Friday, June 23, 2017


A Lazy Botanist's Dream Come True !

What is ‘car hiking’? As a botanist I define ‘car hiking’ as the concept of driving along interesting roads and stopping to explore plants. However, I have heard rumors that the concept of car hiking is also practiced by birders, geologists, and other outdoor enthusiasts.  But whatever your interest, the concept is basically the same. Once you spot something of interest you stop, walk, explore, return to the car, drive, and repeat! The benefits of car hiking are:

  • You can cover a large distance in a relatively short period of time
  • If you don’t see much of interest where you are it is easy to go somewhere different
  • You can carry many items of luxury in your car: cooler, food, drinks, extra clothing, field guides, heavy camera equipment…..
  • You get the false sense that you are actually exercising and burning calories
  • It allows and encourages you to explore new roads and areas
  • You can see a large number of species in one day

To do car hiking properly you need at least two people. One person is the designated driver (for safety purposes) and the second person acts as a spotter and yells, “STOP”. Once “STOP” is yelled there is much frantic activity to find a suitable parking site as quickly as possible. This may require turning the car around several times on a section of road (usually very curvy and narrow) until the desired ratio of walking distance and safety are achieved.  For many years I have successfully car hiked with my friend Emily. She volunteers to be the designated driver (apparently I swerve wildly when pointing to plants) and with my botany background I am the spotter. Over the years I have actually gotten quite good at identifying plants at 45 mph and Emily has developed a sixth sense that alerts her to my potential cry of “STOP” (probably my frantic arm waving, forward craned neck, and animated sounds of oooh, oooh, oooh!).

Emily Whiteley, my designated 'Car Hiking' driver!

One of our favorite places to car hike is the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP)!  The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469 mile scenic drive that connects the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. The road mostly follows the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountain portion of the Appalachian Mountains.1 

View of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mount Mitchell  State Park. Notice the blue haze that gives the mountains their name.

The BRP passes thru a variety of plant communities ranging from low elevation Oak Forests to mid elevation Cove Forests to high elevation Spruce-Fir Forests. By driving from south to north, or from a low elevation to a higher elevation, a botanist can follow the bloom of spring ephemerals for several months.  Also, the large range of plant communities allows for a great diversity of plant species. I have posted some samples of flowers I have seen along the BRP. 

Wake-robin Trillium - Trillium erectum seen at  

Crabtree Falls Campground at MP 339.5.

Catawba Rhododendron - Rhododendron catawbiense

commonly seen along the BRP at higher elevations in 

June, especially Craggy Gardens at MP 364.6.

White Campion - Silene latifolia seen in
June at 
Licklog Gap Overlook at MP 435.7.

Flame Azalea - Rhododendron calendulaceum is

a common sight all along the BRP in late spring.

Turk's Cap Lily - Lilium superbum

common sight along the BRP in July.

Pale Touch-me-not - Impatiens pallida commonly
seen all along the BRP during the summer and early fall.

A Gentian flower species at 

Wolf Mountain Overlook at MP 424.8.

Mountain Ash - Sorbus americana berries in
late fall near Pisgah Inn at MP 408.6.

Here are a few roads in Western N.C. you may want to explore by car hiking:

  • Pearson Falls Rd, Saluda, NC (best in early spring)
  • Forest Service Road 74 through the Big Ivy area near Barnardsville, N.C.
  • Any of the forest service roads in the Wilson Creek area near Morganton, N.C. 
  • US 441 - Newfound Gap Road from Gatlinburg to Cherokee N.C. 
  • "Old NC Highway 105 " from Linville Falls to Lake James - you may need a 4-wheel drive vehicle (best in late summer and fall)

I hoped I have inspired you to try car hiking and explore North Carolina’s rich botanical heritage!


1. "America's Favorite Drive." National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 23 June 2017. <>.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Commonly Confused N.C. Ferns

Series I: 

Onoclea sensibilis vs. Woodwardia areolata

Many people have trouble distinguishing between Sensitive Fern, Onoclea sensibilis, and Netted Chain Fern, Woodwardia areolate, especially when the fertile fronds are not visible. At a quick glance they are very similar (Table 2) but, once you know what features to focus on they are easily identified!

Onoclea sensibilis or Sensitive Fern is a medium sized fern found commonly in all three regions of North Carolina. The common name ‘Sensitive Fern’ is derived from the fronds being easily damaged and dying when exposed to frost, even a light frost. The ferns are also ‘sensitive’ to drought and extreme exposure to direct sunlight 1, 2. It grows in low wet areas such as wet ditches, marshes, swamps, and along stream margins. The ferns are dimorphic with separate and distinct fertile and sterile fronds. The sterile frond is one-pinnatifid with obvious wings along the rachis connecting the opposite pinnae. The lower pinnae may be one-pinnate and are sinuate to deeply lobed (Figures 1, 3). All pinnae have rounded tips (obtuse) and entire margins (Figure 3). The fertile frond is characterized by rows of rounded bead-like sori that quickly turn brown (Figure 5).

Woodwardia areolata or Netted Chain Fern is a medium sized fern found across the state but more commonly in the lower piedmont and coastal plain. The common name is derived from the unique elongated sori arranged in chains (Figure 6, 7).The ferns grow in moist habitats similar to Sensitive Fern. Plants are dimorphic and the sterile fronds are one-pinnatifid with obvious wings connecting the alternating pinnae, the lower pinnae may be one-pinnate. (Figure 2).  On some plants pinnae may be sinuate but they are never lobed as in Sensitive Fern. Pinnae are pointed at the tips (acute to acuminate) and are finely toothed (serrulate) on the margins, you may need a hand lens to see this latter feature (Figure 4). The fertile frond is one-pinnate with very narrow linear pinnae. The sori are elongated and arranged in chains along both sides of the costa (Figure 6, 7). 

Table 1: Historical and Current Taxonomic Treatment of Polypodiaceae in North Carolina

Common Name(s)    
Radford & Bell 3
Flora of North America 4 (1993)
Weakley 5 (2015)

Netted Chain Fern
Woodwardia areolata (L.) Moore

Woodwardia areolata (L.) Moore
Lorinseria areolata (l.) C. Presl.

Sensitive Fern

Onoclea sensibilis L.

Onoclea sensibilis L.
Onoclea sensibilis L. var. sensibilis

Table 2: Onoclea sensibilis vs. Woodwardia areolata

Onoclea sensibilis

Shared Traits

Woodwardia areolata

Sensitive Fern

Medium sized ferns

Netted Chain Fern

Pinnae mostly opposite

Moist environments

Pinnae mostly alternate

Pinnae tips rounded

Fronds triangular in shape

Pinnae tips more pointed

Pinnae margins entire

Sterile fronds one- pinnatifid except lower pinnae may be one-pinnate

Pinnae margins finely serrated

Fertile fronds - sori bead-like


Fertile fronds - sori elongated in chain-like rows


I use the letter “O” in Onoclea to remind me that the pinnae are rounded at the tips and the margins are smooth (entire). Also the letter “O” stands for opposite pinnae.

Figure 1: Onoclea sensibilis sterile frond with oppositely arranged 
pinnae that have rounded tips and entire margins. 

I use the letter “W” in Woodwardia to remind me that the pinnae are pointed at the tips and serrated.

Figure 2: Woodwardia areolata sterile fronds showing
the alternate pinnae and their pointed tips.

Figure 3: Onoclea sensibilis pinna with entire margins and lobing.

Figure 4: Woodwardia areolata pinna showing
the pointed tip and finely serrated margins.

Figure 5: Onoclea sensibilis fertile frond traits, note the bead-like sori.

Figure 6: Woodwardia areolata plant with fertile and sterile fronds.

Figure 7: Woodwardia areolata fertile frond,
note the elongated sori arranged in chains.

1. Common Name. Penn State University, 2002. Web. 13 June 2017. <>.

2. "Onoclea sensibilis." Onoclea sensibilis - Plant Finder. Missouri Botanical Garden, n.d. Web. 13 June 2017. 

3. Radford, Albert Ernest, Harry E. Ahles, and Clyde Ritchie Bell. Manual of the vascular flora of the Carolinas. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina Press, 1983. Print.

4. Morin, Nancy R. Flora of North America North of Mexico Volume 2: Pteridophytes and Gymnosperms. New York, NY: Oxford U Press, 1993. Print.

5. Weakley, Alan S. Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic states. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina Herbarium, North Carolina Botanical Garden, U of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2015. Print.