Saturday, May 14, 2016

Flower of the Month: May

Hickory Nut Gorge is one of the most amazing places in the spring as wildflowers come alive at the different elevations and within all the little nooks and crannies.  I always go back down memory lane to my time at Chimney Rock Park when I spent days chasing down certain plants (not that they run very fast) to photograph them before their short bloom time expired.  When I worked at the Park, we had a wildflower brochure that was written by a good friend of mine and my chief mentor, Elizabeth Feil, who was the Park's botanist back when I first started working at CRP.  My goal was to photograph every plant in that brochure, and I pretty much did that, but it was all done with print and slide film, as the digital era had not yet begun.  When I left the Park, I didn't leave my wildflower passion behind me, but rather embarked on a new photographic journey in the digital age with expanded goals.  Among those goals is to photograph as many flowering plants in Hickory Nut Gorge as I can.  That goal will help me to embark on some other projects that will one day see the light of day, but that's a story for another time.  I am obviously still chasing flowers.  The reason you stopped by the blog (hopefully) is to see what the Flower of the Month pick is for the month of May.

This month's pick was hard for me, as May has so many wonderful flowering species.  A recent adventure was what actually led me to my decision.  One plant that I have been trying to get new photos of is bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana).  I have several slides of it that have been digitized but none of the images are as clean as I would like.  I pulled out my old CRP Wildflowers brochure (yes, I keep one handy) to see if I had missed the dates and unfortunately I was too late.  However that search brought me to the realization that there was another plant that I needed new photos of that was just beginning to flower, but would also require some quick action on my part to catch before the bloom time was over.  The plant I'm talking about is Indian paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea).

Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea)
Indian paintbrush (as a genus) is perhaps better known as a prairie species of the American west, where it puts on a stunning display in conjunction with other grassland species.  In Hickory Nut Gorge it's a little less well known and a whole lot harder to find, but no less stunning.  One place to look for it is above the bridge between the Sky Lounge and the Chimney, inside Chimney Rock State Park.  It sporadically grows among the Biltmore sedge (Carex biltmoreana) clumps on the usually damp rock faces and ledges that surround the steep ravine that the bridge spans.  Another place I have seen it is actually on private property adjoining CRSP, growing in a seep at the top of a granite dome along with divided-leaf ragwort (Packera millefolium).  The third location, and perhaps the easiest to get to if you are looking for a nice drive, is on the upper south-facing slope of Sugarloaf Mountain where it grows in the boggy, grassy soils that border the road.

Indian paintbrush growing along with divided-leaf ragwort (Packera millefolium).
Indian paintbrush is named for the scarlet-colored bracts that surround the nondescript greenish-yellow flowers.  The plants literally look like they have been dipped in a red-orange paint bucket.  Individual plants are usually no more than a couple of feet tall.  The stems are deep purple.  Plants are very pubescent with hairs along the stem, leaves, bracts, and flowers.  In Hickory Nut Gorge it will be found growing on open sites, in thin, moist soils along margins of rock slabs or granite domes, and will usually be associated with grasses and sedges. 

For a long time Indian paintbrush was classified in the Figwort Family (Scrophulariaceae) due to many characteristics it shares with other members of that family, but more recently it has been moved into the Broomrape Family (Orobanchaceae), along with some other genera such as Aureolaria and Agalinis.  The move of these genera is due to the hemi-parasitic nature of these plants.  All members of the Broomrape Family are root parasites.  Several members of this family of plants lack chlorophyll and are incapable of photosynthesis, making it necessary for them to parasitize other plants. Indian paintbrush has chlorophyll and is actually capable of surviving on its own without a host, but it really thrives when it can attach itself to a host plant, particularly grasses which is what it is most often associated with.  On the Chimney Rock Mountain sites, it is likely parasitizing Biltmore sedge, as that seems to be the most numerous plant in the areas where Indian paintbrush is growing.  On the Sugarloaf Mountain site, the plants are surrounded by grasses and many other species, so there are a plethora of possible host plants.

The flowers are the greenish-yellow parts above the showy bracts.
I was so excited that I was able to catch so many plants in flower, and I'm quite certain that if I had waited for another opportunity, I would not have been so well rewarded.  Timing is everything and sometimes a little luck doesn't hurt either.  

I'm sure people get tired of me saying it, but Hickory Nut Gorge is truly a botanical wonder.  I never tire of exploring it and seeing those wonderful things that make it so special.  I have no idea what next month's flower will be, but I can tell you that it will be every bit as awesome as Indian paintbrush is for May.

Until Next Time!

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