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The Devil’s Knitting Needles

I never fail to learn something new when I edit a guidebook. Typically it’s about geography or local history, or the development of some public land—or rules and regulations on trail use. But this year I’ve spent a lot of time working on Jim’s forthcoming Wildflower Walks & Hikes: North Carolina Mountainsdue to be published April 1, 2018. It’s a trail guide, but with a particular focus. It’s a wildflower identification guide as well, but specifically for hikers in the North Carolina Mountains—the Blue Ridge, the Great Smokies, and the Highlands Plateau.

In my travels in the woods I have learned my share of wildflower names. I know trailing arbutus and spiderwort, and I can identify a sourwood tree in mid-summer bloom and when it turns red in the fall. I know a star chickweed when I see one and I even know that violets are edible and that the juice of jewelweed is a traditional antidote to poison ivy.

But I didn’t know about Devil’s knitting needles—never even heard of them. Until Jim brought a few home one day after a trip to the post office, a half-mile down the road. When  I saw them, I was amazed.

These slender, foot-tall green spikes have tiny flowers arranged up the stalk in an intertwined double spiral so exquisitely delicate, they don’t quite seem real. In fact, they are orchids, (latin name spiranthes), also commonly known as nodding ladies’ tresses. This flowering plant with two such different names blooms in the fall here in the Southern Appalachians. For an orchid, it is quite common, preferring, as one wildflower guide stated, “disturbed areas of high quality habitats” and appearing “to respond positively to occasional wildfires.”

In Wildflower Walks & Hikes, which includes a section on forest types and indicates where each described flower likes to grow, ladies’ tresses are listed as  a plant that likes “edge” or “mountain bog” forest types. This explains why Jim found them growing in a most unlikely and unromantic place—a ditch next to the 4-lane—which nevertheless qualifies as an edge forest environment, and is often damp. I meant to go back to that ditch to see more of these beautiful orchids (orchids!), but by the time I got there, the Department of Transportation mower had been through and cut everything that was growing there right to the ground. I’ll have to wait and hope they reappear next year.

You never know where you’re going to find a wildflower you didn’t know existed. But once you discover it, you can never not know about it. From now on, I think I’ll look in that ditch every fall, hoping to catch a glimpse of the lovely Devil’s knitting needles.



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