In late January, as days get longer, Pine Warblers begin to trill, Brown-headed Nuthatches start looking for nest cavities (or pecking on my house), Great Blue Herons rebuild their nests, and I begin to think about early spring wildflowers.
The Carolinas are home to a number of early blooming native species including Oconee bells, trout lilies, hepatica, and bloodroot. But before these species bloom, perhaps as soon as early February, bright white flowers of littleleaf pixie-moss (Pyxidanthera brevifolia) begin to pop open beneath pine needles in a few special spots within the longleaf forests of the Carolina sandhills region.
[Pyxidanthera brevifolia was first described by B. W. Wells and is sometimes called Wells’ pixie-moss. I know this southeast sandhills endemic from 3 sites: the Paint Hill tract of Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve (a North Carolina State Park), Sugarloaf Mountain in South Carolina, and my favorite destination, the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge near McBee, South Carolina.
While green patches of Pyxidanthera brevifolia may look like moss, pixie-moss is an evergreen flowering subshrub with tiny blossoms and even smaller leaves. Don’t be fooled by my “macro” images. Each blossom is around 5 mm wide.
My favorite discussion of pixie moss is by Uri Lorimer of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden describing the larger and more widespread Pyxidanthera barbulata.
The easiest place to find pixie moss is the Paint Hill tract of Weymouth Woods SNP. A visitor center has restrooms, displays on the longleaf ecosystem, and several hiking trails. Staff cheerfully provide directions, a map, and an update on the bloom status. I usually park at the west end of Stoneyfield Drive and walk the 1.5 mile loop trail (aptly named the “Pixie Moss Trail”). Look carefully as you walk the north sections of the loop trial as pixie-moss is often found in the center of the trail! I brushed away a covering of pine needles to take this photo.
70 miles to the southwest, the Carolina Sandhills NWR protects 45,000 acres. Looking for pixie-moss on the refuge is much like looking for a needle in a haystack. My first “discovery” of pixie-moss on the refuge was with Lyne Askins, refuge manager and Larry Mellichamp. On that morning, Lyne, map in hand, drove us to two sites in the heart of the refuge and at each site, after a few minutes of searching beneath pine straw, we uncovered patches of snow-white blossoms. One observation Lyne shared that morning is that pixie-moss is often found in association with trailing arbutus whose larger evergreen leaves are much easier to st.
My “go to” spot for pixie-moss on the refuge was burned in late winter, 2015. I arrived in early March to find large patches of pixie toast! But like many wildflowers of the sandhills region, pixie moss benefits from the controlled burns that restore favorable growing conditions.
I visited this burn site throughout 2015 as tiny leaves greened up and in early 2016 as large patches of blossoms emerged. I returned a week ago (mid-January, 2017) and found even more patches of Wells’ pixie moss, all bright green and many showing tiny white buds. I anxiously anticipate the 2017 pixie-moss season.
Are you are ready for a new season of native plant adventures?