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Discovering the Exotic Natives of Pocahontas County

large purple fringed orchid. Photo courtesy of Rosanna Springston

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

Cranberry Glades has one of West Virginia’s most unique ecosystems. It’s long been known for its unusual flora – such as the 16 different species of orchids that grow there.

Cranberry Glades is really an ancient peat bog – the remains of the last glacier to recede from this area thousands of years ago.

All of this time, dead sphagnum and the detritus of thousands of years of the life and death of native plants have been collecting here.

This medium – called peat – holds water like a gigantic sponge.

So the ground is usually slightly-to-extremely swampy, and large areas are covered in dense skunk cabbage and meadow rue.

Much of Cranberry Glades’ plant life is typical of what might be found hundreds or thousands of miles north of West Virginia and thousands or millions of years back in Earth’s history.

Bog-rosemary, for instance, is one of the many plants that reaches the southernmost limit of their range at Cranberry Glades.

It can be found growing along the edges of the boardwalk.

Besides ancient and northerly species of flora and delightfully dainty orchids, cranberries can be found there – hence the name of the place.

Every year, the Cranberry Nature Center hosts an informative and entertaining West Virginia Native Orchid Tour, which draws a small crowd that comes to get face-to-face with native orchids growing in Cranberry Glades.

This year, the tour will be held on Saturday, June 29, and will once again be hosted by naturalist and Monongahela National Forest employee Rosanna Springston.

Springston is well-versed in our native flora, especially our beautiful native orchids.

She is also a customer service representative at the Cranberry Mountain Nature Center and a talented outdoor photographer, as proven by the many gorgeous photographs of Cranberry Glades’ orchids and other fauna.

“Rosanna’s strong interest in our flora has made her the resident expert at the nature center,” Cranberry Mountain Nature Center Director Diana Stull said.

“She drives for miles when someone tells her about an orchid she’s never seen.

“Rosanna can spot the flowers she’s looking for from the time they emerge from the ground. And she can spot an orchid while riding in a car at 55 mph.”

Springston takes her interest in plants a little more seriously than most.

“It’s not uncommon to find me crawling around the boardwalk looking for plants,” she admitted.

“I’m working on becoming a master naturalist. I’ve had some botanical training through college and have always loved plants. But I’ve been lucky to know some amazing plant people who were willing to share their knowledge with me.

“If anyone is interested in native orchids, the orchid tour is a good place to start. It’s nothing overly technical – you’ll get a nice overview of West Virginia orchids.

“For those who have been ‘botanizing’ for a while, I’ll go over some of the hybrids and harder to find orchids.

“Out of the 30-plus species found in West Virginia, we’ll see at least nine of them in the field that day. That’s a pretty big chunk of our orchid species.

“The tour begins with a photo power-point about our native orchids, that usually lasts about an hour.

“Then we take a five-to-ten minute break before starting the field portion. We’ll look at a few orchids here at the center and then travel to the Cranberry Glades boardwalk and an area close to the boardwalk.”

The tour will then take visitors down the half mile boardwalk built to bring visitors within sight of many species of flora.

Surrounded by red spruce, eastern hemlock, yellow birch, black birch and speckled alder, the unique ecosystem of Cranberry Glades offers a virtual stroll back into the Ice Age.

If you want to really talk orchids – Springston can get into some detail.

“Cranberry Glades is a beautiful example of a high elevation bog,” she said.

“There have been about 16 different species of orchid recorded here in Cranberry Glades. This is an acidic wetland consisting of sphagnum moss and other decomposing plant material which make it ideal for rose pogonias and grass pinks. These two orchids are considered true bog orchids – which can only be found in strongly acidic conditions like sphagnum bogs.

“One of the rarer orchids growing here is the Northern Coralroot, as it grows exclusively in acidic situations of a sphagnum bog.

“As of right now there are only two known sites in West Virginia where this orchid grows – the Cranberry Glades and the Gaudineer Knob area.

“The Northern Coralroot is also one of our earliest flowering orchids, blooming as early as May.

“West Virginia is home to around thirty-seven orchids, ranging in size from two and a half inches (Heart leaved twayblade) to two feet in height (Large purple fringed orchid).

“Some are brightly colored pinks that really put on a show and stick out, while some are small and hard to spot. Others will have blooms that last only a day like the three-birds orchid.

“Sometimes we also get oddities.

“For instance, the large purple fringed orchid which is normally a bright pink/purple has shown up as snow white before.

“Or we get crosses between two orchids in the case of the Shriver’s frilly orchid and the Keenan’s fringed, which are both a cross between the purple fringed and the ragged fringed orchids.”

But if you know absolutely nothing about orchids, you will still enjoy the tour, because there’s lots to see besides orchids.

Deep green mounds of a beautiful, hay-scented fern inhabit the understory of the surrounding forest and visitors may catch sight of an orangy-red Canada lily, the fragrant mountain laurel or its pretty pink-blooming cousin, the rosebay rhododendron.

The area is also home to running clubmoss, which likes drier and more acidic places and in more moist and shaded areas, fan clubmoss may be present.

“As we go around the boardwalk I’ll point out other plants, like the cranberries, carnivorous plants, and anything in flower that presents itself,” Springston said.

“Right now, pitcher plant, cranberries, wild raisin, elderberry, partridge berry, false hellebore, grass pink, and rose pegonia are just some of what’s blooming out there.

“We also usually get to see a few bird species, sometimes some snakes, and when the weather’s nice, we’ll get some butterflies as well.”

Everyone is welcome to  join the tour.

“We get all kinds of visitors for the tour – serious botanists, people just getting interested in plants and sometimes we’ve had people who just happened upon our event that day,” Springston said.

Plan to join Springston for the West Virginia Native Orchid Tour at the Cranberry Nature Center on Saturday, June 29, and prepare to be enchanted by our exotic West Virginia orchids.

It begins at 10 a.m. with  the indoor program.

There is no charge for the program or the tour and the nature center.

Those taking the tour should prepare to be at Cranberry Glades for about three hours or so.

“But that’s completely dependent on how many questions I get and if it rains on us,” Springston explained.

“The field portion of the tour usually lasts at least two hours – if the weather is good.”

It’s suggested that you wear sensible shoes, and you may want to pack water, rain gear and a picnic lunch – and don’t forget the camera!

The Cranberry Mountain Nature Center is located on Kennison Mountain, 23 miles east of Richwood and 14 miles west of Marlinton at the junction of WV Rts. 39/55 and Rt. 150 (Highland Scenic Highway).

The Center is open from April 15 through mid-October, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday through Monday.

For more information about the West Virginia Native Orchid Tour, Cranberry Glades, the Falls of Hills Creek, the Cranberry Nature Center, the Highland Scenic Highway or the Monongahela National Forest, contact the Nature Center at 304-653-4826.

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