Saturday, July 14, 2012

Some Native Lilies in Virginia

I love this picture.  This is trailside on the way to Kelly's Knob in southwestern Virginia. There are at least 7 species of flowering plants in this photo.  The ones I can identify at a glance are Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule), Mayflower (Epigaea repens), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), Carolina lily (Lilium michauxii), and Flame Azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum) This photo teaches us an important lesson about how to consider growing choice plants such as these. First, Cypripedium acaule is impossible to grow under conditions that do not closely resemble its native habitat.  The other species here are more forgiving and several of them can be grown in areas outside of their range under modified conditions.  The thing to remember is that these are old soils; they are highly leached and very acidic.  It would be hard, if not impossible, to literally recreate these conditions in the garden.  An absolution can be had.  I have found that many of these plants will grow well in cultivation if planted in a medium composed of 50:50 sphagnum peat to silica (blasting sand).  Certainly, Lilium michauxii and the Ericaceous plants thrive under these conditions.

I was not expecting to see Lilium michauxii here, but was surprised to find dozens of immature plants growing along the trail.  We were able to find one flowering plant and the flower was badly damaged.  Fortunately though we were still able to detect the slight, sweet fragrance reported for this species.  Although I have seen this species in several other more southerly locations, this is the first time I have ever seen it in flower.  For me, this is definitely what botanists call a "Life Plant".

Another view of the flower.  Note that one of the petals and all of the anthers are missing.  It appeared as thought the flower had been pollinated.

Here is a view of the entire flowering plant.  There were several sterile stems at the base that formed a loose clump.  I removed some of the leafy mulch around the base of the plant to find that the bulbs were very shallow, and further inspection revealed that they were growing on top of a shallow stone!  The good part about this was that I was able to collect a few bulbs scales for propagation.  The soil here (if it can be called that) is very unique and characteristic of much of the Cumberland plateau and Appalachian mountain region.  It is essentially 3-8 inches of partially decomposed, oak leaves on top of relatively coarse stone that rapidly gives way to large boulders.  Sounds dry, but conditions could best be described as "moist, but well-drained".

A few more thoughts about Lilium michauxii. The population I discovered was near the northern terminus for this species' distribution.  You might think that plants at this latitude would be at low elevation where the climate is more mild, but these plants were found at about 3500 feet in election.   Even for Virginia, this is a relatively high elevation and I am sure that these plants are subjected to freezing winter conditions and high winds.  My thought is that they may be better plants for more northern gardens where southern genotypes of this species may not be so hardy.  Is anyone growing material from this region or from more northern populations in Virginia?

The Bald on Whitetop Mountain Virginia.  The habitat of Lilium grayi.  Don't get too excited because we couldn't find it.  Probably about 10 days too late to catch the flowers.  Lilium grayi has been something of a conundrum for me.  I have tried to see it in the wild on four separate occasion with no success.  This species continues to elude me.

Here is a lower forested region on Whitetop just blow the bald.  These misty woods are a signature of high elevations in the southern Appalachians and you never know what you might find...

We found several plants of Lilium superbum growing here and most of them were large, but non-flowering plants that appeared to be suffering from drought conditions as many of them were going dormant. 

As we left the forest made our way back onto the bulb, I saw a tiny flash of orange through the mist (can you see the tiny flash?)

Just beyond the stunted, misty forest in the transition zone to the bald were several very large flowering plants of Lilium superbum.  I never get tired of seeing this species. This 6 foot tall behemoth is growing among brambles (Rubus sp.) that likely protect it from foraging deer.  Many stems of the lily were growing in these conditions and were by far the largest plants at this site.

Details of the flower

Skipping forward in the trip to the area around Clinch mountain we came upon Laurel Bed Lake.  In wet sandy areas around the lake are thousands of plants of the beautiful orange fringed orchid (Platanthera ciliaris).   A few plants can be seen flowering in this photo.

The main attraction at this sight was not the orchids, but a power line right-of-way near the lake where thousands of robust plants of Lilium superbum could be found.  They were in prime flowering condition.  Unfortunately my photographic efforts were thwarted by the driving rain of the afternoon.  This would be prime location for future seed collection

The detail of the reverse of a Lilium superbum flower.  A fitting way to end this post.

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