Wild Ideas: Showy orchis and a not-so-showy butterfly

Pam Owen
The showy orchis, a native orchid that lives up to its name, is now blooming in the rich woodland areas of Rappahannock County. Pam Owen

At this time of year, keeping up with what’s blooming can be difficult, and exhausting, but also very rewarding.

After enjoying the two recent plant walks I wrote about last week, the leader of the first one, Carrie Blair, lured me back out into ephemeral country with the possibility of seeing showy orchis blooming, a first time for me. Sworn to secrecy because of Carrie’s wanting to preserve these lovely native orchids, I can only say it’s in the Rappahannock portion of Shenandoah National Park (’nuf said).

It was a warm, rainy day — the kind of day that lends itself to searching for wildflowers, especially when it’s been so dry. These delicate flowers look great in the subtle light of rainy days, with drops of water glistening on them and their detail not wiped out by a fiercely shining sun.

What appears to be an eastern female Juvenal’s duskywing butterfly lands atop a blooming yellow archangel, which, despite its looking like Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors,” is not carnivorous.
What appears to be an eastern female Juvenal’s duskywing butterfly lands atop a blooming yellow archangel, which, despite its looking like Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors,” is not carnivorous. Pam Owen

However, “photography” literally means, in Greek, “writing with light,” and rainy days make that process a lot more difficult. I’m reminded of the phrase I learned from my photography instructors and passed along to my students back when I taught photography at a community college in Wyoming. It invariably popped out when I saw their penchant for shooting in challenging lighting conditions, which my instructors would often characterize as “trying to shoot a black cat in a cave at midnight by available darkness.” While shooting on this rainy day was not quite that extreme, it does have its challenges, especially when you are averse to lugging around a tripod, as I am.

Although most spring ephemerals are undeniably beautiful and a joy to see, the main point of this excursion for me was to get more photos of plants that were not already in my photo catalog. I’ve been working hard to document as much as I can as I emerges to help me identify species later and for supplementing my nature writing.

Not too far down the trail Carrie had led me to, we found several species of wildflowers in various stages of reproduction, from barely showing their leaves to budding, peak bloom, and past bloom. The showy orchis, sprinkled along the trail in groups or alone, didn’t disappoint. As with most orchids, this little flower’s pink-and-white blooms are exquisite.

That day, and over the past weeks at several locations in the county, I photographed other native wildflowers in bloom as well, including blackhaw, rue anemone, cranesbill (wild geranium), false Solomon seal, kidneyleaf buttercup, golden ragwort, mayapple and the lovely, ethereal perfoliate bellwort. Carrie helped me with IDs when I came up dry on that.

Pam Owen
The trumpet blooms of the delicate perfoliate bellwort nod in the sun after a spring rain. Pam Owen

Not totally satisfied with the results of shooting the showy orchis in the rain, I headed back to take another shot — more like a hundred — on Sunday (April 24), which was a beautiful, sunny spring day that started out a bit chilly. Although I like the quality of light in the rain, especially for such delicate flowers that are partly white, I could get better depth of field (more in focus, front to back) with the extra light.

That day I also got the bonus of photographing a small, brownish butterfly on top of one of the yellow archangel blooms on the same trail. I thought the butterfly was one of the duskywings, which are notoriously hard to sort out. I decided, after consulting my favorite field guides, “Butterflies of North America” (a Kaufman Focus Guide) and “Butterflies through Binoculars,” that it was an eastern female Juvenal’s duskywing.  

Although I may be too busy to attend them, some great opportunities to see spring ephemeral wildflowers are coming up this week and next. One is a walk along Thompson Wildlife Management Area’s Trillium Trail, led by VNPS, on Friday, April 30, and Thursday, May 4. If you have never taken this walk — or even if you have, I highly recommend it. When the large-flowered, or great white, trillium are in bloom, it’s truly amazing. And other lovely spring ephemeral wildflowers bloom there at the same time. The following weekend, May 7-8, Shenandoah National Park has its Wildflower Weekend, with walks and other activities. See the sidebar for more about these walks and about two native-plant sales coming up.

© 2016 Pam Owen

Native-plant events

Wildflower Walks

VNPS Trillium Walks (April 30, 9:30-3; May 4, 5 p.m.): This Virginia Native Plant Society walk features one of the largest displays in the world (millions) of great white trillium, other spring wildflowers, including native orchids, trees and a variety of wildlife. Local naturalist, storyteller and blogger Alonso Abugattas leads the first walk (April 30), on a somewhat rocky two-mile trail, and discussions on plant folklore, natural history, identification and ethnobotany. At Thompson Wildlife Management Area, near Linden. Free and open to the public, but space is limited, so RSVP is required vnps20160430.eventbrite.com. VNPS holds another trillium walk on the evening of May 4 at the same location, led by VNPS members Kristin Zimet and Carrie Blair; contact piedmontvnps@gmail.com for questions about this walk. For more information, go to vnps.org/events.

Shenandoah National Park Wildflower Weekend (May 7-8): Join the park for its 30th annual Wildflower Weekend. Learn about and enjoy some of the park’s 850+ species of flowering plants, 70 percent of which are native, on wildflower walks and at workshops and other activities. For more information, including a downloadable schedule, go to tinyurl.com/wi-wildflowerweekend.

Native-plant Sales

Rappahannock Plant Sale (Apr. 30, 9–3): This is the perfect time to start planning for your garden. As in past 14 years, this sale has a wide selection of native and cultivated plants offered by local growers. But some great plants, discuss plants with experts and your plant-loving neighbors, swap gardening stories and enjoy some refreshments. At Waterpenny Farm, on U.S. 211, Sperryville, rain or shine.

State Arboretum Garden Fair (May 7-8, 9-4:30): Select vendors offer perennials, native plants, small trees and shrubs, fine items for the garden, food and much more at the arboretum’s 27th annual Garden Fair. Admission $12 per car if paid online before May 4, $15 after; children’s activities, 12-2 both days, free with Garden Fair admission. At Blandy Experimental Farm, 400 Blandy Farm Lane, Boyce. Go to blandy.virginia.edu for more information.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 340 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”