Our North Atlantic Coastal Plain Pitch Pine Barrens are a fascinating and magical ecosystem with specific plants and animals found only within these environments. This blog entry is dedicated to just one of many, the “Pine Barren Gentian”; and from one geographical location, the Pinelands Preserve (Pine Barrens) of the state of New Jersey.
see map to the right
A good description of this ecosystem would include a dry or damp and fire-adapted forest with a variable canopy of pitch pine and cedar, a tall-shrub layer dominated by scrub oak, and a low shrub layer characterized by blueberry and various other heaths.
The North Atlantic Coastal Plain Pitch Pine Barrens include distribution within four states, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island with the largest percentage (66%) located in New Jersey at 326,469 acres and the smallest within the state of Rhode Island (1%) at 3,782 acres. There are similar habitats farther south including the states Delaware, Virginia, the Carolina’s and Georgia. However, the state of Maryland is excluded from such habitats.
I began my exploration of the Pine Barrens about 10 years back with an aspiring interest in the photography of mysterious bog plants, especially the orchids and carnivorous species introduced to me by a close friend. Prior to that, I had visited New Jersey on many occasions for coastal avian photography and saltwater fishing. I was mystified and enchanted by the forests and lore of the area, although I have yet to meet the Jersey Devil, but I’m still hopeful of an encounter.
My interest in the various species of the gentian began with the Closed Bottle Gentians, especially those that I found in abundance along the higher elevations of the West Virginia Appalachians. These appear as just a “closed” bud, even at full bloom. Later, I had been advised of a gentian that actually opens fully exposing petals and all of its bluish splendor and could be found within the pitch-pine barren habitats of the Atlantic coastal plains. After a little research, I set my sights on the New Jersey Pinelands to look for this colorful species.
“Pictured to the left” is the “bud” of the Pine Barren Gentian with an appearance somewhat like the Closed Bottle gentians I have found and photographed in West Virginia (Dolly Sods) and Pennsylvania. (Michaux State Forest), but you will notice through the following images this gentian gives birth to a dramatic colorful and fully open display.
I tried hard for several years to find these on my own as actual locations were hardly publicized and like with orchids were kept somewhat a secret simply to protect the plants from poaching and excessive or careless visitations which I thoroughly understand and respect. Later I acquired some friends local to the barrens and established trust with them and was finally acquainted to several locations these plants could be found.
Like so many wildflowers, actual bloom times can vary from year to year based on weather and seasonal influences, but normally September to October based on geographical locations, so visits can be simply “hit or miss” with the emphasis on miss as the rule for this photographer and aspiring naturalist, “more often than not”.. However, this fall and with a bit of luck, I hit “pay dirt” on the peak bloom, except for puffy winds making serious photography extremely difficult. I literally spent 4 or more hours trying to photograph these plants between puffs of wind and the sun going in and out of the clouds wreaking havoc on the lighting and exposures. Some of these images are not as sharp and crisp as I would like due to the breeze, but I did accomplish a bit of success and of course, “there’s always next year”…….”famous last words”…
The Pine Barren Gentian was originally discovered by American naturalist William Bartram, who sent a drawing of it to George Edwards, a British naturalist and ornithologist, also known as the “father of British ornithology”. Edwards would publish it in his Gleanings of Natural History as the “Autumnal Perennial Gentian of the Desert”. However, it was not properly named until 1971, and then from specimens found within the Pine Barrens of South Carolina. I always find it fascinating to research discoveries and origins of the names of the plant species I photograph, as well as medicinal, cultural and historical data.
This gentian is a perennial herb which thrives in consistently moist, nutriment poor acidic soils and sometimes near bogs farther isolating locations for easier searches. However, it has been declining over the years like so many species of our “native plants”. I mentioned “fire adaptive” forests above and these fires help prevent the overtaking of hardwoods and invasive plant species. Many of the fires are natural in origin from lighting etc., but some are prescribed burns to maintain a proper balance of the ecosystem and habitat.
Above and below are a series of photo’s captured during this outing and for those interested I will list the gear used for their capture and a final note. Please also note that I do not give the “actual” locations of any sensitive plant, bird or animal species simply for their preservation and safety. Native plant poaching has been, and continues to be at an all time high. Besides, it’s much more gratifying to do the research and travel to discover these treasures on their own. Then hopefully you will apply the simple rules I follow to yourselves and friends.
I can honestly mention that a majority of my wildflower photography is done under my much preferred “muted” lighting conditions and sometimes even under a dark forest canopy (especially some of the wild orchids) and I often use “artificial” methods of lighting such as flash and more recently the newer LED sources where both intensity and light temperature can be controlled to produce “natural” colors lacking any harsh highlights and shadows. However, some species like the Pine Barren Gentian, require full sunlight to open their petals for a full presentation and any lack of it will cause this flower to close its petals and hide their beauty. I’ve never been successful at “inducing” those conditions with any type of artificial light.
A pollinator and a friend…
I photographed this series with the full frame Canon EOS 5D Mark III along with the new and recently released IRIX 150mm f 2.8 MACRO Dragonfly lens. IRIX is Swiss designed and manufactured in South Korea with the optical quality of much more expensive and comparable lenses, and I can hardly wait to see what’s next in their product line. I have both of their super-wide angles and have been totally impressed with the quality and build of all three of my investments. For support I used the Induro CT214 8X Carbon fiber tripod and of course my “go-to” Really Right Stuff BH 40 Ball Head, both of which are over 12 years old and still look and perform like new. The camera is attached to the ball head via an RRS Arca Swiss lever clamp to the RRS “L” bracket mounted on the camera.
I normally use a cable release and the “mirror-lockup” function enabled in the camera to further avoid any other unwanted vibrations, but due to the breeze and quick capture requirements, both were omitted. I tried it at first, but I simply wasn’t fast enough to capture an image without the flower moving out of focus, so as I mentioned, the image quality suffered a bit. I still used manual focus which is pretty much the rule for MACRO and closeup techniques as well as serious landscape work to have a positive grasp on “depth of field”. (what is in focus and what is not). I also had to use a much higher ISO and shutter-speed to help curtail movement of the blooms. Conditions like this require a lot of patience and some “cursing” under breath.
As a “final note”, I want to repeat my plea for the protection of any sensitive species, like the Pine Barren Gentian, whether plant, bird or animal by not disclosing actual locations of your finds, especially on the internet where poachers and predators lurk in the shadows on a regular basis. And I hope all of you enjoyed this presentation.