By Clint Calhoun
The more I explore around Hickory Nut Gorge, the more intrigued I become with the things that I run across. From roundleaf sundews (an insectivorous plant) to Catawba rhododendron at the highest elevations of the Gorge, I am always running across something intriguing that sometimes may not be previously known to occur. The old cliché is certainly true here in that “you never know what you’ll find.”
Recently, I was doing some mapping work on the Dittmer-Watts Nature Trails (formerly Donald Ross Nature Trails) where a new trail was recently completed and others had been re-routed so that our wonderful Lake Lure Classical Academy could be constructed. I needed to get those new pathways into our mapping database so that we can redo the trail maps. While I was out there, I ran across something I had never seen before. I immediately knew that it was an orchid, but which one I wasn’t quite sure.
The Dittmer-Watts Nature Trail Park is a great place to find some acid-loving orchids. In mid-spring there are a couple of places where you can find pink lady’s slippers (Cypripedium acaule) if you know where to look. Later on in mid-summer I have seen inconspicuous cranefly orchids (Tipularia discolor) and downy rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens), an orchid whose leaves supposedly resemble the scales of a rattlesnake and were at one time thought to be a cure for snakebite. You never know what you’ll find when you hang around a place long enough.
This new orchid stood about knee level, with a showy pink flower, but otherwise nondescript. The flower was not large and in the wrong light I would have certainly missed it. I snapped off several pictures, contemplating what this new discovery might be. I quickly went back to the office and pulled out my plant books to try and solve the mystery.
My search led me to a plant commonly referred to as rosebud orchid (Cleistes divaricata). An orchid more commonly associated with the coastal plain than the piedmont, but also found on dry pine ridges in the mountains. I could find no historic records for this species for Rutherford County so I began to dig a little deeper. As it turns out, the name has been changed to Appalachian spreading pogonia (Cleistesiopsis bifaria). It has been split away from its previous genus due to some slight physiological differences, one being the lack of any apparent odor. The species also seem to be differentiated by their geographical locations, with Cleistesiopsis bifaria being limited to mountain counties. Therein, lies the uniqueness of the situation. The Dittmer-Watts Trails are located geographically in the piedmont. Most of Rutherford County lies in the piedmont. It’s not until you move up the slopes of Cane Creek Mountain and Rumbling Bald Mountain and the connecting mountains, from an elevation of 990 feet to an elevation of 2,000 feet that you are technically in the mountains or on the Blue Ridge Escarpment. This interesting little orchid lies just off the escarpment which is what makes its occurrence so interesting and representative of so many other plants in the Hickory Nut Gorge area. They occur in places where they belong ecologically, but not geographically and would otherwise be replaced by something else that would fill that particular ecological niche.
As far as I have been able to tell, there are no known documented records of Appalachian spreading pogonia anywhere in Rutherford County, which is not necessarily significant because people find new things all the time. This orchid is not considered rare as far as I know, given its range of occurrence. What is significant it that it’s here, in our Gorge, and it was previously unknown to this area. Interestingly enough, after finding this plant at Dittmer-Watts Nature Trail Park, I found it again on the trail over at Rumbling Bald in Chimney Rock State Park. For all I know, it may be scattered throughout Hickory Nut Gorge in dry, pine and laurel-filled woods. Either way, it’s a new plant for me and for our area (as far as I know). Like I said, you never know what you’ll find!
Clint Calhoun is a naturalist and biologist and has worked in Hickory Nut Gorge for over 20 years. He is currently the Environmental Management Officer for the Town of Lake Lure. Check out Clint’s blog at http://clintcalhounadventures.blogspot.com.