The year 2012 has been a fantastic adventure for “Birds and Blooms” on my part. I practically dedicated my entire spring to photographing the flora of my area, Texas and a few select areas of the southeast.
A few years back, a fellow photographer and friend, Mary Konchar from Cambridge Maryland, introduced me to a brilliant 89-year-old “youngster” by the name of Elmer Schweitzer. Elmer and I share a love for birds, but his passion for photographing wildflowers, especially wild orchids and his love for, knowledge of and dedication to the conservation of the species is overwhelming. Elmer and I hit it off right away with our old school attitudes towards the craft of photography and our love for the natural world. I knew very little about plants and blooms, but I’ve had a fascination for many years. And now “picking” Elmer’s brain has been and continues to be an adventure. I do my best to reciprocate for Elmer’s sharing of his friendship, knowledge and direction by helping him find and photograph birds as well as a little tutelage of digital post processing, but my attempts only underscore his generosity! Elmer’s personality is a “Hoot” as well! Everyday spent with this gentle soul ends with a smile and a yearning anticipation for the next outing.
Since joining the Wildlife South staff as a writer, photographer, and photographic forums moderator, my curiosity for flora has “blossomed” (pardon the pun) and I developed an interest in the genus of Trillium which includes 40 to 50 species of spring ephemeral perennials. A recent Wildlife South article, “Trillium in the South” by Will Stuart enhanced my interest in this species. I was fascinated by the names Wake-robin, tri flower and birthroot and especially any medicinal uses by Native Americans as so many of the plant species have to offer. Folklore suggests that Trillium was used to facilitate childbirth and to treat other female problems by the women of many Native American tribes. Trillium root was considered to be a sacred female herb and they only spoke of it to their medicine women.
I had mentioned the genus and my interest to Elmer on occasion and he responded with excitement on sharing his knowledge of “secret spots” and well-known locations to find the species. One of which was the smallest, earliest and rarest of the family, the Snow Trillium. Our adventure and quest for the Snow Trillium began with an early morning rise and a long trip west on the Pennsylvania turnpike towards Pittsburgh and New Stanton. I will not divulge the exact location as it is not mine to share. However, this species can be found in several locations in western Pennsylvania, with a few being well-known and popular. Ours were located on a hillside along an old railroad grade beside a creek. Trillium navale or Snow Trillium are considered rare and threatened and can only found in the counties of Beaver, Allegheny, Westmoreland, Washington, Indiana and Armstrong in Pennsylvania as of today. It is one of the first wildflowers to emerge during March and April and as the name suggests, the blooms can be found with snow still on the ground.
We were very pleased to “hit it just right” and find a nice collection of plants and blooms at this location although some had been stomped down by less knowledgeable human sightseers. Elmer gets quite “red-faced” with disgust when he finds a lack of consideration or appreciation for his beloved wildflowers. He is always very passionate with me about “treading lightly” and paying close attention to where I step. I respect and admire that! I can picture a few times in the past where I might have destroyed a few plants by accident for my lack of cautious footing. We spent a good two hours here photographing the blooms and enjoying their presence. We concluded our day with a side trip to Ohiopyle State Park and the falls of the Youghiogheny River.
My next exploration for the Trillium species would be a pleasant addition to the end to our annual spring pilgrimage home to the Texas Gulf coast with a little side trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina on the return to Pennsylvania. We spent the night in Pigeon Forge Tennessee and with an early morning departure, began the trek along the drive in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and then continued northward towards Asheville North Carolina. The drive was lovely with very little traffic so pulling off for a few pictures was an ease. One of these days I would like to do the entire length from Virginia to Tennessee or vice versa with ample time to thoroughly enjoy this scenic route. There is so much to see and do.
Besides looking for Trillium, I was fascinated by the Bluets, Houstonia serpyllifolia Michx-Thymeleaf bluet (Quaker Ladies, Blue-eyed Babies) blooming among the drips of the rocky outcroppings along the drive. The species Houstonia is named for William Houston, a botanist in the early 1700’s who is also known as the man who introduced buddleia into cultivation. These tiny gems were fun to observe and photograph. (Pictured below)
Another interesting find was a species of Indian Paintbrush, castilleja coccinea that closely resembles our Texas species, Castilleja indivisa with the same name. The Indian Paintbrush and the Texas Bluebonnet, Lupinus texensis are the jewels of the Texas spring wildflower season. There were other notable species but the list is too lengthy to give all their due as Trillium was my primary quest.
As we descended in elevation, we began to find the first and only Trillium species visible along this portion of the drive, roadside within the ravines of the hardwood forested sections, Trillium grandiflorum with common names including Large-flower wakerobin, Large-flowered trillium and White trillium. There were numerous sightings along the drive but not many locations were easily accessible for safely pulling off to the side of the road for photography. But I did manage to find a couple of spots for a nice picture or two. (below) We enjoyed the rest of the drive and exited just south of Roanoke Virginia to continue our trip home on the much faster interstate highways.
Returning home and back to the weekly grind of work brought more weekend outings with Elmer and continued Trillium seeking adventures along with other wildflowers from our area.
Elmer had mentioned a location in Lancaster County that I had driven by many times without ever a thought of stopping for a visit, more less knowing that it was a Trillium hotspot. It’s called the Shenk’s Ferry Wildflower Preserve owned by the PPL Energy Corporation along the Susquehanna River. I will include a link for the preserve at the bottom of this article.
The preserve is located within a rich ravine habitat housing a small tributary flowing into the Susquehanna River. Following Shenk’s Ferry road from River road you will descend into a valley and enter a small bumpy dirt affair leading through a dark old railroad tunnel and on to the trail head and parking areas. You can find brochures for the area at the trail head. The tempered climate due to the steepness and depth of the ravine creates a diverse and gentle eco-system and environment allowing the may species of wildflowers to flourish that grow there. The species of Trillium found at the preserve include Trillium Erectum v. album, Trillium flexipes or Trillium grandiflorum. (Pictured below)
Another predominant species is the Virginia Bluebell, (Mertensia Virgininica). Visiting the preserve at just the right time can present one with a swath of white and blue color lining the ravine with a visual splendor. Other wildflowers found within the preserve include the round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana) , Eastern Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis), Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), Trout lily (Erythronium americanum), the Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica,), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Early saxifrage (Saxifraga virginiensis) and an invasive exotic, Ranunculus ficaria, Lesser celandine.
Elmer and I spent several hours at the preserve exploring and photographing the Trillium and a few of the other species. I was like a child in a candy store and forever badgering Elmer’s expertise. I’m sure he felt like a walking Encyclopedia. We ended this outing at the Lancaster County Park and a lovely garden known as the “Garden of Five Senses”. The garden is dazzling with color throughout the year, and during spring and summer, its flowers provide a bouquet of scents. The garden sits on a hill overlooking the Conestoga River and is open to the public year round.
Elmer wanted to introduce me to another species of Trillium as well as some variations to one we had already photographed. This was “home turf” to Elmer as his original residence was in Lancaster city.
Elmer had to use a stick to part the surrounding plants to expose the new species, Toadshade trillium (Trillium sessile). The variation of the previous species at Shenk’s Ferry was the red version of the Wakerobin (Trillium Erectum). Both were lovely and are pictured below. What a wonderful and educational day it had been.
My final lesson on the Trillium and the discovery of another species to add to my list was during a trip to photograph the Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabilis), Pink Lady’s Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium acaule) and the Yellow Lady’s-Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium calceolus) in upper Lancaster County Pennsylvania and the hills near the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area. During our hike to Elmer’s secret treasure trove of orchids he pointed out the Nodding Wakerobin, Trillium cernuum. It was tiny with the bloom under its large leaves. I would have passed it by without hesitation and hardly a notice. It is pictured below.
For a new Trillium species, we hope to travel north and eastward this coming spring to photograph the Painted Trillium, Trillium undulatum, the most colorful and the loveliest of the genus. Elmer states “He knows where to find them” and I’m excited!
My knowledge of wildflowers is forever growing and I can successfully ID many species through a network of reference materials I have put together over the past months. But it’s a “heck of a lot more fun” to pick the brain of my friend and enjoy his dry wit at the same time! I hope you enjoyed our Trillium adventures.
For more information on the Shenk’s Ferry Wildflower Preserve…. Go Here!