well as a full memory card in the camera!  Needless to say the cranberry glades botanical area of West Virginia left a permanent impression on me and only whetted my taste for more in the near future.  I plan on trying to visit once again this spring to catch more of its fascinating and unique floral wonders; not to mention immerse myself in her beauty and impressive landscapes as well.


  1. Here in the rag-end of winter, with nothing but cold mud underfoot, it does the heart good to wander this amazing bog with you and be reminded of the wonders that await as spring and summer come round again.

  2. What time of year did you make this visit?

    1. I visited in late June (the 23rd to be more specific). Last year started off very warm and dry and caused the flora to be weeks ahead throughout most of Ohio and the surrounding states. I suspect the flora of the CG was a bit earlier than normal as well.

  3. Lovely, simply lovely! Keep striking pseudo-boreal gold!