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Crane-fly Orchid in the Woodlands

For years I have noticed some distinctive corrugated leaves which push up in the woodlands in the fall and persist through the winter and into spring, then vanishing by summer. The leaves are blue-green on top and a rich wine color underneath:These lovely Crane-fly Orchid leaves are growing in the Woodland Garden.It's a wild plant, but definitely not weedy. I had no idea what it was; even after searching through garden books I could not find anything like it.

Then yesterday while browsing the internet (Do you remember the world before the internet?) I came across a photo of my wildflower, and I finally had an identification: Tiliparia discolor, also known as Crippled Crane-fly or Crane-fly orchid. 

I have orchids growing in my woodlands!

You may have some type of native orchid growing near you, too. The orchid family is huge, with almost thirty-thousand naturally occurring species of orchids growing worldwide. There are also over a hundred thousand man-made orchid species! The family is extremely diverse. Orchids may be tiny wildflowers, or they may be showy prize-winners grown in hot houses, but they all have a couple of things in common. First, they all have three sepals that form the calyx of the flower. The calyx is the protective layer around the flower in bud. When one looks at a flower bud, one is looking at the calyx. All orchids also have three flower petals. One of the petals is dramatically different from the other two and is called the lip. The lip is the most attractive part of the plant. It draws in pollinators, pointing the way to the central reproductive organ, called the column, which contains both male and female parts.

The Crane-fly orchid is a native plant to the eastern half of the United States, growing from Texas to New York and Massachusetts, hardiness zones 4-10. It grows in the woodland setting and requires mychorrhizal fungus to grow along its roots to survive. The symbiotic relationship is interesting. The fungus gains carbohydrates from the orchid's roots, while the orchid draws water and mineral nutrients from the fungi. This is especially helpful in poor, shallow soils of dry woodlands. In some areas it is a rare or endangered species. Each Crane-fly orchid has a single leaf, which can be either smooth or corrugated, and they tend to grow in clumps. After the leaf dies back in summer, the orchid sends up a single purple stem about one to two feet tall. Each stem has a couple dozen greenish-purple, translucent flowers.This is a public domain photo of a Crane-fly orchid. I hope to make photos of my own this summer!The thin stems and small flowers are easy to miss in the woodland setting, but I think I have seen these! I did not know what I was looking at and did not associate them with the pretty leaves that had disappeared in early summer. Night flying moths don't overlook these flowers, however. They are drawn to the pale flowers and the sweet nectar and are the primary pollinators of this native plant.

Now I am looking forward to the hot, muggy days of late summer, when I will be outside, searching for Crane-fly orchid flowers.

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Reader Comments (26)

oh how exciting to have wild orchids!! Congratulations !! :-)

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGone Tropical

What a great discovery! Too many times I leave a plant because 'it might be something' and it isn't. Just one like this makes up for the rest.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNell Jean

How fascinating! What an exciting find! I had no idea that we had native orchids around here. I'll definitely be on the lookout!

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIndie

Wow, what a wonder to find orchids growing in your own backyard.

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGirlSprout

Ha, I just realized that Lady's Slipper is an orchid. :) I had thought the fungus dependence sounded familiar - Lady's Slipper also needs a fungus to grow..

January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIndie

Big congratulations on finding such a treasure, Deb. Beautiful images. Your noting that this orchid grows as far north as Massachusetts reminds me to renew my (so far unsuccessful) search here in Connecticut. And, no, I cannot imagine going back to times before the Web. Enjoy.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLee May

Great research Deb! I hope you are able to find this beauty this summer and I guess I'll have to get out there to see if I can find mine!

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEve

The simpatico relationship between the orchid and the fungus really is a wonder of nature. It kind of relegates them to their natural habit and nowhere else right? So many dig them up here and take lady slippers and such home to their gardens and wonder why they have a hard time growing them.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

I had only thought of orchids as hothouse plants, not as wildflowers. This was a great introduction to these incredible wild plants. What a fun discovery you made!

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaurrie

Oh I will have to keep an eye out for these here in NY...especially with the poor soil in some areas...just beautiful!

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

What a fantastic discovery for you, no wonder you sound so pleased!! So many different things have to be just right for orchids to feel at home, yours are obviously very happy!

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPauline Mulligan

I wonder if this orchid will do well in our garden/location? I love the foliage!

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark and Gaz

What a prize, to be awarded a wild orchid!!

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterElephant's Eye

How exciting and thank goodness for the internet - dont you just love it.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHelen

Nice blog, my first visit here. We have these in our woods, found out about them years ago. Still have never seen one in bloom.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRandy

How fantastic to have these in your beautiful woodland, to make it even more special. i'll look forward to the photos you take in summer. Christina

January 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

I never heard of this plant -- and thanks to you, I will keep my eyes open for it.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNitty Gritty Dirt Man

Deb how wonderful, I have wild orchids but mine are so different from yours, isn't it such a wonderful feeling when we have such special finds, I think of my orchids as a reward for removing the horried grass as they can't grow through it, I didn't know about the fungul connection but have found out that fungus is an important part of the garden eco system breaking down decaying matter, look forward to seeing photos of your orchids this summer, Frances

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIsland Threads

I enjoy your blog very much, and therefore I nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award in my post (http://www.myrtleglen.com/blogging/2012/01/30/the-versatile-blogger/)

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGone Tropical

What a nice surprise! I love gaden surprises! Last summer, I noticed some new plants under big fir trees in my garden. I thought they were seedlings from a burning bush. But, then I saw a beautiful tiny white flower. I found out that it was a native plant. I have know idea how did it get to my garden. Will wait for your pictures, Deb!

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTatyana

There's something so exciting about finding precious wild flowers in your own garden. I know when I discovered trilliums I felt as though I was being appointed guardian of such a special gift. I'll look forward to your photos!

January 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Chapman

I learn something new today; Crane Fly Orchid. I remember the days without Internet and I am so thankful for its availability.

Deb, Thank you for your kind words. I think you are just too generous actually.

Love your woodlands and hope to stay in a mini one someday. I'll look out for Crane Fly Orchids then.

January 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOne

I don't think I've ever seen an orchid in the wild. But maybe I have and just didn't realize it. I'll have to pay more attention! Great post!!

January 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCasa Maripoas

Hi Deb, What a beautiful and delicate little flower! One of my personal goals for next summer is to learn more about native flowers and photograph them. It is great to know that the internet has a wealth of background material on native plants.

January 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

I have those in some of my shade gardens. Crane fly blooms in the late summer after the leaves have gone dormant.
Little insignificant fallen leaf-coloured blooms that blend into the leaf litter. To photograph them, I have to frame them with a tree behind them, because otherwise... they don't show in the photo.
Also... the blooms last for like a week, blink and you miss them.
still cool.
I found a pic I took back in 09

I keep intending to do a short post about those beautiful leaves...

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterstone

We have those here too but I have not yet seen them in flower.

February 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersweetbay
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