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Mother Nature Monday: Orchids in the Forest

When I think of orchids, I think of warm rainforests and brilliantly colored blossoms growing on trees somewhere near the equator. Much to my surprise, I discovered that there are numerous perennial terrestrial woodland orchids that thrive here in the forests and mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. In fact, during the winter months is one of the easiest times to locate some of these plants. They can be quite elusive during their bloom times in the spring and summer.

One of my favorite orchids can be discovered by its distinctive leaves in January and February along the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest trail. They particularly like areas beneath American Beech trees. Look closely and you will observe a green leaf with heavy parallel venation which appears slightly bumpy. If you look at the underside of the leaf you will be in for a surprise. The leaf is completely purple! Green on top, purple underneath. The darker purple color retains more heat from the winter sun, helping this plant to avoid freezing on the coldest nights. These leaves are only visible for a few months in the winter. Come spring the leaves have completely disappeared. In order to see their blooms, it helps to remember exactly where you saw the leaves the winter before. This orchid blooms around the first of August and the blooms tend to be shy, hiding amidst all the other vegetation in August.

Reminder: This orchid blooms in August

The name of this orchid is the Crippled Crane-fly or Crane-fly orchid (Tipularia discolor). It is the only species of the genus Tipularia found in North America. It is found scattered throughout the Southeastern United States. Each individual flower on the stalk resembles a crane fly. The genus name, Tipularia, is taken from the Latin word Tipula, which is the Latin name for the insect known as the Crane Fly. Discolor is derived from Di (two) and color (color) and referred to the bicolor leaf. The small flowers are displayed along a tall flower stalk, but the flowers are not brightly colored. They can be brownish, greenish or a light purple but whatever color they are, all the individual flowers on the stalk are the same color.

The plant is pollinated by moths. The flowers have pollinaria. Pollinaria are specialized structures containing pollen found in orchids. They contain large amounts of pollen. The moth travels to the flower, the pollinaria attaches to the moth’s eyes, and then the moth can transfer the pollinaria to another flower for pollination when the moth sticks its face into the next blossom.

These tiny blossoms look so much like a small crane fly that allegedly they can be used as trout bait as they float on the surface of the water. Disclaimer: I have not tried this yet!

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