This trip was a much anticipated adventure that for all intents and purposes had taken much longer to get together than intended. In truth, I had been planning a trip of this sort for almost two years, but things always happen that cause the best laid plans to go awry. It was critical that I schedule the travel time around bloom dates, and of course that's not always a guaranteed method of accomplishing the goal. My research for this trip had been going on for about a month and it took me another week and a half before I could adjust my schedule and take a much needed day off. Once I knew what days I could possibly take off, I started calling and e-mailing hiking buddies. It's a pretty short list, let's face it. There are not a lot of people who like to go off the beaten path and potentially face ticks, chiggers, steep slopes, slick rocks, venomous snakes, impenetrable rhododendron thickets, waterfalls, bees, precipitous dropoffs, impalement, and other known hazards that often go with bushwhacking.
My good friend Travis Smith was the first one to sign on for the trip. When I talked to him he was on his way home from Indiana. He was glad I invited him because neither he nor I have gotten to hike together in a long time. Travis was one of my early mentors as my naturalist career began. He was also a Park Naturalist and my former supervisor at Chimney Rock Park. Travis and I began hiking together as part of conducting educational hikes at the Park. We would often tag team large groups. This evolved into hiking excursions when we would attend conferences in the Smokies. Some of my most memorable hikes were spent with Travis as we trudged to Charlie's Bunion in the snow, hiked Mt. LeConte twice, and stumbled along in the dark after a late evening ascent to the Chimney Tops. Travis needed this particular outing as much as I did so it made plenty of sense for him to go.
James Padgett is another good friend of mine and also an avid hiker. James is an inventory biologist for the NC Natural Heritage Program and certified mountain goat. When it comes to steep places, James and I have always ended up hiking either into or out of some of the steepest places in Hickory Nut Gorge. James is an excellent botanist and keeps me up to speed on all the botanical name changes that occur way too frequently. He has the job that most of us would love to have, spending the majority of his time outside looking at plant communities. What attracted him to this mission, aside from the fact that I invited him, was the opportunity to do some comparative analysis of rare community types and species makeup.
In doing my research of our hiking destination, I stumbled onto a gentleman by the name of Jim Fowler. Jim is a computer guy by profession but spends a great deal of time outdoors doing nature photography and is an avid, largely self-taught botanist. I had seen Jim's photography blog online and he had a great deal of knowledge about the place I was interested in visiting. I e-mailed him and after a little confusion on my part was able to arrange for us to meet Jim at the site where he could serve as our local expert and guide.
Our destination was the Eva Russell Chandler Heritage Preserve in northern Greenville County, South Carolina. Our purpose was to see and photograph carnivorous plants, including the federally endangered mountain sweet pitcher plant (Sarracenia jonesii). My initial intention for visiting this preserve was to photograph roundleaf sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), another carnivorous plant. Carnivorous plants are a unique group of species that rely on insects as their nutrient source. They typically grow in nutrient poor soils in bogs and fens and have modified leaves that function as trapping mechanisms for unfortunate insects that are drawn to their sweet smelling flowers or colorful trapping structures.
It was actually Drosera that drove me to put the trip together to begin with. Way up at the top of a cliff face in Chimney Rock State Park (the attraction part), there is a small stream that flows over the rock face. The rock face and stream are actually visible from the Meadows. About 20 years ago, Elizabeth Feil and I were bushwhacking in that area looking for rare wild bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia) and Divided-leaf Ragwort (Packera millefolium). Our belly crawl through the rhododendron thicket let us to the small stream which we had to cross to get to the Packera population we were surveying. Elizabeth pointed to the edge of the vegetation where the exposed rock began and there was a small little patch of Drosera rotundifolia. I would visit that site at least three more times after that, each time hoping to photograph the sundews, but never successful. The streambed is so slick that to try to walk the stream is risking a certain fall down the 150 foot rock face. Not the kind of memorable outcome that I care for. In fact I came close one time to sliding down that same rock face. If it hadn't been for the quick hands of an intern and some blueberry bushes that actually held when I grabbed them, I would have been a goner. This particular location is the only known location for roundleaf sundew in Hickory Nut Gorge. That's not to say that it doesn't occur elsewhere in HNG, it's just that no one has never reported finding it. Anyway, after too many close calls, difficult access, and the fact that I'm not twenty-something anymore, I felt I could get a picture of roundleaf sundew somewhere else and that somewhere was the Eva Chandler Preserve.
I picked up Travis in Edneyville and we headed to Hendersonville, grabbed a quick biscuit at McDonalds and scooted down Hwy. 25 towards Greenville. The plan was to meet James in Cleveland, South Carolina, which I discovered is practically nowhere. I think I actually passed it. Anyway we got on Hwy 11 and then turned right where 11 and 276 join up. We met James at the F-Mart and then followed him up to another preserve called Bald Rock, an impressive granite dome, probably made more impressive (in a bad way) by the excessive grafitti and vandalism that likely has destroyed what was likely once a significant plant community. I didn't take a picture here, but instead became rather reflective. Someone had written messages about accepting Jesus as your savior and surrounded it with swastikas. Another one said something to the effect that Jesus would not do what the artist was regarding as a sinful act. I truthfully don't even remember fully what it said because I was so irritated by just the sheer disregard for what we attribute to our Creator. My thought after reading that message was that Jesus wouldn't paint grafitti on rocks. Such backhanded hypocrisy is why we as Christians fail to successfully share the gospel. We spend more time condemning the flaws and shortcomings of others and conveniently fail to see and work on our own...but I digress.
We got back in the vehicles and turned onto Persimmon Ridge Road, a washboarded dirt road that slowly wound down the mountain. About three-fourths of a mile down the road we came to a curve and saw the entrance to the Eva Russell Chandler Heritage Preserve. Jim Fowler was there waiting for us. After quick introductions and grabbing of gear and water, we headed out the trail through a pine forest and down to a substantial granite dome with a nice little stream flowing over it. Jim pointed out that we were at the top of a small cascading waterfall/waterslide and that the plan was to carefully cross and bushwhack downstream to the bog. Locally, the waterfall is known as Slickum Falls and that is a good name. We cautiously picked our way across the slick rock face where the stream passed over it. Fortunately, there were spongy little patches of algae that were actually somewhat firm and offered a slight amount of grip, making the crossing a little less treacherous.
We followed the leader, making our way through the woods, passing some nice patches of royal fern (Osmunda regalis) and sweet azalea (Rhododendron arborescens). We dropped down to the bottom of Slickum Falls, passing over a very nice population of Packera millefolium, which before this day I had only seen in Hickory Nut Gorge. At the base of the falls, the ground quickly became very soft and slick as patches of sphagnum moss replaced soil. We emerged out onto another granite dome whose dry parts were covered with twistedhair spikemoss (Selaginella tortipila), but where Slickum Creek flowed over the dome lay a veritable treasure trove. Little islands of vegetation measuring anywhere from six inches across to six feet across lay along the margin of the stream. Each little "island" was its own little carnivorous plant colony containing mountain sweet pitcher plants, roundleaf sundew and horned bladderwort (Utricalaria cornuta) as well as other associated non-carnivorous species.
We got the cameras out and started collecting photographs of this rare plant community. Cataract bogs, as this plant community is called, are very rare. Most of the documented cataract bogs are in the mountains of South Carolina. As streams of water flow over granite domes, the water sheets as opposed to falling. This reduces the erosive potential of the water in all but the heaviest rains. Minute amounts of soil will accumulate in depressions along the stream margins. The amount of soil that collects is minimized by the flow of water and the gradient of the rock, but is enough to allow the accumulation of shallow rooted plant. Because the amount of soil is so miniscule and the water is continuously flowing, there is virtually zero nutrients to be had. It's a very harsh environment that only highly adapted species can survive in. Carnivorous plants are adapted to low nutrient conditions and occupy this special niche in a harsh environment.
|Cataract bog beside Slickum Creek. The wet areas are extremely slick.|
My experience with carnivorous plants was somewhat limited to the small Drosera population at Chimney Rock State Park and things we would see on our annual coastal trips in my college years. Our ecology and botany professor, every year, would take a class through Green Swamp in Brunswick County, North Carolina where we got to see the big yellow trumpet pitcher plants (Sarracenia flava), venus flytraps (Dionaea muscipula), and other carnivorous species growing in the pocosins and pine savannas. When I came to learn about mountain bogs and the presence of carnivorous plants nearer to home as opposed to closer to the beach, naturally it was something that I sought to add to my life list of must see species.
Mountain sweet pitcher plants are federally endangered, only occurring in ten locations along the NC/SC line along the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Collection and destruction of habitat have greatly reduced the numbers of what was probably, many years ago, a somewhat more abundant species. I'm an endangered plant nut and have always loved seeing rare species and any opportunity to advocate for those species is not easily passed up. Seeing these rare pitcher plants for the first time was very moving for me. The understanding that comes from seeing such a beautiful and delicate plant in its natural habitat, and knowing that it literally sits on the edge of being wiped completely out of existence is quite sobering. Pitcher plants consist of a modified leaf that looks oddly like the old smokestacks on transfer trucks that had the flap on them. The flap prevents excessive rainwater from filling the space. Flies and other insects are attracted by the sweet smelling flowers and guided into the pitcher. Once inside, the waxy coating on the interior of the pitcher prevents any insect from climbing out. The sweet-smelling fluid in the bottom of the pitcher serves as a paralyzing agent and helps the plant to digest whatever falls inside and can't escape, thereby providing the plant with the nutrition it needs to survive.
|A cluster of Sarracenia jonesii.|
|Some close-ups of the pitchers and seed heads.|
|They come in all sizes.|
Sundews are just as interesting as pitcher plants, if not more so. The small, round, modified leaves have multiple sticky, red hairs that have large drops of sugary mucilage that glisten like dewdrops and serve as an attractant and a trap, catching ants, flies, or other insects that happen to crawl across or land on the hairs. Once caught, the mucilage begins the process of digesting the insect which will ultimately supply the sundew with its nutrients.
|Roundleaf Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)|
|Another shot of Roundleaf Sundew|
|A little closer shot showing greater detail of the sticky hairs.|
After finishing our photography session, we headed back up the slope to where we crossed the creek. Jim then led us along a trail that tracked alongside Slickum Creek. The woods surrounding the creek were very flat, with a species makeup typical of what you would see in a wide floodplain. The forest floor was dominated by New York Fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis) and yellowroot (Xanthorrhiza simplicissima), with several other species that would be found in cove forests. Jim pointed out the biggest pinxter flower (Rhododendron periclymenoides) that I have ever seen. The shrub was single stemmed and probably close to six inches at its base. We meandered along, botanizing as we went, with the trail ending back on Persimmon Ridge Road. A short walk up the road and we were back to the parking area.
Jim told us that he had one other area that he would really like to show us that also had some great stuff, so we hopped in the vehicles and drove down the road a short distance and parked. He led us down an old road bed and then down onto another granite dome. Like the granite dome at Slickum Falls, this one was also very exposed, but flatter. Jim explained that what we were looking at was a Southern Appalachian fen. Fens are specific types of wetlands that are fed by seepage or groundwater. Cataract bogs are a type of fen. This was not a cataract bog as we had seen at Eva Chandler Preserve. There was no stream in this location. The rock face was intermittently wet and dry. The wet portions surrounded vegetative mats that were thick with sphagnum moss as well as numerous grasses and sedges. There were metal grids laid in several places between the vegetation mats, for the purposes of keeping wild hogs off the plant communities, according to Jim.
|A Southern Appalachian Fen.|
I eased onto a mat that had an extensive pitcher plant colony, being careful not to step on anything of significance, which is sort of difficult considering that almost everything in this plant community is significant. The wet sphagnum made a sucking sound as my boots sunk into it. Water welled up around my boots as I took delicate steps. Not wanting to push to far onto the mat, I shot some additional photos of pitcher plants as well as some grass pink that was still in flower. I then carefully stepped back onto the dry rock face to see what other neat plants were around.
|Grass Pink (Calopogon tuberosus)|
|Grass Pink (Calopogon tuberosus)|
|Horned Bladderwort (Utricularia cornuta)|
|Pipewort (Eriocaulon compressum)|
We drove up to Caesar's Head State Park and looked out over the Escarpment towards Table Rock State Park, snapped a few photos and slid back over the state line into Brevard, NC for lunch. I reflected as we drove back towards home on the emotional experience of seeing such unique plants for the first time and how they live in such a precarious, extreme ecosystem. I also felt quite uplifted despite being tired, hot, and thirsty. I don't often get to take days off where I can go in search of rare plants or just enjoy a day in the woods. Sometimes you have to take time and re-center, to keep from going insane with the daily routine. Being outside in the woods is so much a part of who I am and it's important to be in tune with that part of my personality and to take the time to just be a part of the landscape, or as I like to say, to embrace the fact that I am a Southern Appalachian endemic. Travis certainly felt the same way and we lamented that we don't get into the woods enough. Hopefully, we'll get another trip planned very soon (when it cools off a little) and we'll see where the next adventure takes us.