Botanists not deterred by soldiers and booming cannon

A big, loud cannon boomed several times from somewhere in the woods. Soldiers in Civil War garb — Yankees and Rebels — lolled around campfires and showed off their guns, knives and other accouterments of warfare.

The event last weekend was a Civil War re-enactment at Pickett’s Mill Battlefield State Historic Site in Paulding County. The 765-acre site, where more than 2,100 Union and Confederate soldiers died or were wounded during a fierce battle on May 27, 1864, is said to be one of the nation’s best-preserved Civil War battlefields.

Its rolling woods and old fields also are botanical treasures, and that’s why several of us Georgia Botanical Society members were sharing the park’s trails with gun-toting — but friendly — re-enactors on a hot August day.

We were in quest of a rare, diminutive native flower known as the three birds orchid, so-named because its tiny bloom resembles three birds in flight. A plant of deciduous forests, it is not easy to find, as we learned when we got turned around two or three times while searching for a small patch of it.

Alas, when we did find it, only one of the 6-inch tall plants was blooming. It was enough, though, to cause us to bend over, squat, even lay flat on the forest floor to get a close-up photo of the little pink and white flower, about half an inch in size.

It also was enough for us to call our field trip a success, despite the heat, getting slightly lost and a plethora of ticks trying to latch onto us.

Perhaps a U.S. Forest Service description best explains why we were lucky to find even one blooming specimen: “Three birds orchid is secretive. One tale has it that the best time to find it in bloom is to search beech forests during the first week following the first drenching rain of August.”

It is extremely ephemeral, according to the Forest Service, appearing only for a short period, typically from mid-August to mid-September. The bloom period sometimes lasts only a few days. Each plant typically produces three flowers, with each flower remaining fresh and viable for only a single day.

The plant is one of more than 40 wild orchid species native to Georgia.

In the sky: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be first-quarter Saturday night. Mercury is low in the west at dusk. Saturn is in the southwest at dusk and sets in the west just after midnight. The other planets are not easily visible right now.

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