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.



  1. How Cool! I have seen those when I have walked the trails around the Blue Ridge, but kinda ignored them because I was keeping an eye-out for trillium. My bad.

  2. GUTI, trillium are certainly worth looking for -- and they're a lot easier to see than cranefly flowers!

  3. You are sweet for the shout out. I love this little orchid. What a great find. Glad you marked the area where the leaves were, so you can find the flower stalk after the leaves are long gone.

  4. I've seen the leaves many times but not the flowers. Although tiny they do look lovely!

  5. Very interesting post - I've never seen this plant. If I should see one now, I'll know what is is. Thanks for sharing the photos and information!
    Lea's Menagerie

  6. What an interesting plant! Good idea to mark the leaves, so that you can find the flowers later. I see you are headed to Asheville in May--looking forward to meeting you then!

  7. janet, it's always so great to learn something from another blogger! i was thrilled to realize those leaves and that flower i'd seen go together.

    sweetbay, the flowers look a little like epimedium from a distance, don't they. i like the name elfin spur because of that.

    lea, i bet you will notice those leaves now; they're distinctive and easy to spot.

    rose, i'm so excited to be going to my first fling! look forward to meeting you there.

  8. One of my favorite native orchids. I cover this on my blog and Florida native orchid website as well:

    The Florida Native Orchid Blog - Tipularia discolor

    The first time I found these, I had slid down an embankment at a local ravine in the Tallahassee, Florida area, arms flailing wildly trying to catch on something to break my fall. As I landed in the cold stream, I saw that I had grabbed a Tipularia leaf on my way down. I had seen descriptions of these in Luer and was keeping an eye out for them...I obviously missed them until that fateful slide. Examining the surrounding banks of the ravine, I found several hundred plants scattered in various colonies.


  9. saim, thank you!

    prem, i'm sorry you fell, but maybe it was worth it to find this plant! i enjoyed reading your post and seeing your beautiful photographs.

  10. What a marvelous flower and the name is quite evocative of flies! Even the leaves are cool looking. Thank you for sharing! gail

  11. Wow what a great find. I had difficulty downloading the photos, maybe because they are from flickr, but i really waited long to see unusual orchid. Now you have gold in your property. I am sure you will have lots of flower photos next time. I will also follow Prem's site as suggested in the comment. thanks.

  12. Great blog. Your photos are awesome. I hope that you will join us at the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens for an event that will interest all gardeners interested in native plants. Save the date: Thursday Evening March 22, 5-7pm, McGill Greenhouse. edwardavis

  13. gail, you're welcome. thanks for hosting - i love the wildflower wednesday!

    andrea, i'm sorry you had to wait for the photos. i'm glad you liked the will like prem's blog.

  14. ed, thank you so much! would love to hear more about the event; will be happy to post about it here.

  15. I would love to put some native orchids in my landscape, but none most aren't real showy. I have Ladies Tresses Orchids show up in my lawn ocassionally.