Tag Archives: wildflowers

2013 North Carolina Botanical Garden Photography Workshop Results

A few weeks ago I led a photography workshop at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. We had a great time and plenty of soft light, perfect for spring wildflowers. I asked the participants to send me their favorite images from the day and share something they learned during the workshop. Below are some highlights from the responses I received.


“Thank you for showing me that good photography requires me to slow down and pay attention.” – Karen Carelli


“I did not see the beauty and calm of this image until I brought the image closer which filtered out most of the background. The remaining branches in the background give a 3 D feeling to the picture. The two red berries became the focal point. The photo gives me the feeling of the quiet and serenity of a Japanese garden.” -David Helm


“The most important lesson for me: in creative work, don’t discard a piece until you understand why it was bad – understand your mistakes! To me, this learning point applies to all creative work and explains why some people succeed and others don’t.” – Phyllis Demko

Green Anole

Green Anole

This is the only image I shot that day. I spent most of the time helping participants make their own images with their cameras so I didn’t even take my camera out of the bag until the moment this image happened. I created this image toward the end of the day as I was sitting in the garden with one of the participants, just chatting about photography in general, not working on an image. I noticed a green anole peeping out of the vegetation as a shaft of sunlight just caught his face. I am sure I did not complete the sentence I was in the middle of as I grabbed my camera and slowly moved into position to make this image. Often the best photo opportunities happen when you are just sitting and watching.

Species Novum

A new species of wildflower has been formally described this week in the latest issue of Phytoneuron. You might expect new botanical discoveries to be from an unexplored tropical jungle, but this wildflower is found in the Piedmont of North Carolina. You might also expect that living for so long in such a populated area without being formally described would mean this plant could only be appreciated by a botanist with a hand lens, but that is not the case. This new wildflower is a strikingly beautiful species of Barbara’s-buttons.

A goldenrod crab spider hunts for prey on the newly described Oak Barrens Barbara’s-buttons.

You might also be surprised to learn this is not that unusual, and there are other plants in North Carolina, just as spectacular, that have only been recently described.

One summer evening in 2007, after a thunderstorm, I was standing on the porch of an historic house in Beaufort, North Carolina with Misty Buchanan, a botanist with the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program. We were there with a group who gather twice a year to help with field work for the Carolina Vegetation Survey. My time in the field with this group helped me learn to see the North Carolina landscape through the eyes of botanists and ecologists so I could make the images for Wild North Carolina. But this group of enthusiastic and knowledgeable people inspired me in many other ways as well. While standing on the porch, Misty told me,

“few people realize that new species of plants are still being discovered in North Carolina. About 13 new species have been discovered but haven’t been formally described because there is no funding to cover the fieldwork, herbarium research, and molecular analysis that will be necessary to understand these species well enough to formally describe them. Until these species are formally described, no regulatory agency will be allowed to take action to protect them. Some of our rarest species remain completely unprotected because we can’t get the funding to describe them.”

That conversation inspired me to create a collection of photographs of some of the newly described plants in North Carolina as well as some plants that are being studied to determine if they warrant their own name. Finding these plants was not easy. First, most of these plants have gone so long without being described because they are very rare, some only occurring at one location. Second, only a few people know when to expect these plants to be at their most showy. I could not have made these images without the help of some of the State’s best botanists, advising me where and when to look for these plants and how to recognize them.

Dr. Alan Weakley of the UNC Herbarium was particularly helpful in either advising me or directing me to the appropriate expert. You can look up all these plants in his new Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States, available as a free pdf download from The University of North Carolina Herbarium website.

The important work of the UNC Herbarium, North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program, and others is essential to assure that the full wonder of our State’s flora is realized and its conservation accomplished.

Oak Barrens Barbara’s-buttons (Marshallia legrandii). This plant had been known since the 1950s from a single specimen collected from a site where it is no longer found. In the 1980s, Harry Legrand, with the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, discovered a small population of these plants growing on a site in Granville County North Carolina with an unusual basic soil. This plant is most similar to Spoonshape Barbara’s-buttons (Marshallia obovata) but blooms about a month later. Today these plants are known from only 3 sites, 2 in Granville County North Carolina and 1 in Halifax County Virginia.


Sandhills Bog Lily (Lilium pyrophilum). This “fire-loving” lily is one of the rarest species in North Carolina. Only 250 individual plants have been found, all in small populations. These plants were first noted in the 1940s, but for years were assumed to be just a variation of Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii). Later, this species was thought to be the same species as a rare lily from the Gulf coast of Florida. Dr. Mark Skinner, a National Plant Data Center botanist, and Bruce Sorrie, a Southern Pines botanist and UNC-Chapel Hill Herbarium associate, were the first to formally describe the plant in 2002. Unlike similar lilies, the Sandhills Bog Lily grows in bogs, blooms later, and has smaller flowers and leaves.


Rhiannon’s Aster (Symphyotrichum rhiannon). This very rare plant is known from only one site in the southern mountains of North Carolina with unusual soils derived from a rock type known as serpentine. Although the site is on National Forest land, the plant was threatened by mining interests until it was discovered and protected. It was first noted as something different in 1980 by Laura Mansberg (now Laura Cotterman of the North Carolina Botanical Garden). Rhiannon’s Aster was formally described in 2004 by Guy Nesom, Gary Kauffman, Tom Govus, Alan Weakley and Laura Mansberg and is named after Alan Weakley’s daughter. You can read the story of how this plant was named on the Endeavors web site.


Hill Cane (Arundinaria appalachiana). This rare native bamboo was described as a variety of Giant Cane (Arundinaria gigantea var. decidua) almost 90 years ago. Botanists began to question that identification because, unlike Giant Cane that grows tall along rivers, this short plant was found on hillsides. It also drops its leaves in the fall after they turn a bright yellow while the other two native bamboo species are evergreen. Hill Cane was formally described as a distinct species in 2006 by Jimmy Triplett, Alan Weakley and Lynn Clark.


Yadkin River Goldenrod (Solidago plumosa). J.K. Small discovered this species in 1894 growing on river-scoured rocks along the Yadkin River. This rare goldenrod was believed lost when it’s only known habitat was flooded by the construction of two dams in 1917 and 1919. In 1994, almost 100 years to the day after it was first (and last) seen, Dr. Alan Weakley searched for and found these plants growing along a small rocky stretch of the Yadkin River that had escaped the flooding. The only known site for this species is currently unprotected.


Savanna Onion (Allium sp. nov.). This rare plant was originally collected by Steve Leonard, former curator of the UNC Herbarium, in the early 1980s. It is only known to grow on a rare type of longleaf pine savanna underlain by limestone. The unusually high pH of these soils support many rare species. This plant is similar to nodding onion (Allium cernuum) which is only found in the Piedmont of North Carolina and west, while savanna onion is found in the outer coastal plain. This plant also flowers at a different time, and the leaves are a different shape. Dr. Alan Weakley and Richard LeBlond are currently working to formally describe this plant. This plant is protected on only one site in Pender County managed by The Nature Conservancy.


Batson’s Lobelia (Lobelia sp. nov.). This species found in wet streamheads and seepage slopes in the Sandhills of North and South Carolina is under study by Dr. Bert Pittman, a botanist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ Heritage Trust Program. It will be named Lobelia batsonii in honor of Dr. Wade T. Batson, former curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina.


North Carolina Piedmont Prairies

I recently returned from a trip to photograph some of the remnant prairies near Charlotte, North Carolina. My sister lives in Charlotte so I got to spend some time with her as well. She has these canisters on a shelf between her kitchen and living room with things like sugar, flour, salt, you know, the staples. I have been telling her for years it would be hilarious if one of the canisters had actual staples in it. Then she could watch the faces of her guests as they tried to figure out why office supplies were mixed in with the food. Well, she finally did it and was waiting for me to arrive so she could see how long it would take me to notice. I did not notice at first. I walked in the door, hugged her neck, and then, about 20 seconds later, I noticed it and burst out laughing! See, I was right, it is hilarious!



Anyway, back to the prairies. It seems strange to think about prairies in North Carolina. Today they are all but gone yet early explorers reported extensive prairies in the North Carolina Piedmont. Most of the evidence suggests these prairies were created and maintained by Native Americans. Many of the plants and animals that depended on the open conditions of the prairies now struggle to survive or are gone. I chose this time to visit because one of these plants, the federally endangered Schweinitz’s Sunflower, was at its peak flowering.

Schweinitz's Sunflower

Schweinitz's Sunflower

 One of the sites I visited was Mineral Springs Barren, a Plant Conservation Preserve whose purpose is to improve the habitat for the Schweinitz’s Sunflower. The few remnant prairies like this one are faint reminders of what once was, but from certain angles and perspectives, and with some imagination, I could see the open fields and bison that once characterized this area.

Mineral Springs Barren

Mineral Springs Barren


It is so refreshing to see the first of the spring ephemerals emerge after a long winter, especially now with so many people caught up in the world’s economic troubles. They are reminders of the inexorable forces that create life and drive it forward. Forces that are far greater than anything we create.

Just after dawn I came upon a newly emerged bloodroot flower. Drops of rain still clung to the delicate unopened petals. Light shone through, and I could just make out the shape and color of the bright yellow stamens waiting inside.



What was I doing? Oh yea, spring ephemerals.

Spring is here and the woods are coming back to life! Today I worked at Swift Creek Bluffs. I arrived early in the morning when the light was gentle. High thin clouds helped diffuse the light well into the morning. Spring peepers were singing, a downy woodpecker was drumming high up in the beech trees trying to attract a mate, several chickadees were busy excavating a cavity in a dead beech branch, and the ground was covered in spring beauties, trout lilies, and the first signs of many other early wildflowers.

There was so much going on I was having trouble focusing on my subject. Focusing my mind I mean, the camera had no trouble focusing. Good compositions don’t usually just jump out at me, I have to work at it. At some point I have to stop taking it all in and focus my thoughts on what I am trying to photograph. In this case, I was here to photograph spring ephemerals. Swift Creek Bluffs has one of the best displays of spring ephemerals I have seen in this area. I started to think,

“these plants emerge, flower, produce seeds, and disappear, all within a few months. They start growing earlier than most plants in the forest so they can take advantage of the abundant sunlight, moisture, and nutrients available at this time of year. Conditions will become much more difficult for them once the trees start producing leaves, creating deep shade, and absorbing much of the available water and nutrients. It’s an interesting strategy, although they still have to contend with cold, and there are not that many pollinators this time of year. These plants tend to remain very close to the ground where it’s a little warmer, and they tend to have showy flowers to attract the few pollinators that are out. Ugh! You see, there I go! Stop thinking about ecology and focus on what you are doing!”

Okay, after beating myself up for a minute, I finally found a nice trout lily, got the camera out, set up the tripod, and started to get down on the ground for a trout lily’s perspective. That’s when I noticed the poison ivy. Now, you have to keep in mind that at this time of year the poison ivy has no leaves, just little stems sticking up a few inches from the ground, and they were everywhere! They look harmless enough but I have learned from experience not to lay down on these, because if you break them bad things happen a few days later.

So, after awhile I found another nice trout lily, this time without any toxic neighbors. I got down on the ground, found a nice composition and started fine tuning it and working on the lighting. Finally, I was in the zone, time was flying, and I almost had a composition I liked. I did not even notice how uncomfortably contorted my body was as I struggled to look through my camera suspended just a quarter inch off the ground. And that’s when I saw it, coming right at me. It took a second for my eyes to refocus from looking through the camera to what ever this was. It was about 8 inches long, skinny, brown, and about 10 inches from my head and closing fast!

“Snake! Oh never mind, it’s just an earthworm. I didn’t know they made them that big! I can’t believe it can move that fast. Where is it going in such a hurry? Okay, what was I doing? Oh yea, I’m photographing this trout lily.”

Trout Lily

Trout Lily