Thursday, April 24, 2014

Sweet Pinesap in the Red River Gorge

I'm quite fortunate to have witnessed and experienced as many different places as I have in my relatively short amount of time on this planet but there's always some that fall through the cracks.  The Red River Gorge in east-central Kentucky has always been one of those aforementioned missed opportunities and as such was someplace I wanted to make sure to mark off my list this year.  So this past weekend, myself and friends Daniel Boone and Joe Bens rose with the sun for an early morning rendezvous and drive down to the gorge.  Having never been myself, it was a pleasure to have the knowledge of Dan and Joe at my disposal who knew the botanical hot spots and "can't misses".

View across the wide chasm of the Red River Gorge in east-central Kentucky

A large portion of the gorge is located within Daniel Boone National Forest and a designed National Natural Landmark as well as listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  It's famed geologic formations have developed over millions of years from erosion and wear from the forces of wind, water, and ice.  This long exposure to the elements has left remarkable sandstone cliffs, natural bridges, waterfalls, and rock shelters scattered throughout the region, which in turn has seen it become one of the world's premiere rock climbing destinations. Due to the uniqueness of the region's rugged and wild landscape, a wide variety of habitats and environments occur and are filled with a diverse amount of flora and fauna.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) blooming along a sandstone cliff

Upon our arrival we decided to make for a specific part of the gorge that was known to harbor a globally rare plant that was a highly anticipated part of the day's itinerary and a species I had long wanted to make acquaintances with.  Unfortunately, we found the trailhead surrounded by half a dozen or so U.S. forestry service vehicles and would come to find out a nearby wildfire had closed the trail indefinitely.  The fire was a fair ways off and hardly a threat to our current location but the folks in charge weren't about to let us take a step down that path.  With our hopes dashed a bit, Dan, Joe, and I headed off for another nearby trail to see if our luck would change.

The plant we had our eye's set on finding was the rare sweet pinesap or pygmy pipes (Monotropsis odorata), a myco-heterotrophic species that depends entirely on a symbiotic relationship with subterranean mycorrhiza fungi it parasitizes for nourishment.  Making the task even harder than not knowing where to look was the fact sweet pinesap is more or less neutrally colored and blends in seamlessly with the detritus on the ground.  Going on Dan's previous experience with the plant that Virginia pines in particular seem to coincide with occurrence of the plant, we combed the understory of the scrubby oak/pine forest situated atop a sandstone ridge with some spectacular accompanying views.

Large clump of sweet pinesap (Monotropsis ordorata) under some Virginia pines

After a while of fruitless searching and the creep of doubt beginning to set in, I noticed what appeared to a be a weird clump of pine cones peaking out of the browned, fallen leaves and pine needles.  No sooner had I made eye contact with the suspicious clump of something when my nose detected a strong, spicy odor on the air.  Definitely not pine cones!  I gave a hearty holler to Dan and Joe that I had found precisely what we were looking for.

Sweet pinesap (Monotropsis odorata) close up

Sweet pinesap is accurately named, as this wildflower has quite possibly, nay definitely the most intoxicating and enchanting aroma my olfactories have ever had the gratification of smelling.  It was quite reminiscent of cloves with a slightly sweeter twist that just made your nose swoon.  All three of us took turns lying on our stomachs, noses hovering only millimeters from the mauve petals, savoring every inhalation.  I think it's safe to assume that if you could get a high off huffing this plant, we would know!

Clump of sweet pinesap (Monotropsis odorata)

Pygmy pipes (as they are also known to go by) hail from the subfamily Monotropoideae within the expansive heath family (Ericaceae).  At first glance it doesn't look like something that would be related to blueberries and rhododendrons but upon inspecting their flower's inner workings and arrangment the evidence becomes more clear. The plant seems to want to hide its elegance and good looks behind the papery brown sepals and bracts that sheathe the majestic purple petals and stems.  Try as it might, its allure isn't lost on my eyes.

Dan getting a better look and smell of the sweet pinesap

The Red River Gorge is close to the northern edge of the sweet pinesap's range and is just one of a handful of localities known for it in the state of Kentucky, where it's listed as a threatened species.  The amount of relief to have not traveled multiple hours only to leave empty handed was palpable among the three of us and allowed for the rest of the day's discoveries to be the cherries on top of our botanical sundae.

Joe and Dan walking through a hemlock and rhododendron filled sandstone gorge

After getting our fill of the aromatic pygmy pipes, we made our way down into the gorge itself to explore some of the sandstone hollows and what surprises awaited within.  Eastern hemlock, beech, red/white oaks, black birch, tuliptree, cucumber magnolia, and white pine rose far above our heads as tangles and thickets of rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum) and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) intertwined underneath.  Apart from the rhododendron, it had a comparable feel to Ohio's Hocking Hills region.

Halberd-leaved Violet (Viola hastata)
Halberd-leaved Violet (Viola hastata)

Scattered among the bevy of other wildflowers in the dappled sunlight was halberd-leaved violet (Viola hastata), a taxon I'd never seen before and had only admired from the computer screen.  It's not too often you come across a plant where one might argue its foliage is more attractive than its flower but I found the leaves especially charming.

Small grouping of red trillium (Trillium erectum)

The cool, sandy, acidic-soiled slopes were ensconced with hundreds upon hundreds of red trillium (Trillium erectum) in full bloom among the Carolina spring beauties (Claytonia caroliniana), mitrewort (Mitella diphylla), large-flowered trillium (T. grandiflorum), and plantain-leaved sedge (Carex plantaginea).

Long-stalked Sedge (Carex pedunculata)
Plagiomnium ciliare moss with capsules

It can't always be all about the showier stuff while out on a hike.  Sometimes it's best to slow down and admire the more obscure and overlooked that never seem to get enough attention, like sedges and mosses for example.  In seepy areas on the hollow's steep slopes grew clumps of the handsome long-stalked sedge (Carex pedunculata) with its dark pistillate scales contrasted against lime green perigynia.  The fresh capsules of Plagiomnium ciliare from the Mniaceae family almost seem like something not of this world.

Deeper in a sandstone hollow with rhododendron covered cliff faces

Deeper into the hollow the steep slopes turned into precipitous sandstone rock walls and cliffs rimmed with rhododendron and clumps of unfurling wood ferns.  The returning migrants were in full song as the melodies of black-and-white warbler, pine warbler, black-throated green warbler, Louisiana waterthrush, ovenbird, and blue-headed vireo filled our ears.  We held out hope we might catch the tune of the rare Swainson's warbler but were perhaps a bit too early.

Round-leaved Violet (Viola rotundifolia)
Round-leaved Violet (Viola rotundifolia)

Another yellow-colored violet I'd yet to see before was the round-leaved violet (Viola rotundifolia).  What initially started as clumps past flowering and already in fruit turned into plants still in full flower further back in the hollow. Both this and halberd-leaved violet occur in Ohio but are restricted to the northeastern quarter of the state.

Intricate exposed white pine roots
Native white pines growing along a cliff bluff

An interesting aspect and association to the forest canopy's makeup was the scattered presence of old, large native white pines.  They took a page from the hemlocks and grew from the bluffs and rock faces throughout the gorge and measured two-three feet in diameter with untold heights.  The pair photographed above right are showing off the intricate design of their exposed roots spread out across the face of a sandstone boulder.

Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius)

Later that the day found us exploring some stretches of forest near the gorge's floor along the Red River where ancient and impressively proportioned hemlocks, beech, and red oak abounded.  Dan's sharp eyes managed to turn up a nice population of delicate dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius) in perfect flower.  Dwarf ginseng's blooms are much more conspicuous and aesthetic compared to their American ginseng (P. quinquefolius) kin's and lack the medicinal value of its larger brethren as well.

Along the Rock Garden trail in the gorge

Our last hike of the day was the famed Rock Garden trail near Natural Bridge.  Massive blocks of sandstone long broken from the sheer cliffs hundreds of feet above were strewn out across a lush landscape ensconced in spring ephemerals.  

Large-flowered trillium mixed with red trillium

Closer to the gorge's wall and its steeper slopes was one of the most impressive displays of large-flowered trillium and red trillium I've ever seen.  Literally thousands of plants were densely packed in the shade of the looming cliff, a perfect mixture of snow white and vibrant maroon.

The video attached above can only give the viewer a small glimpse into the true magnitude of the mixture of trillium but it's certainly better than nothing.  Like a video I uploaded in a previous post, the quality plummets upon expanding the window's size so for the best quality keep it small.  

Reznicek's Sedge (Carex reznicekii)
Black-edge Sedge (Carex nigromarginata)

Despite the thousands of trillium blooming en masse, I managed to find myself looking at sedges again upon the discovery of one of my favorite species and another of its close relatives.  The black-edged sedge (C. nigromarginata) and recently split and described Reznicek's sedge (C. reznicekii) were both growing in the immediate vicinity of one another and allowed for a fun side-by-side comparison.

Looking up at the sandstone walls of the Red River Gorge

In the end I could have made this post twice as long with the amount of fun and interesting discoveries Dan, Joe, and I made last weekend but I think this will suffice it to say a great time was had by all.  I look forward to additional returns to the Red River Gorge's diversity and beauty at different times of the year.  It may have taken me a long time to finally experience its wonders within but it was unquestionably worth the wait.


  1. Hell ya - that's my kind of post! Well done.

  2. Beautiful man, your shots are always killer!

  3. That pinesap is amazing, as are all the other finds. Great post. Orchid season is well underway here with an early start - the earliest I've seen for the Calypsos. Going to do some more orchid hunting next Tuesday in the Columbia Gorge and have a hike with the native orchid society Saturday.

    If you are ever out this way at the right time of the year I'd be delighted to show you the Cyp. fasciculatum. We now have three locations for them and they bloom from the end of April to early June in different areas.