Thursday, May 21, 2015

Serendipitously Stumbling into the Southern Small Yellow Lady's Slipper

When I woke up early last Sunday morning I had a hunch the day's botanical foray would be one to remember.  Fellow botanist and friend of mine, Roger Beadles had driven all the way from his rural southeastern Illinois home for a whirlwind tour of southern Ohio. We had a lot planned and I'll be sharing the highlights of what we saw and found in the next installment.  However, one particular discovery I thought deserved its own post and story.

Roger, like myself is a self-described wild orchid addict.  So naturally our excursion around the Adams and Scioto county region revolved around seeing as many spring blooming species as possible.  One that Roger had long wanted to see was saved for last in the elusive Kentucky lady's slipper (Cypripedium kentuckiense).  It was early evening by the time we crossed the Ohio River into northern Kentucky, with the river valley's high rolling hills awash in crisp, bright sunlight.  Roger and I found the site with little trouble and the orchids in fabulous shape.  I hadn't seen them in bloom for several years and was thrilled to reacquaint myself with them.

After some camera time with the lady's slippers we decided to walk down the road a bit to explore the banks of the adjacent creek for more when something caught my eye on the steep wooded slope above...

Southern small yellow lady's slippers hiding in the woods

My attention was initially captured by the brilliant red color of some blooming fire pink (Silene virginica) but then focused on a beam of sunlight illuminating a small clump of curiously tiny yellow flowers.  It only took a second for their identity to pop in my head and I could barely contain my excitement.  Southern small yellow lady's slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum var. parviflorum)!

Trio of southern small yellow lady's slippers

My heart raced as I clamored up the slope to reach their dainty, sweet-smelling blossoms.  Your blogger takes pride in having seen over 70 of eastern North America's indigenous orchids, with the southern small yellows a glaring omission from that list.  The Cypripediums have long been some of my favorites and I've searched high and low, near and far in an attempt to see them all.

Southern Small Yellow Lady's Slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum var. parviflorum)

I've had my fair share of experiences randomly stumbling into a previously unknown site/population of orchids (unknown to me at least) but nothing like this before.  Never had I fortuned upon such a significant life orchid, let alone one so far off the day's radar.  I didn't take the time to search the woods for other plants due to the long drive home still ahead of me but was perfectly pleased with the three prime flowering specimens staring back at me.  A fourth plant was present but seemed to have had its stem nipped sometime before anthesis.

Roger photographing the small yellow ladies

Roger took my excitement in stride and certainly got a rare glimpse of your blogger overcome with emotions of excitement and disbelief. He can speak firsthand that I don't fake the love and passion I hold for my beloved wild orchids.  The southern small yellows were a lifer for Roger as well and made it a five lady's slipper day for the two of us.  In addition to these and the Kentuckys, large yellows (C. pubescens), small whites (C. candidum) and pinks (C. acaule) rounded out the handful.

Close up of the southern small yellow lady's slipper
Southern Small Yellow Lady's Slipper (C. parviflorum var. parviflorum)

In recent times the wide-ranging small yellow lady's slippers had been split into two varieties with Ohio sitting near/on the distribution dividing line.  The northern small yellow (var. makasin) is only known from two extant sites in Ohio, while the southern small yellow (var. parviflorum) has never been found and/or confirmed from within our borders.  I have my hopes it could be hiding somewhere in the depths of southernmost Ohio.

Southern Small Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. parviflorum)

Thankfully, the two small yellow varieties share very little overlap in their ranges, so geographic location is a worthwhile method of separating the two.  Taking note of their habitat will remove all doubt.  Northern small yellows are a species of wet, sunny, flat locations such as fen sedge meadows, wet prairie and moist coniferous/mixed woodlands.  Southern small yellows prefer more dry, shaded and sloped conditions in upland mixed oak/deciduous woodlands.  This particular site was under a mature canopy of white oak, red oak, sugar maple, beech, shagbark hickory, basswood and umbrella magnolia.  Additionally, the northern variety is richly aromatic with hints of vanilla and almond, while the southerns emit a soft, flowery fragrance.

iPhone photo of the three blooming orchids
Blogger's thumb and lady's slipper for size comparison

You might be thinking, "you keep using this word 'small' but I'm not sure what you mean".  It's a fair thought and one I can understand without anything to help scale these charming little beauties.  In comes the thumb.  Small indeed, I'd say.  Their labellums aren't even as big as my thumb and very reminiscent of the small white lady's slipper in size.  Looking at the photo above left removes any doubts or hesitations this is the real deal.  There are instances of small large yellow lady's slippers, which can make a confident identification a hard call to make.  I would point out that small yellows tend to bloom/peak a couple weeks after large yellows and typically have noticeably darker dorsal/lateral sepals with a labellum opening densely spotted with red dots. These particular plants didn't exhibit as dark of sepals as I would expect but that feature is quite variable.

Southern Small Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. parviflorum)

Even as I write this, I still cannot believe my luck that I would bump into such a treasured lifer, especially after a day already rife with excellent finds.  Our time with them was short but sweet and I'm already looking forward to seeking them out again next May for more chances at trapping their splendor with my camera.  As it would turn out, this freshly discovered site in Lewis County was a new county record for Kentucky, and extra special due to it being listed as a threatened species.  It seemed especially fitting that I would come to see this life orchid on May 17, one year to the day of seeing my last life orchid in the small whorled pogonia (Isotria medeoloides) in the mountains of northern Georgia.

Now to translate this success to Ohio and find the southern small yellow lady's slipper somewhere within our borders.  That would be an excellent addition to our flora, even if it's coming out of this orchid freaks mouth.  Stay tuned for more of Roger and I's phenomenal day in botany paradise!

-  ALG -

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Orchid Hike for the Cincinnati Wildflower Preservation Society

This past weekend your blogger had the pleasure of leading a hike for the Cincinnati Wildflower Preservation Society.  I've given presentations at their monthly meeting several times before but this was the first time we'd taken to the field together.  My talk for the society this past January dealt with Ohio's native orchids so it seemed appropriate to go from the projector to seeing them in person. Over 25 eager and excited participants, including quite a few familiar faces and friends joined me in the Edge of Appalachia and Shawnee State Forest region of extreme southern Ohio for quite the botanical foray.

I'd like to make specific mention of and say thanks to three special people who made the trek all the way from Ontario, Canada to spend the weekend and especially Saturday botanizing, birding, herping etc. with me.  It was a pleasure to meet and spend time with Bob Curry, Glenda Slessor and John Lamey and share the natural treasures of the Edge and Shawnee with them on Friday and Saturday. They had their sights especially set on seeing a particular orchid or two but I'll get to that later.  All in all, I think I can speak for them in saying they walked away impressed and mesmerized by southern Ohio's beauty and a strong friendship was kindled between them and myself.

Photo of the hike's participants courtesy CWPS member and treasurer, Randy Johnson

Someone must have flicked the switch for July because the week leading up to the hike and the day of was a scorcher.  Temperatures in the area reached highs near 90 and made the early May date seem like a mistake.  Thankfully, the orchids and numerous other plants seemed to take the stress in stride and largely looked great for our eyes and cameras.

Dwarf Crested Iris (Iris cristata)
Dwarf Crested Iris (Iris cristata)

Davis Memorial state nature preserve in Adams County was our first stop for the day. Its rich forest slopes and dolomite limestone rock features are home to countless spring wildflowers and several species of orchid.  The regal looking dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata) was looking especially nice in the dappled shade.

Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabilis)

It wasn't long before we had the first orchid on our day's list with the showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis).  Most everyone remembers their important "firsts" and the showy orchis will forever be close to my heart as the first wild orchid I ever saw in bloom.  I've seen it countless times since but I never tire of its unique appearance.  Davis Memorial proved to be a favorable spot for this species as we came across upwards of a dozen plants of varying aesthetics and stature.

Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

Davis Memorial is of special geological interest as well with its exposed dolomite limestone cliffs and gorge walls.  Dolomite contains more magnesium than your average limestone, which allows for a sweeter soil composition upon weathering.  Many plants do exceptionally well in said soils and why this region of the county is known for its stupendous spring wildflower displays.  Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is just one species that loves to grow from the rock face's cracks and small soil accumulations.

Large Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium pubescens)

The next orchid on this most orchid-y of days was the large yellow lady's slipper (Cypripedium pubescens).  We went on to see it at several more sites but it never failed to be a showstopper, especially when in large, many-flowered clumps.

Large Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium pubescens)
Large Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium pubescens)

Most of the photos in this post I took during my scouting and personal botanizing time the day before leading the hike.  I like to take my time when engaging these remarkable, highly evolved plants and I knew that would be at a minimum during the hike.  It's also important to me I give my full attention to the questions, curiosities and concerns of my group.  For many this was the first time seeing orchids such as the large yellows, while I've been spoiled with dozens of encounters and hopefully dozens more to come.

Spring in Shawnee State Forest

I could honestly spend all day, every day in Shawnee during the spring.  There's a feel to its wild depths unlike anything else in the state. Bobcats to cerulean warblers, timber rattlesnakes or the goldenstar lily, Shawnee has it all.  There's few places better for orchids in the state either with Shawnee claiming over a dozen species throughout the year.

Pollinated and wilting large whorled pogonia (Isotria verticillata)

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Bob, Glenda and John came all the way from Ontario with one specific orchid in mind: the large whorled pogonia (Isotria verticillata).  While relatively common in the acidic, upland oak forests of eastern unglaciated Ohio, the large whorled pogonia is excruciatingly rare in Ontario.  In fact, it's believed to be extirpated and hasn't been seen above ground in quite some time.  Unfortunately, the unseasonably hot temperatures ushered this notoriously short bloomer into flower and quickly out by the time of their arrival.  They took Mother Nature's curveball in stride though and were beyond happy to see the plant even in a wilted state.

Rose Azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum)

It wouldn't be the peak of spring in Shawnee without the vibrant blossoms of the rose azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum).  They litter the roadsides on the forest's higher and drier slopes in an assortment of dark and light pinks.

Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)
Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

Speaking of pink colored flowers, I'd be remiss if I didn't make mention of the always exciting pink lady's slippers (Cypripedium acaule). This was a superb year for this orchid as most of my known sites had an exemplary number of flowering plants.  Each labellum or slipper looks like a big wad of chewing gum someone deposited atop a green stem to my eyes.

White-colored Pink Lady's Slipper
White-colored Pink Lady's Slipper

And then there's the case when someone is chewing peppermint flavored gum and leaves a white blob instead. I've observed this white-flowered pink lady's slipper for a handful of years running now and never get tired of its unusual charm.  I would hesitate to acknowledge this as a true case of albinism due the the dorsal/lateral sepals and column lacking the typical lime green coloration of an albino.  This seems to simply be a case of a white labellum only.

Rock Fir Moss (Huperzia porophila)

With so many pairs of eyes observing the landscape few things of interest are likely to slip past detection.  One fun item that stood out was large colonies of rock fir moss (Huperzia porophila) amassed on some steep sandstone slopes.  Lycopods to mycology, just about every aspect of our natural world is discussed and/or represented on a hike like this and makes for an educational experience for everyone involved.

Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata)
Umbrella Magnolia (Magnolia tripetala)

Other Shawnee oddities gracing our hike with their floral presence was the rare umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) and crossvine (Bignonia capreolata).  Both are plants much more common further south and just barely make it into southern Ohio.  They certainly have a southern or 'tropical' feel/look to them.  Just another feather in Shawnee's hat if you ask me!

Earlier on Friday during my solo foray, I decided to make my annual pilgrimage to a special and treasured site on the Edge of Appalachia preserve.  As incredible a site as it is, it's one that's too remote and too sensitive to bring a group of even respectful, well-mannered wildflower admirers to.

Hanging prairie on the Edge of Appalachia and one of my favorite views in the entire state

Of all the impressive views I've gazed out across in the Buckeye state, I'd have to say the one photographed above is on my very short list of the best.  This hanging prairie clings to the side of a hill; an island of rare grassland plants overlooking a rolling sea of contiguous forest.  No roads, no buildings, no people or anything to break the sounds of nature.  It's rare to get that kind of purity with no noise pollution and only adds to the splendor of the place.  Within its depths is a slew of prairie plants like scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), heart-leaved golden alexanders (Zizia aptera), yellow star grass (Hypoxis hirsuta), white blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum), arrow-leaved violet (Viola sagittata) and one very rare, very stunning orchid: the endangered small white lady's slipper (Cypripedium candidum).

Prairie phlox, scarlet paintbrush, hoary puccoon etc. in full, spectacular bloom

Small White Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium candidum)
Small White Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium candidum)

Scarlet Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea)

Hanging prairie is a true slice of botanical heaven and one I can't wait to visit each early May.  It's never disappointed in the past, it didn't disappoint this time around and I don't dare doubt it will break that streak any time soon.  I could dedicate an entire post of this length to the site and perhaps I will one day.

Needless to say the hike was a resounding success and everyone involved had a helluva time immersed in southern Ohio's spring bounty of wildflowers, orchids and birds.  Leading hikes never fails to leave me physically exhausted by mentally revitalized and freshened.  It's such a fun way to share my passion and knowledge for orchids, Ohio and our natural world as a whole.  I'll be leading two additional hikes for the Cincinnati Wildflower Preservation Society later this year in August and September, respectively.  Take a look on the left side of my blog for my events section for more details.  Special thanks to the Christine Hadley for helping me put this together and for asking me to lead this hike!  I/we certainly had an amazing time!

- ALG -

Monday, May 4, 2015

Spring's First Bloomers

The older I get the faster spring and life in general seems to move.  There's just never enough of that precious commodity called time to see and do everything the heart desires each season.  So here I am playing catch up but I figured better late than never, right?  I originally planned to get this published about a month ago so please excuse its tardiness.  With that being said let's travel a few weeks back in time for some early bloomers that have already come and gone.

Ohio Brush Creek valley near its confluence with the Ohio River

Sunny southern Ohio.  There's few places I prefer to ring in the new growing season more than the river counties of Adams and Scioto. It's no coincidence they are featured and/or mentioned time and time again on this blog.  The enormous blocks of contiguous forest and thousands of acres of preserved land make them a prime region to explore.

Exposed limestone bedrock along a small waterway in Adams county

I make many annual pilgrimages to see a bevy of different wildflowers but none carry the same anticipation as the year's first.  The dolomite limestone exposures and rocky bluffs pictured above may seem stuck in their lifeless winter state but looks can be deceiving.

Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale)

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

Freshly emerged snow trillium (Trillium nivale)!  Spring could wake up in any number of ways but its choice of these beauties in select calcareous areas of the state is perfect to me.  Their appearance may seem delicate but snow trillium are tough plants.  It's not uncommon for a late snowfall to coincide with their blooming yet they shrug it off as if it were nothing.

Rare white cedar trees clinging to the limestone rock faces along Scioto Brush Creek

The evergreen glow of the rare northern white cedars (Thuja occidentalis) that line the limestone rock faces are not to be lost in the excitement of the site's snow trillium.  Speaking of tough plants, it's hard to find something with more gravitas or tenacity than these trees.  They can live for centuries in these situations, growing millimeter by millimeter and attaining gnarled, bonsai-like forms.

Harbinger-of-Spring (Erigenia bulbosa)

Harbinger-of-spring (Erigena bulbosa) may be in fruit and disappearing until next spring as I type this but they were in their prime during this particular foray.

Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Anenome acutiloba)

As were the sharp-lobed hepatica (Anenome acutiloba) in their various shades of whites, creams, lavenders and blue.  I'm curious to know what causes such a wide range of expressed phenotypes in this species.  Genetics, soil/nutrients, age or perhaps a combination of the three?

Little Whitlow-grass (Draba brachycarpa)

Little Whitlow-grass (Draba brachycarpa)
Little Whitlow-grass (Draba brachycarpa)

The rare and unusual is always of interest to me.  I can and do appreciate the common day-to-day things but the out of the ordinary is a spice I crave.  The little whitlow-grass (Draba brachycarpa) is as rare as it is unusual here in Ohio. It only grows in a couple sites along the Ohio River; both old cemeteries on perched sand ridges.  It's a charming little flower when viewed at high magnification; many plants only end up measuring an inch or two tall.

Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa)

Growing in the same sandy soil as the little whitlow-grass is Ohio's very own native cactus, the eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa). Their pads were looking a bit beat up from the harsh winter but come June they'll dazzle the eyes with large, honey yellow flowers.  The reaction of folks  hearing for the first time we do indeed have an indigenous species of cactus is one of my favorites.

White Trout-lily (Erythronium albidum)
White Trout-lily (Erythronium albidum)

Trout-lilies were one of the first wildflowers I fell for during my early years.  They always seem to need a self-esteem boost with their shy, drooping flowers.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

The beauty of spring is one fleeting moment after another and few moments seem to pass faster than the bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).  Each flower's whorl of snow-white petals only last for a day or two before dropping at the slightest touch or breeze. Their underground rhizomes can spread in favorable conditions, creating impressive colonies of delicate flowers and their unique leaves.

Goldenstar-lily (Erythronium rostratum)
Goldenstar-lily (Erythronium rostratum)

It's not just the white trout-lilies from earlier on that have such demure personalities but just about every other North American Erythronium species too.  Only the goldenstar-lily (E. rostratum) exhibits unwavering confidence and shows off their flowers for all the world to see.  Their golden blooms are held erect on the stem and only unfurl their stunning tepals in the sunniest of conditions.

Goldenstar-lily (Erythronium rostratum) with eight tepals instead of six
Goldenstar-lily (Erythronium rostratum) just about to wake up

Goldenstar-lilies also happen to be one of our most rare wildflowers in Ohio and are currently listed as endangered within the state. They are only known to occur in select areas of Adams and Scioto counties; all within the watershed of Rocky Fork Creek too.

Deer Tick

While photographing the goldenstar-lilies under a brilliant sapphire sky, I happened to notice a small black speck slowly making its way up my pant's leg.  I knew it was a tick but which of the three species one can find in southern Ohio would it be?  Unfortunately, the orange "butt" of this particular one gave it away as the dreaded deer tick or black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis).  Unlike the dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis) or the lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum), deer ticks are a carrier/transmitter of Lyme disease among a host of other nasty diseases.  Just a few years ago I almost never picked deer ticks off me but nowadays them seem to be outnumbering dog and lone stars more and more.  All the more reason to keep an eye out and be ever-vigilant!

A trio of goldenstar-lilies in all their early spring glory

It's hard to believe these wonderful wildflowers have already done their duties and been replaced with maturing seed pods.  Another spring already well underway with many aspects left to wait nearly another year to see once again.  I hope to catch up on more of spring's activity as I find the time but even so I could never adequately represent what spring coming to southern Ohio entails.  Some things are best left to speak for themselves and Mother Nature is definitively that.

- ALG -