Friday, May 23, 2014

Botanizing Chattahoochee National Forest

*Part I* *Part II*

I'm returned and ready to lace the hiking boots back up to continue on with northern Georgia and what Chattahoochee National Forest had to offer your narrator this past weekend.  If you'll recall, I posted the initial part of my trip a few days earlier that encompasses the experiences and luck my friends and I had finding and photographing one of North America's rarest orchids in the federally threatened small whorled pogonia (Isotria medeoloides).  You can check out that post by clicking HERE.  The pogonias were the primary reason for my trip and I thought they deserved their own separate post and attention.  This time around I'd like to share the rest of the wildflowers and stunning scenery the southern Appalachians in northern Georgia graced me with.

Rolling forested mountains of the southern Appalachians in northernmost Georgia

Chattahoochee National Forest is located in extreme north-central Georgia and sprawls out over 750,000 acres and is accompanied by a dizzying array of biodiversity.  Rolling forested mountains thousands of feet in elevation rose and fell in a seemingly never ending undulation of topography.  A northerner from the glaciated till plains could certainly get used to this kind of environment!

Rocky mountain stream running through a tangle of rhododendron

One of the most charming aspects to the forest was the number of rocky mountain streams that flowed ferociously down slope through tangles of rhododendron and under the watchful gaze of some mighty hemlocks. Unfortunately, the hemlock woody adelgid (Adelges tsugae) has reeked havoc on these fine hemlock-dominated forests and the mortality rate has reached worrying levels.  As the hemlocks defoliate and die and eventually fall to the ground, more and more sunlight reaches the cool spring water of the streams and gradually causes an increase in temperature.  Add in the soil erosion, siltation, and massive log jams and you have a completely altered aquatic ecosystem that hardly operates or looks like its former self.  A sad reality the region will have to get used to as the years and damage go by.

Vasey's Trillium (Trillium vaseyi)

One of the most anticipated of wildflowers I was hoping to catch hanging around was any number of the assortment of native trilliums the southeast is known for.  Ohio can only claim eight species of indigenous trillium while Georgia takes the diversity cake with over 20 different species!  At the lower elevations nearly all the trillium were setting to seed or at best severely past flower and hardly photogenic but fortunately the higher elevations allowed for another chance and it did not disappoint.  One species that really took my breath away was the sweet wakerobin or Vasey's trillium (Trillium vaseyi).  I was rather taken aback by the size and deep maroon color of its flower/petals.

Catesby's Trillium (Trillium catesbaei)
Catesby's Trillium (Trillium catesbaei)

Of the half dozen or so trillium species I managed to sniff out, Catesby's trillium (T. catesbaei) proved to be my favorite.  Their flowers start off a virgin snow white color before progressively changing to a darker and darker shade of pink as they age.  It's a shame such a gorgeous plant would think to hide its wonderful wildflower under its leaves on a long peduncle; they deserve to be held high and proudly displayed as a sign of its regal qualities.

Sweet White Trillium (Trillium simile)

Yet another trillium still clinging to its petals in select spots along cool, moist slopes was the sweet white trillium (T. simile).  This particular trillium is an endemic to the southern Appalachians (like many others) and is rather rare throughout its entire range.  So many trillium, so little time; the southeast is truly a lucky place to be at the heart of it all when it comes to this genus.

Babbling brook coming down the steep mountainside 

At just about every sharp turn in the bumpy gravel road we spent a large portion of our late morning and afternoon on, there seemed to be another small waterfall or babbling brook coming down the steep slopes and mountainside.  Their noise and foamy, rushing water was music to my ears and something I wish I could have in my backyard to enjoy and relax to whenever I wanted.

Speckled Wood Lily (Clintonia umbellata)

While exploring a very rich, mesic slope for what trillium species we could find in passable shape, this Ohio rarity came into view and elicited a small shriek from me as the speckled wood lily (Clintonia umbellata) was something I'd long wanted to witness in person.  The flowers were past peak and on the verge of falling off but it was still a real treat to see such a desired life plant in the field.

Primrose-leaved Violet (Viola primulifolia)
Primrose-leaved Violet (Viola primulifolia)

When traveling far distances on a botanical foray, it's always fun to take notice of what plants you might find quite commonly at home but are exceedingly rare in your current location and/or vice versa.  "One man's life wildflower is another man's weed", as I like to say.  While an endangered and seldom-seen species back in the buckeye state, the primrose-leaved violet (Viola primulifolia) was very frequent all throughout the different habitats and areas my group explored.  Such cute little plants!

Large flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum)

Sometimes your timing cannot be any better for a specific thing and during my visit to Chattahoochee, it was the flame azaleas (Rhododendron calendulaceum) that couldn't have been in more impressive shape.  Their unmistakable orange glow lit up the surrounding green landscape and alerted the world to their peak blooming presence.

Such a stunning native shrub
Blood red flowered color form

Flame azalea is another great Ohio rarity that only occurs in a handful of localities along the ancient Teays River watershed.  This extinct waterway brought many southern plants up into Ohio via its winding route and I can only wish that it had brought more stuff with it, or at least more azaleas.

Flame Azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum)

Dozens upon dozens of stately shrubs and small flame azalea trees lined the roadside on the acidic upper slopes of the forest. Their flowers ranged from a very soft orange-yellow to deep blood red and kept Jim and I's attention on the road sides more than anything else.  It can be hard to botanize and drive at the same time on occasion, that's for sure.

Flame Azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum)

I couldn't resist getting one more look at and photographing the flame azaleas (Rhododendron calendulaceum) before we climbed back into the cars and slowly but surely made our way to another small whorled pogonia site.  If we didn't have such pressing and vitally important plans for the day, I could have just as easily immersed myself among the flame azaleas and photographed them all day.

Fresh black bear scat!

Wildlife sightings were largely absent during my time down in northern Georgia with the most exciting discovery of all belonging to some fresh black bear scat in the same vicinity as the phenomenal flame azaleas we decided to stop and photograph.  Who knew finding fecal matter in the woods would end up being such a fun and exciting discovery.

Beetleweed (Galax urceolata)
Cliff Saxifrage (Hydatica petiolaris)

Underneath the azaleas was large patches of the bizarrely named beetleweed (Galax urceolata), an endemic of the southern Appalachians and just on the verge of breaking bud during my visit.  I know the leaves are very popular in the floral trade and can easily be collected/harvested into local extirpation.  From in bud to in full flower, you'd be hard pressed to miss the show the cliff saxifrage (Hydatica petiolaris) was putting on.  This particularly impressive clump was growing on a rock shelf alongside a woodland seep and gave off the most lacy of appearances.

Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) in full bloom
Chinkapin (Castanea pumila)

A hard to miss woody plant in full bloom during my visit was the aptly-named sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus). Its deep maroon flowers emit a sweet, spicy scent when rubbed/crushed between your fingers and lifted to the nose.  I'd never seen this common southern shrub before and was pleased to finally mark it off the life list. Another fun woody shrub I came across was chinkapin or dwarf chestnut (Castanea pumila), a taxon we don't get this far north in Ohio and once again a new plant for my life list.

Large-flowered Heartleaf (Hexastylis shuttleworthii)

At first look it's evident this next crazy wildflower is related to our common wild ginger (Asarum canadense) which doesn't even come close in looks to these large-flowered heartleaf (Hexastylis shuttleworthii) blooms.  Each one was about the size of your thumb and decorated with an elaborately detailed pattern on its petals.  The southern Appalachians and their countless millennia of plant evolution and adaptation has led to some pretty stunning examples and representations.

Large trees in an incredibly lush mixed mesophytic cove forest

One of our last stops for the day was a well-known site in Chattahoochee known as Sosebee Cove; an absolutely incredible mixed mesophytic Appalachian cove forest with plenty of impressive tree specimens.  I've been to few places more lush and vividly green than Sosebee Cove and could not have walked away more impressed or enamored with its beauty.

Umbrella-leaf (Diphylleia cymosa)
Umbrella-leaf (Diphylleia cymosa)

The herbaceous layer was alive with several species of trillium, spotted mandarin (Prosartes maculatum), green mandarin (P. lanuginosa), false Solomon's seal (Maianthemum racemosum), and Goldie's fern (Dryopteris goldiana) to name but a few but it was the southern Appalachian endemic umbrella-leaf (Diphylleia cymosa) that stole the show for me.  It's related to our mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) and looks quite similar when you examine the leaves, albeit they are much, much larger and taller.

The narrator and one exceptional yellow buckeye!

If anything other than the small whorled pogonias and the company of Jim, Alan, and Max was singly worth the seven plus hour drive down, it had to be this gargantuan yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava) growing on a steep slope in Sosebee Cove.  I've seen my fair share of nice yellow buckeyes including our state champ but nothing holds a candle to this behemoth.  I stood in awe of its presence for quite a while before I could even get any words out.  I initially thought it was a tuliptree due to the sheer size of it and a majority of its bark hidden with bryophytes but once I looked up and saw the leaves along with a sliver of bark my mouth dropped open in shock.

Your narrator and an exceptional tuliptree

As expected the tuliptrees within the cove were impressive as well with some individuals approaching five feet in diameter and well over one hundred feet high.  There's just something about being in a place with such a primeval feel and presence that makes me feel alive.  Standing alongside such giants is a truly moving and somewhat spiritual experience each and every time.

Looking up into the mighty tuliptree
Such an impressive old-growth tree

Sosebee Cove was a classic example of the mixed mesophytic Appalachian cove forest type with the aforementioned tuliptree and yellow buckeye abounding along with basswood, black cherry, black birch, red oak, white oak, white ash, hemlock, and hickory in the canopy.  In the understory smaller trees and shrubs such as flowering dogwood, silverbell, serviceberry, redbud, striped maple, American chestnut sprouts, and rhododendron/azalea occurred as well.  

Our last stop and site of the day found some of the uncommon buffalo clover (Trifolium reflexum) waning in flower and starting to set to its characteristic reflexed fruit.  While not nearly as rare this far south, it was still an exciting find and allowed me to compare Georgia's stuff with what we locally have back home in Ohio.  This population had the same striking red flowers I've seen at Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and at a newly discovered site in Pike county, Ohio that Dan Boone, Brian Riley, Dave Minney and I found a couple Junes ago.

All in all, I'd have to rate this trip as one of the most successful and enjoyable I've ever partook in and can't believe how many incredible plants I got to make acquaintances with after so many years of wishful thinking and gazing endlessly at them on the interwebs and in botany manuals.  I hope to get down there again sometime in the near future as I barely even scratched the surface of what all lies within Chattahoochee National Forest.

*Part I* *Part II*


  1. Wow, Andrew! You are making me wish I had been there on this trip to Georgia with you, when I actually was!!! Your narrative style make for an easy and exciting read. I hope we can host you again soon -- maybe the Atlantic Coastal Plain? -- Jim Fower, Greenville, SC

  2. What a post, Andrew! Those Trilliums are amazing, but the Ginger relative really caught my fancy. One of these days I am going to come and spend some time in your area and you must sometime come out this way.

  3. What an amazing journey you just unfolded for us! Stunning!