Thursday, March 21, 2013

Snow Trillium and Big Trees at Fort Hill

What a difference a year can make!  The calendar officially says spring but the current weather patterns claim otherwise with rain, snow, and below-average temperatures.  This time last year I was sweating in 80 degree heat looking at a whole slew of wildflowers that shouldn't have been up and blooming in late March.  Definitely not this year!  However, unless my eyes deceived me, I do believe the emergence of a few of my wildflower cohorts this past weekend was proof enough spring is indeed upon us.  This annual event is truly a joyous occasion worth celebrating as the brown drabs of winter are pierced with the first vivid greens of new growth.  Soon the world will be flooded with the faces of old friends I haven't seen in a year's time and not a moment too soon.

One of the most anticipated of spring's arrivals here in Ohio is that of the charmingly dainty snow trillium (Trillium nivale).  Your blogger decided to head out this past weekend to check on the progress of these tiny wonders at a few southern stations in Adams and Highland counties along with any other early spring bloomers that may be braving the cold.  Quite serendipitously, I happened to bump into good friend and brilliant botanist Dan Boone during my foray and was fortunate enough to spend the day hiking through one of southern Ohio's finest natural areas in his company.

Old woods in Fort Hill state memorial

Located in the unglaciated foothills of southern Highland county, Fort Hill is home to many unusual and rare plant species along with relic earthworks of the antiquated Hopewell culture.  Wandering through its mature, contiguous forests will reward the adventurous with a diverse array of ancient and impressive trees scattered throughout the steep slopes and weathered limestone gorge.

Dan standing among the quiet giants

While any time of the year is a can't miss experience, I've found winter and early spring to be the best times to soak in the intrinsic beauty and stately dimensions of any old-growth forest.  Free of their leaves and hidden canopies, the tree's gnarled forms can be fully observed and one can get a grasp on just how unique and individualized each leviathan specimen is.

Cranefly orchid over-wintering leaf
Puttyroot orchid over-wintering leaf

Believe it or not winter can also be a very helpful time to locate a few of Ohio's native orchid species.  Hiding in scattered patches among the detritus throughout the moist lower slopes of Fort Hill were the over-wintering leaves of cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor) and puttyroot (Aplectum hyemale).  Both send up their leaves in the autumn to persist all winter, utilizing the tree's naked conditions to better soak up the plentiful rays of the sun.  It makes perfect sense to do its photosynthesizing during the less competitive winter months than during the growing season when shade and darkened under story conditions make it much more difficult.

'Evergreen' basal leaves of the downy rattlesnake-plantain orchid

Quite similar to the cranefly and puttyroot orchids strategy is that of the evergreen basal leaves of the downy rattlesnake plantain orchid (Goodyera pubescens).  Arguably our most common species of orchid in the state, it's not hard to come across some in the more dry and acidic areas of upland oak and pine forests.

Limestone gorge of Baker Fork 

Dan and I opted for the gorge trail with high hopes of finding the snow trillium in bloom along with the peculiar pollen cones of the Canada yew (Taxus canadensis) that precariously clings to the edges of the limestone bluffs along Baker Fork.  It's not just interesting flora that calls this stretch of the gorge home but also a handful of Ohio's natural rock arches carved out of the erosion-resistant Peebles dolomite.

Snow trillium (Trillium nivale) beginning to bloom

It wasn't long after entering the gorge before the miniscule tri-leaved plants of the snow trillium and their delicate unfurling petals began to dot the ground.  Few things warm my heart and soul like the spring's first wildflowers that face the frosty March mornings and greet my eyes that have starved for color through the patience of winter.

Snow trillium (Trillium nivale)
Snow trillium (Trillium nivale)

It seems appropriate that one of the very first wildflowers to break the thawing soil every year also shares the distinction of being one of your blogger's most highly anticipated and personal favorites.  Snow trillium are quite uncommon throughout Ohio and their largely Midwest and Great Lakes region distribution.  They can most frequently be found growing on the slopes and terraces along streams and rivers over shallow, gravely soil derived of limestone; especially in areas with exposed cliffs, bluffs, and ridges.

A quarter next to a snow trillium to emphasize their small stature

If any doubt remains in the minds of those who aren't sure what exactly constitutes as small in the trillium world, I think this picture will speak for itself.  No photoshop gimmicks or hijinks here!  The snow trillium really are that modestly-sized.  Hard to believe something so runty can withstand the cold and potentially harsh weather of such an early bloom time (especially this year) but survive and thrive they do!

Walter's violet (Viola walteri) basal leaves
Barren strawberry's over-wintering leaves

While scanning the area for blooming snow trillium, several other promising signs of spring could be seen popping up from underneath the decomposing leaf litter.  The greening basal leaves of the state-threatened Walter's violet (Viola walteri) happen to enjoy the thin, calcareous soils much like the snow trillium and will soon be adorned with their charming periwinkle blue flowers in a month's time.  Scattered about as well were the over-wintering leaves of the barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides), a native relative to our commercialized strawberry but much, much less satisfying and tasty.

View down the gorge valley of Baker Fork at Fort Hill

After some much deserved camera time with the lovely snow trillium it was time for the more daring aspect of our hike.  Growing quite perilously on the edges and cliff faces of the limestone bluffs above the stream were scatterings of our native yew that Dan and I wanted to inspect for their flowering pollen cones.  Unfortunately, the strong deer presence in the area limits the growth of these plants to their aforementioned parlous growing locations as Canada yew happens to be one of white-tailed deer's favorite browsing items.  Rarely do you find any in good enough shape where the deer can easily access it.

Canada yew's unopened pollen cones
Dan taking a closer look

Ah, close but no cigar, as we discovered the pollen cones to still be ever-so-slightly closed and just a warm snap's away from opening.  You can just make out the tiny, bb-like pollen cones occurring in the needle's axils of last year's woody growth.  Yew is a very common hedge shrub used in cultivation with their conspicuous autumn-time red 'berries' (called arils in botany-speak) but those are of introduced species and not Ohio's native taxon.

Greening leaves of Carex platyphylla
Dan and an old-growth blackgum tree

The continuation of our hike saw Dan and I start to scale the higher slopes of the gorge in an effort to connect with the rim trail at the top that circles around the old remains of the Hopewell earthworks.  I quickly realized the winter had significantly softened me up as my lungs and calves felt on fire as I trudged up and up and up out of the deep valley.  Luckily, the forest was full of old-growth tree specimens worth admiring and thus getting a subsequent breather.

Dan admiring the weathered remains of an American chestnut stump

One of the most intriguing aspects to the forests of Fort Hill would hardly be noticed by the casual hiker or passerby.  All throughout the upper slows and ridges of the woods were the remains of fallen logs and stumps belonging to American chestnuts (Castanea dentata) that met their fate many decades ago during the height of the blight invasion.  Extremely weather and rot-resistant, it wasn't too hard to pick out which trees were of chestnut origin.  It's such a shame to think of the billions of vitally-important mast crop trees we lost to mankind's own devices of world travel and trade.  What I wouldn't do for a time machine to travel back to the famed and storied pre-blight forests with trees over 100' tall and six to eight feet in diameter!

Dan and a mighty red oak
Dan with an impressive pignut hickory

Impressive old-growth examples of various oaks and hickories; beech; tuliptree; blackgum; ash; and sugar maple abounded that were amazing sights for sore eyes.  I understand the need and importance of lumbering and logging but for every tree we cut down, we remove its possibility of growing to such a mesmerizing size. If I had my way, I would leave many stretches of forest logging-free to allow them to mature and eventually wow future generations of hikers and appreciators at their splendor and size.  I'm incredibly thankful Fort Hill is immune from chainsaws and logging trucks.  It would be a travesty for Ohio to lose such a great natural treasure!

One helluva tuliptree!
Looking into the canopy of the mighty tuliptree

The cherry on top of the Fort Hill sundae and our climb to the top of the ridge for me was the mighty tuliptree that has graced this preserve for well over a century.  I've seen many other enormous examples of tuliptrees in other woods and natural areas but I never tire of their grandeur and timeless beauty.  There's just something to be admired and appreciated for the luck and time involved for these specimens to reach such majestic dimensions and proportions.

Looking into the next week's forecast it doesn't look like the temperatures and weather will improve much but when it does be assured I will be out in force to bring you as much of Ohio's spring as I can!  It's been a long, cold, and wet winter and the warm sunshine and lovely wildflowers certainly can't get here soon enough!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Plant Quiz Solved: American Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. americanum)

Jackie (Woodswalker) does it again!  She has correctly identified this as the American highbush cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. americanum).  It is also known as the American cranberrybush and some taxonomists give it full species status as Viburnum trilobum.  There is an excruciatingly similar European and Asian species (V. opulus var. opulus) that is often planted ornamentally throughout the eastern United States.  The major differences lie in the glands on the leaf petiole.  Our native variety has smaller glands that have a convex (rounded) tip, while the European variety tends to have larger glands with a noticeable concave (sunken) tip.  The pubescence of a leaf can further help distinguish the two as well: the native variety's upper surface has scattered appressed hairs, while the introduced variety has completely glabrous (hairless) leaf surfaces.

Despite its common name this is not at all a true cranberry (Vaccinium spp.) but instead a viburnum; very similar to our native and common blackhaw (V. prunifolium) and maple-leaved (V. acerifolium) species.  It's such named for its clusters of red, mature, cranberry-like fruit (all other Ohio viburnum's fruit is blue-black at maturity).  This particular specimen was photographed growing in the shrubbier margins of a undisturbed fen complex on the Bruce peninsula, Ontario; a typical habitat to find this species thriving in.  Here in Ohio, it is listed as state-threatened and only occurs in the bogs and fens of northeastern Ohio.  However, you will come across the nigh on invasive European variety in cultivation and sometimes see it in our more southern fens and wetlands where it has started to gain an unfortunate foothold.


Time for yet another plant quiz!  Take a careful look at the photograph below and see what you think before commenting with your best guess or answer.  This particular specimen is in full bloom and an indigenous species to Ohio.  As usual best of luck and thanks to all those who decide to play along!

American Highbush  Cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. americanum)

Monday, March 11, 2013

Shoreline Fens of the Bruce Peninsula

I wonder if it's perhaps time to start rethinking the name of this blog.  With the amount of out-of-state traveling and botanizing I do throughout the surrounding states and regions, I feel like it has as much to do with the natural treasures of those places as it does with home sweet Ohio.  I'm only thinking out loud and have no real intentions of tackling the matter but it does stand to reason this blog is much more than just the fine buckeye state!  Recent times have seen focus on some of those extended forays; such as upstate New York and the southern Adirondacks, as well as the cranberry glades of West Virginia.  All were quite tardy and well past due but still worth the time to produce and share.  That being said, your blogger has decided to keep with that theme and travel back in time even further to catch up on some old business!  What better way to waste away the last days of winter with some warming tales of summers past?

A couple years ago during the summer of 2011 found myself wandering the botanical and geological masterpiece that is the Bruce peninsula in Ontario, Canada.  I began to weigh in on my travels and findings a ways back but lost track and it unfortunately got lost in the shuffle.  I'd like to dive back in and finish up my tales of the Bruce before spring fully awakens and my blogging switches back to more relevant topics.

Large shoreline fen complexes the Bruce peninsula is widely known for

One of the most spectacular aspects to this limestone derived slab of the Niagara escarpment are its huge expanses of shoreline fen complexes.  Unlike the small, isolated fens that pocket west-central and northeast Ohio, these graminoid dominated ecosystems stretch on as far as the eye can see in some places and are hundreds of acres in size.  Lake Huron's adjacent nippy waters play a direct role in the hydrology of these fens and keep their soils saturated and thriving with spike rushes (Eleocharis spp.), sedges (Carex spp.), and other fascinating flora characteristic of this habitat-type.  Areas of the Bruce such as Dorcas Bay, Petrel Point, Oliphant, and Red Bay claim prime examples of these shoreline wetlands and their associating plants; some of which are exhibited below.

Northern Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea)

My mid-June visit happened to coincide with the en masse blooming of the fen's most noticeable occupant: the northern pitcher plant.  Literally thousands of its large, blood-red flowers were suspended over the stunted pitchers growing below in the nutrient-poor and mucky soil.  The wetland almost seemed to suffer from an aggressive case of the chickenpox due to the mass-flowering of pitcher plants.

N. Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea)
N. Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea)

The chilled, water saturated muck and marl soil of fens rarely hold any appreciable amount of nutrients (most specifically nitrogen) and require some plants to find ulterior methods for fulfilling their nutritional needs.  For the pitcher plants, sundews (Drosera spp.), and bladderworts (Utricularia spp.) that grow and persist in these fens, that other tactic is being insectivorous.

Linear-leaved Sundew (Drosera linearis)

Linear-leaved sundew's (Drosera linearis) glistening, enticing leaves intermingled with the pitcher plants across the swathe of fen and established an intimidating web of death for any winged insect.  Upon capture through a plant's own unique practices, the insects are broken down by the plant's natural enzymes and converted into a usuable form and ingested.  Speaking from experience itself, I don't see how these plants could ever go hungry with the unlimited number of mosquitoes, midges, and biting flies etc. that abound.

Fen orchid (Liparis loeselii)
Fen orchid (Liparis loeselii)

Naturally, my main draw to the Bruce was its famous flora and most specifically its orchid diversity.  At the conclusion of my week spent there, I found no less than 20 species of orchid at one stage of its seasonal life cycle or another.  One of the most exciting of orchid discoveries occurred while scanning the drier hummocks of Oliphant fen for anything unusual.  The appropriately named fen orchid or Loesel's twayblade (Liparis loeselii) may pale in comparison to the physique of the forthcoming orchids in this post but their intricate lime-green flowers don't fail to impress.

Large expanse of shoreline fen on the Bruce peninsula

Gazing out across the open meadows allows your mind to soak in the details and impressive size of the Bruce's shoreline fens.  Come July these wetlands come alive with a pink/purple sea of rose pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides) and grass pink (Calopogon tuberosus) orchids that would make even the least botanically-interested stop and take notice.

Cotton Grass (Eriophorum viridicarinatum)
Cotton Grass (Eriophorum viridicarinatum)

My visit was a few weeks too early for the orchid fireworks show and I was instead greeted with the conspicuous fruiting stalks of cotton grass (Eriophorum viridicarinatum) gently weaving in the cool breezes off Lake Huron.

Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum)
Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum)

Another strikingly white and easily discernible plant showing off its seasonal charm throughout the fens was Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum).  This was a huge get for your blogger and provided a very satisfying opportunity to photograph and mark off another predominant life species; not to mention finally experience the spicy and refreshing aroma of its crushed foliage.

Shrubby, wooded borders of the fen complexes

Surrounding the large fen complexes were cool, mossy coniferous swamp forests comprised of white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), balsam-fir (Abies balsamea), tamarack (Larix laricina), and black spruce (Picea mariana) that allowed for even more fascinating plant life to mesh at their margins.

Showy Lady's Slippers (Cypripedium reginae)

The most exciting of those plants utilizing the forested margins of the fen meadows was easily the showy lady's slippers (Cypripedium reginae).  I was lucky enough to feel the adrenaline of coming across a flowering clump of these majestic orchids twice during my stay on the Bruce.

Showy Lady's Slippers (C. reginae)
Showy Lady's Slippers (C. reginae)

I'd seen this species many times before back home in Ohio but the chance encounters here were not taken for granted and still sit high on my list of most exciting and appreciable finds.  The contrasting pink and white of their remarkable flowers is set perfectly against the vivid greens of the cedars and surrounding vegetation; it's hard to think they could ever really hide from anyone with such a loud display.

Sage-leaved Willow (Salix candida)
Shining Willow (Salix lucida)

It's not only the fen's herbaceous plant life that is endlessly diverse and intriguing but its woody plant compositions and associations as well.  While walking through a shrubbier section of the Dorcas Bay complex I came across many species of willow (Salix spp.) either already in fruit or just breaking bud.  One of the most noticeable was the accurately named sage-leaved willow (S. candida) with its silver-green foliage reminiscent of the western state's sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) plant.  Another shrubby willow in the fen's thickets and borders was the shining willow (S. lucida) just coming into flower.  The above photo on the right exhibits the shining willow's golden staminate flowers.

Wet area of the sedge meadow full of bladderwort (Utricularia spp.) flowers

In the soupier, more saturated parts of the fens grew a host of weird and unusual plants, including another of the Bruce's numerous carnivorous species.  The speckling of yellow flowers in the water-logged area above belong to the flat-leaved bladderwort (Utricularia intermedia).  The bladderwort's "roots" have a series of bladders that pull in water and its accompanying tiny invertebrates to digest and break down in a similar fashion to the aforementioned sundews and pitcher plants.

Tall White Bog Orchid (Platanthera dilatata)

Just beginning to break bud among the bladderworts was a species of orchid I had never laid eyes on before and was pleasantly surprised to find in flower.  Tall white bog orchid (Platanthera dilatata) has been found and recorded in Ohio's northern surrounding states but never Ohio itself, despite some habitat existing during pre-settlement times.

Tall White Bog Orchid (P. dilatata)
Tall White Bog Orchid (P. dilatata)

Also known as white bog candles, this orchid ranges clear across the continent in its northern boreal habitat and additionally in the higher elevations of the mountain west.  Throughout its range taxonomists have separated it into three varieties depending on the size comparisons between the inflorescence's spur and lip.  Here on the Bruce and the rest of the eastern half of the continent only the typical variety (P. dilatata var. dilatata) occurs.

Buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata) in fruit
Small Cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos)

Not all is fair in botany though; the success of a find is often followed by the sting of defeat.  I had hopes of seeing a major lifer, the buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata) in flower but as it turned out the sole time I came across some the flowers were long gone and the fruits swelling with maturity.  I'll just have to return earlier in the season to catch their sensational flowers scattered throughout the wet meadows.  Certainly something you wouldn't have to pull my hair to get me to do!  On the opposite side of the flowering spectrum the small cranberries (Vaccinium oxycoccos) were just beginning to get going and carpeted small areas of the fens with their reddish-white, nodding blossoms.

Northern Leopard Frog

My time spent on the Bruce may be approaching two years in the past but I still often times find myself reminiscing on my experiences and discoveries with aspirations of returning sooner than later.  I've been fortunate to have done quite a bit of traveling across our continent in my life thus far and while many places are worth remembering, it's spots like the Bruce peninsula that you leave a piece of year heart behind upon your return home.  There is still plenty to share on the Bruce's wonders and I hope to get to them.  No matter how delayed they may be, their song deserves to be sung for all to hear.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Plant Quiz Solved: Pod Grass (Scheuchzeria palustris)

Congrats and thanks to Jackie (Woodswalker) and Jim for correctly identifying this as the rare and very unusual pod grass (Scheuchzeria palustris).  This monocot can be found in scattered spots throughout the Northeast, Great Lakes states, and even sparingly in the mountain west and Pacific northwest.  It grows in the saturated sphagnum of peat bogs and kettle lakes throughout the northern hemisphere.  Here in Ohio, it only grows in a couple sites in the northeast corner in its typical sphagnum bog mat habitat.  This particular specimen was photographed at Brown's Lake Bog nature preserve in Wayne Co., Ohio.

Another interesting fact about this plant is its circumboreal distribution; meaning it can be found all around the globe in the northern hemisphere.  Some taxonomists split the species into two varieties based on geographic range alone, while others keep it as one species throughout its range.  Here in North America, our variety is called S. palustris var. americana.  Pod grass is a monotypic taxon and the only species/member of its genus (Scheuchzeria) and family (Scheuchzeriaceae).

It's time for another plant quiz!  Look carefully at the photograph below and see what you think before commenting with your best guess or answer.  Best of luck and thanks to all that participate!

Do you recognize this plant?

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.