This past weekend my family and I made our now annual trip to the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest. I first heard about Cranberry Glades several years ago — from an orchid book by Stanley Bentley called Native Orchids of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and a blog I read called floraofohio.blogspot.com by Andrew Gibson — and we have gone every year since then.
Cranberry Glades is a series of large, high elevation peat bogs at around 3400 feet, which contains many plants typically found in more northern regions. Some of these plants are relicts of the last Ice Age, surviving only in this high montane valley and no where else in the Southern Appalachians. Many species of native orchid can also be found in and around the glades, including swamp pink, rose pogonia, large purple fringed orchid, ragged fringed orchid, and their hybrid, Keenan’s fringed orchid.
The air felt warm and fresh as we got out of the car, a noticeable difference from the mugginess of the lower elevations we had left behind. We walked onto the half mile boardwalk that traverses part of Round and Flag Glades. Near the parking lot, the canopy was closed with red spruce, eastern hemlock, yellow birch and black birch. Thickets of speckled alder grew along the stream. The ground was slightly swampy, covered in dense skunk cabbage and meadow rue growing above clumps of Sphagnum moss. The canopy opened up around us as the boardwalk led out into the bog. Dense tussocks of Sphagnum carpeted the ground, with both small and large cranberries growing out of them in clumps. It was amazing to think of the many feet of dead Sphagnum and other plant materials below us — called peat— holding water like a gigantic sponge. Bog-rosemary, one of the plants reaching the southernmost limit of its range at Cranberry Glades, grew along the edges of the boardwalk. Small sprigs of a chokeberry species waved in the air a couple feet off the ground. Soon the tiny, delicate pink flowers of grass pinks and rose pogonias began to appear amid the tangle of cranberry vines.
We rounded a bend into a second glade, this one filled with clumps of giant cinnamon fern growing out of the Sphagnum. Grass pinks bloomed beneath the ferns outstretched fronds. As I was photographing a round leaved sundew, I heard a group of people come up behind us, eagerly searching for one of the insect-eating sundews. They had clearly heard about them but couldn’t find any. I thought this was funny because sundews are all over the ground there, but they are so tiny that if you don’t bend down and look closely you can’t see them. I pointed out sundews and the also carnivorous purple pitcher plants to the group and they were very grateful.
After lunch we decided to walk the cowpasture trail, which goes all the way around the glades through spruce woodlands and open, wet clearings. In past years, we had found several species of orchids along it.
The wide, level cowpasture trail led into the woods from the road. Magnolia and Canada warblers sang from the spruce, hemlock and rhododendron that lined the path. I heard the slow, nasal call of a red-breasted nuthatch. Not long after the start of the trail, the forest opened up into a large mountain meadow. Meadowsweets and goldenrods grew thickly in the drier areas, while the wet seep in the center of the clearing was filled with rushes and sedges. A pair of mating eastern red damsels perched briefly in front of me.
Back in the forest, mountain wood sorrel and various northern clubhouses appeared along the edges of the trail. We arrived at a smaller clearing, and the wet ditch beside the trail exploded with vegetation. Sorting carefully through the lush foliage, I was able to find the inconspicuous green flower stalk of a northern tubercled orchid. It became apparent there were many more in this small ditch, the only place I have ever seen them.
We continued hiking down the trail, listening to the songs of breeding birds that are rare in Virginia, such as hermit thrushes and several species of warblers. I saw some of the wide, round leaves of pad-leaved orchid growing on a dirt bank under hemlocks, but unfortunately there were no flowers. In another clearing I found one blooming ragged fringed orchid, along with one that had been eaten by a deer.
Some time later we emerged back onto the road. As we were walking towards our car, a pick up truck pulled up and a man got out and began to inspect the road bank. My mom, always on the look out for helpful local knowledge, asked him what he was looking for. He showed us a patch of ragged fringed orchid further up the road that we probably would have missed.
He told us he’d met Stanley Bentley, the author of the book from which I learned about Cranberry Glades in the first place, and about the orchids that grew right in his back yard. In the end, he gave us directions to his “secret spot” for a patch of about 40 large purple fringed orchids, although he warned us they were “a little spent.” This information was especially exciting because I had searched for this species every time we came, but had never found it.
After a bit of a treasure hunt trying to follow his directions, we thought we found the spot and parked. We climbed over a guard rail and down the slope into a marsh. Sphagnum grew on the ground, and there were even a few cattails. Stunted red spruce trees grew around the edges. The first large purple fringed orchids we found were two old withered flower stalks, almost completely obscured by a bush. I was getting worried as I walked towards the other end of the marsh. Where were the orchids? Luckily it turned out they were all clustered at the other end. Many even still had very good looking flowers.
What a beautiful plant!