Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Cranefly, A Native Orchid

Cranefly Orchid
Cranefly Orchid by zxgirl, on Flickr

Years ago, I saw a spike of something sticking up out of the ground with what looked like flies hovering around it.  As I got closer, I discovered the "flies" were just tiny brownish flowers fluttering in the breeze.  Incredibly, the flowers looked like orchids!  I didn't expect to find an orchid in my backyard, so I went inside to look at a plant key.  That's when I became acquainted with Tipularia discolor, the native cranefly orchid.

Cranefly orchid flower--brown
Cranefly Orchid Flower by cotinis, on Flickr

Cranefly orchid grows primarily in the southeastern US, but you might find it as far west as Texas and as far north as Michigan or New York.  It is considered threatened, endangered or rare in several states, but is fairly common in North Carolina.  Cranefly orchid, sometimes called crippled cranefly or elfin spur, likes humus-rich woods with acidic soils.  In the piedmont, I have usually seen it underneath pine trees, sometimes oaks.  

cranefly orchid leaves in my backyard

Although I had seen these spotted green and purple leaves many, many times since childhood, I never knew what they were until I read a post by The Queen, and made the connection between leaves and weird fly flower.

The flowers bloom from July to September, but it's interesting to note that the leaves have died down completely by then.   I had seen the flowers in my yard only once -- but always see the leaves -- so now I mark the leaves when they're up.  That way I know where to check back later at bloom time.

Cranefly Orchid leaf /  Tipularia discolor
cranefly orchid leaf by ellen x silverberg, on Flickr

The leaves are easy to find because they are green when the forest floor is mostly brown with leaf litter -- from September until around May when they die back.  The underside of the leaf is quite purple, which makes it even easier to identify.

Crippled Cranefly Orchid Fruit
Crippled Cranefly Orchid Fruit by corey.raimond, on Flickr
The seed capsules have very tiny seeds.

Corm of Cranefly Orchid
Corm of Cranefly Orchid by cotinis, on Flickr
Roots and corms are edible, but I'm not sure why you would eat them since that would keep you from having flowers!

Tipularia discolor leaves 1
Tipularia discolor leaves by jhapeman, on Flickr

It has been so much fun to find a more diverse flora in our woods since removing English ivy and Japanese honeysuckle.  Cranefly orchid is one of the sweet rewards.