Orchids Native to the Blue Ridge Mountains
by Amanda Hastings, former Ecotour Guide for Asheville Hiking Tours
Want to observe exquisite orchids in their wild, natural environment, yet not quite ready to book a trip to the tropics or a remote island somewhere? Many may be shocked to learn these enchanting plants live in a variety of environments outside of tropical rainforests or greenhouses, such as mature woodlands in the mountainous Southeastern United States! The Southern Appalachian Mountains are one of the most biodiverse temperate regions of the world and home to a total of 52 described orchid species. In this article, you will find descriptions of 6 species that can be found specifically along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville, NC, nested in the Blue Ridge Province of the Southern Appalachians.
Orchids are often times described as rare or difficult to find. In actuality, these plants can be quite numerous, but require a trained eye to spot them. Many orchids are particularly sensitive to changes in their habitat, meaning they can be abundant one year and fairly scarce the next year in the same location. Finding a native orchid in the wild depends upon location, timing, opportunity, and perseverance. Sounds like too much work? Rest easy! Trained naturalists and tour guides spend countless hours researching this kind of stuff so they can show you these mesmerizing plants (along with other local flora and fauna) on a guided hike. Asheville Hiking Tours, for example, provides ecotours of some of the best-kept “secrets” of the Southern Appalachians, including stunning waterfalls, scenic mountain views, wildlife sightings and more! Grab your camera, rain jacket (always a good idea in the Southern Appalachians), perhaps a journal, and prepare for an entertaining and educational experience with Asheville Hiking Tours’ naturalists.
Now, before you take to the trail… note! Please never collect wild orchids. These plants form a special bond with symbiotic fungal partners in the soil, making successful transplantation nearly impossible. With preservation in mind, remember the presence of native orchids supports the natural balance of the entire ecosystem in which they are found. By leaving these elegant flowers just as they are and where they are, you preserve the opportunity for our future generations to admire their beauty. If that isn’t incentive enough, many wild orchids inhabit lands protected by the state and federal governments or environmental non-profits, such as The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. Try to mess with these beauties and you could end up with a hefty fine.
While there are more native orchids of the Blue Ridge Mountains than we discuss here, the following list includes those orchids that inhabit lands near Asheville, NC and are amongst the “easier” to identify orchids with pronounced diagnostic features. Other native orchids found along the Blue Ridge Parkway include: the yellow fringed orchid, the ragged fringed orchid, the lily-leaved twayblade, Loesel’s twayblade, green adder’s mouth orchid, and more (Bentley 31-32).
1. Lady’s Slipper Orchids (Cypripedium)
There are eleven species within this genus throughout North America, five of which inhabit the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Lady slipper orchids are slow-growing plants, requiring sometimes 3 to 4 years to develop from seed to full maturity (Bentley 90). For each member of this genus, the leaves are ribbed or veined. The most distinguishable characteristic of lady slipper orchids is the lip, or lower petal, of their flowers (Bentley 91). The lip resembles a “slipper” or pouch and gives each species its distinct color.
Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)
The pink lady’s slipper, or pink moccasin flower, is one of the most unique in its genus and among the more widely known Southern Appalachian wildflowers. Unlike most lady slippers, the pink lady slipper is a single-flowered plant with paired basal leaves and a bare stem. Its single pink to purple inflated lip, or “slipper,” has a vertical slit in the center where pollinators (often the bumblebee) enter the flower (Bentley 93). The size of a flowering plant can be highly variable and depends upon habitat type. In the southern extent of its range, Cypripedium acaule prefers strongly acid conditions, yet prefers more basic soils in the North. The flowering period spans mid-April in lower elevations to mid-June in higher elevations in the southern mountains (Bentley 95). The pink lady slipper is postulated to inhabit every county of the Southern Appalachians.
Yellow Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum)
Cypripedium parviflorum, or yellow lady’s slipper, is especially striking with a vibrant bulbous yellow slipper, sometimes with small red spots inside. Diagonally along the stem, strongly veined leaves climb overtop of one another. With just a slightly narrower flowering period compared to the pink lady’s slipper, this species blooms between late April to mid-June. Flowering plants reach a height around 12-15 inches (30-38 cm) with often two waxy slippers posed atop the stem (Bentley 103). On occasion, some plants will have three! Similar to the pink lady’s slipper, Cypripedium parviflorum has adapted to drier, more acidic conditions in the Southern Appalachians.
2. Rattlesnake Plantains (Goodyera)
There are four total rattlesnake plantains or rattlesnake orchids in North America, two of which are present in the Southern Appalachians. All species exhibit a rosette of leaves. The leaves have a rounded, diamond shape and a checkered or crosshatched pattern (Bentley 117). Some botanists have described this pattern to resemble the scales of a rattlesnake, giving rise to this group’s common name. For each species in this genus, the plant will produce a spike of tiny white flowers once it has accumulated enough energy for flowering– this process can take up to 5 or 6 years (Bentley 117).
Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens)
Goodyera pubescens, or downy rattlesnake plantain, makes our list as the most ubiquitous orchid species in the southern mountains. It can be found in nearly every habitat type in the region, across a spectrum of elevations (Bentley 119). The basal leaves of this species have a wide white midvein with thinner, adjacent white-green veins. The flowering spike of this species reaches approximately 12 inches (30 cm) in height, blooming around the second week of July into early August (Bentley 119). The spike is tightly packed with small, white and waxy flowers towards the top third of the stem. The lips of the individual flowers resemble a ball-shaped pouch with a short spout (Bentley 118). See great numbers of these orchids from the roadside on a cruise of the Blue Ridge Parkway during bloom time. Or grab a hand lens and head to the forest to see the pubescence or tiny hairs covering the entire plant, which gives this species its “pubescens” name.
Lesser Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera repens)
Goodyera repens, or lesser rattlesnake plantain, blooms at the same time as the downy rattlesnake plantain in the southern mountains, yet it is trickier to find. Despite having an expansive range, this species inhabits sparse, mid-elevation locations throughout the Southern Appalachians, in contrast to its more abundant cousin (Bentley 122). The leaves of this species have thicker and fewer markings with no midvein, dissimilar to G. pubescens. This species grows a short spike (approximately 5-7 inches or 12-18cm) with especially tiny white flowers attached along only one side of the stem. The flowers are generally similar to downy rattlesnake plantain, though the lip in this species is more beak-shaped with a sharper tip (Bentley 120).
3. Fringed orchids (Platanthera)
There are a total of thirteen separate species within the Platanthera genus present in the Southern Appalachians, many commonly referred to as the region’s most stunning wildflowers. All members of this group have a distinguishable raceme of flowers or grouping of individual flowers adorning the top third of the stem (Bentley 151). For many species in this genus, there is a fine fringe along the margin of the lip of each individual flower. As the flowering period progresses, the flowers open from bottom to top within the raceme. Most species within this group are brightly colored. Nearly all species have lance-shaped leaves that climb the stem (Bentley 151). Populations of the two purple fringed orchid species below can be found flowering next to one another in mid-June along the parkway northeast of Asheville, NC near Mount Mitchell— the highest peak east of the Rockies and the Mississippi River.
Large Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera grandiflora)
The eye-catching, lilac flowering raceme of the large purple fringed orchid blooms mid-June through mid-July across its disjunct range in the southern mountains. Plants can reach 30 inches (75cm) with nearly 100 or more individual flowers (Bentley 164-165). Compared to other members of this genus, Platanthera grandiflora is commonly found in shaded conditions and prefers acidic conditions. The large purple fringed orchid is considered to be fairly rare in the Southern Appalachians, yet large localized populations can be found (Bentley 167). Grab your waterproof boots, head into shaded meadows swathed in Rhododendron and you may be graced with the presence of this orchid—or the “loveliest Southern Appalachian wildflower” as described by native orchid enthusiasts!
Small Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera psycodes)
The small purple fringed orchid, or the butterfly orchid, typically begins to flower in mid-June just days before its cousin, the large purple fringed orchid. This species’ flowers are smaller with varying shades of lilac, pink, or nearly white. The plant itself can grow to nearly 2 feet (60 cm) similar in size to the large purple fringed orchid (Bentley 189). Platanthera psychodes prefers colder climates and higher elevations near northern hardwoods or spruce-fir forests in the South. Similar to P. grandiflora, the small purple fringed orchid is uncommon in the region, but large populations do persist (Bentley 191).
Still seeking more orchid observation time?
Check out these additional orchid-oriented events/exhibits on your trip to Asheville, NC: 1. The “Orchid Room” within the Biltmore’s Historic Conservatory is astonishing year-round. Towards the late 19th century, private plant collections were common amongst wealthy estate owners in Europe as well as the U.S. In 1894, George Vanderbilt consulted nursery specialists to establish the Biltmore’s conservatory and listed approximately 800 orchids to be included in the estate’s collection. Over 1,000 species are exhibited today. 2. The North Carolina Arboretum also hosts the annual Asheville Orchid Festival in early spring. Step foot in their education center in April to find yourself surrounded by hundreds of orchids from all over the world.
For further reading on Southern Appalachian orchids: Stanley L. Bentley’s “Native Orchids of the Southern Appalachian Mountains” is considered to be the authoritative guide on native orchids of the region, as referenced throughout this article. Within this text, you will find thorough descriptions of all described native orchids throughout the entirety of the Southern Appalachians, including one orchid found by and named after Bentley himself.
Botanists and orchid enthusiasts are discovering and mapping new locations of wild orchids continuously. Perhaps you will be the next to discover a new population of these seemingly rare, sometimes fickle enchantresses!
Natural Notes is Asheville Hiking Tours’ blog about nature, history and travel in the Appalachians. Asheville Hiking Tours offers day hikes, waterfall tours, and firefly tours, guided by naturalists, in the mountains around Asheville, NC. For more info visit www.AshevilleHikingTours.com.