Tuesday, September 1, 2015

After the Fire...Carnivores and Wildflowers on the Southeast Coastal Plain

The dragonflies are almost as numerous as the six-lined racerunners, Cnemidophorus sexlineatus,
and an osprey circles lazily overhead in tandem with a turkey vulture,
but Hunter and I barely notice the carnivorous fauna,

so captivated and intrigued are we by the native flora, 
here along the margins of the Green Swamp in southeastern North Carolina.

A yellow-eyed grass, Xyris sp., and one of the golden yellow St. John's Worts, Hypericum sp., 
vividly reflect the rays of the mid-morning sun, 

momentarily coaxing our eyes from the venus flytraps, Dionaea muscipula, and creeping blueberries,  Vaccinium crassifolium, which abound underfoot.

In the strata of habitat just above the domain of the carnivorous flytraps, 
the carnivorous "writing spider", Argiope aurantia, waits motionless in a carefully constructed fly trap of its own.

Flowers of early summer gone to seed, 
this flytrap waits almost as motionless as the spider, 
its half dozen red-mawed mitts extending a not-so-welcome invite to any and all passing arthropods,

surrounded by hundreds of equally gracious (or voracious) kin, 
blood-red jaws agape.

Meadow beauties, Rhexia sp., abound in the dappled sunlight filtering through the pines;
multiple pink and a single yellow species await our lens this sun-kissed morn,

and Hunter's keen eye spies a scarlet surprise...

Pine Lily, Lilium catesbaei,
Queen of the long leaf pine savanna-

fancy meeting her here!

Carphephorus and Liatris punctuate the verdant savanna with purple,

and another of the crimson Dionaea snares a curious crawler.

Not all the carnivores are flytraps, here in long leaf land,
purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea, offers up flagons of mind-numbing brew, 
and pity the critters that say, "I do!" 

This remote savanna is a magical place, 
where wonders await each wanderer,
wise old trailhound and neophyte alike.

Purple and pink and gold and crimson and mellowest yellow and orange, 
hues perfected by time 
and the flames of a thousand thousand wildfires,

phoenixes reborn,

some from last season's seed, 

others from seed long dormant, 
awaiting the smoldering kiss of the conflagration  

before emerging in all their splendor among the lush green life of the long leaf pine savanna.

We and our motley crew of a dozen from the Sandhills Natural History Society were lured here partly by our shared love of the long leaf pine, Pinus palustris, and the many native plant and animal species associated with it. 

But many like us came before...

A few months ago, we stumbled across a small volume in a second-hand book store celebrating the life and work of Dr. B.W. Wells,  former chair of the Botany Department at NC State University.

Dr. Wells was an early pioneer in the field of plant ecology, particularly in the grass-sedge bogs or savannah lands of southeastern North Carolina.

The book contains a handful of striking prints made from glass lantern slides the professor prepared of the unique plant species associated with the savannah lands he so loved. 
Among them is a hand-tinted print of the Savannah Lily, 
which left an indelible impression upon this reader. 

And today, here we stand before it, as he once did, in living color.

While this tract along the margins of the green swamp is not the same treeless savanna Dr. Wells first encountered in the 1920's, due to similar soil type and climate and hydrologic characteristics, this ecotone is home to many of the same rare and unusual species.

And like his grass-sedge bog, this ecosystem requires frequent burning to maintain the conditions necessary for the continued survival of these amazing plants, and the many other creatures with whom it is shared.

Fortunately for Hunter and me and the all the other assembled creatures hereabouts, 
the Nature Conservancy currently protects these lands and has implemented a regime of prescribed burns which mimics the cycle of natural wildfires and preserves the unique ecological niche within which these remarkable plants can thrive. 

The hooded pitcher plant, Sarracenia minor, has pale translucent patches high on the back of the pitcher which admit light. Ecologists believe this lighting may attract insects further into the interior of the plant. Once they are enticed under the hood, escape is quite difficult, and the liquid in the modified leaves or "pitchers' contains enzymes which help digest the prey and release nutrients vital to the plants' survival.

Another savanna carnivore, the green lynx spider, Peucetia viridans, is perfectly adapted to predation on pollinators. Its variegated green color and spindly legs render it virtually invisible in the midst of the inflorescence of the yellow fringed orchid, Platanthera ciliaris.

Both male and female prowl this particular plant, 

and almost any winged creature is fair game for these stealthy long-legged leapers, 
even the relatively large rustic sphinx moth.

The most abundant pitcher plants by far on this particular savanna are the yellow pitcher plants, 
or trumpets, Sarracenia flava

While most stand tall and yellow above the grassy verdure of the understory,

Hunter spies a patch adorned in snazzy red.

It feels as if the spirit of Dr. Wells pervades this place, 
as we encounter yet another of the species chronicled in his writing,  

but much to our good fortune, 
we have living, breathing companions
who share the late botanist's passion and knowledge of this spectacular community of native plants. 

Bruce Sorrie, renowned botanist in his own right, 
and author of the authoritative and indispensable 
A Field Guide to Wildflowers of the Sandhills Region
is on hand today to point out such rare beauties 
as the Yellow Fringeless Orchid, Platanthera integra
looking only slightly past its prime, and a very special treat, 
threatened as it is with extirpation in North Carolina due to loss of suitable habitat.

Ranger Nancy Williamson, of Weymouth Woods - Sandhills Nature Preserve, organizer of our excursion today, offers further expert insight into both the flora and fauna of this magical place, including the ubiquitous dragonflies. 

As Hunter poses with some of the larger yellow pitcher plants we've encountered, 
the joy of immersing ourselves in our own natural environment is apparent in his expression.  

Marshallia graminifolia, or Barbara's buttons, 
lines our path as we make our way back to the trailhead. 

Along the way we pass yet another cool carnivorous native, 
one of the sundews, Drosera sp.
with a perfect solitary blossom.

And as we near the narrow wooden walkway through the wettest, 
nearly impenetrable portion of the bog, 
we encounter a veritable thicket of venus flytraps, 

each seemingly more beautiful and fearsome than the last.

While Hunter and I are still contemplating our encounter with the plant Charles Darwin called 
"one of the most wonderful plants in the world",  
Bruce guides our little caravan to an adjacent tract which has been burned even more recently, 
where we are delighted to discover dozens of pale grass pinks, Calopogon pallidus, 
hanging out in a healthy stand of tongue-numbing Ctenium aromaticum, or toothache grass. 

Delicate blossoms, perched precariously on spindly stems amidst the tangle of fresh green grass, 

the "pinks" range from almost pure white to a most lovely shade of pink,

here and there sporting a well-camouflaged crab spider.

We reluctantly part ways with these remarkable plants for now, 
spying a patch of flowers-not-flowers, 
one of the striking white top sedges, Rhyncospora sp.
whose brilliant white bracts give the appearance of showy white petals 
against a backdrop of ferns and fire-blackened stumps as we exit the wood.

We nearly stumble over these lovely little purples on the damp roadside bank, 
perhaps a small stand of Savanna Bluehearts, Buchnera floridana; 
yet another native wildflower in decline due to fire suppression in the pine savanna.

Hunter and I rejoin our congenial traveling companion, 
David McCloy, soil scientist and Old-Time fiddle player,
for the short voyage home, 
still digesting all the remarkable sights and sounds of an altogether wonderful walk in the woods, 

when we encounter yet another native orange orchid, 
Crested Fringed Orchid, Platanthera cristata,
this one growing in plain view with a couple of companions just a few feet from the pavement.

We snap a quick shot for the road, then mount up and head out.

Sweaty and tired and crawling with chiggers, 

we couldn't be happier!


  1. So thankful some of this habitat has been preserved and maintained; there are tiny little fragments left in our area, but this is a fairly sizable chunk. What amazing biodiversity, and this was just a single morning in late summer - I can only imagine taking a walk like this every day, all year round!