I’ll Be There

Saturday morning: Steve and I are hiking on Sugarloaf Mountain, and I’ve just shown him some downy rattlesnake plantain, almost finished blooming. As we continue walking along, I tell him to watch for something that looks like thin twigs sticking up out of the ground, with little purple-brown flowers all over.

Not three seconds pass before he says “you mean like this?”

I try not to write about the same plants every year, but when it comes to cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor), I just can’t help myself. Nor can I put into words what makes this plant stand out for me.

 

Maybe it’s the crazy nectar tubes, sometimes almost twice as long as the pedicels.

 

 

Maybe it’s that pearlescent lower lip. Or the purple stripes on the green sepals and petals.

Maybe it’s the overall effect of those twisted, delicate flowers dancing above the ground.

Cranefly is hibernal: the plant’s single leaf emerges from the ground in autumn, grows through the winter and spring, and dies back in early summer. A leafless peduncle emerges a few weeks later (around early July in the Maryland Piedmont), and the flowers open roughly three weeks later.

Early morning is a good time to shoot them.

Two Leaves

Thursday, May 18: one more trip to Rachel Carson Conservation Park to find and photograph the elusive large twayblade. Thanks to detailed directions from a friend, I found a nice group of the plants, about half of which were in bloom.

Also know as purple twayblade, brown wide-lip orchid, and mauve sleekwort, Liparis liliifolia is one of our native orchids. The two large basal leaves stand a few inches tall, while the flowering stem (a raceme) stands up to about a foot tall and produces as many as thirty flowers.

The lowest flowers open first. A colony of large twayblade will bloom for about two to three weeks.

 

All orchid flowers have three sepals and three petals, although in some species these parts are so highly modified they may not be recognizable as such. In large twayblade, the lowest petal is modified into a wide labellum (lip); the two lateral petals are very narrow and droop down inconspicuously.


You can see the two lower sepals through the labellum, which is so thin it’s actually translucent.

Large twayblade can be found in the Mid-West, Mid-Atlantic, New England, and northernmost parts of the South. It’s threatened in Massachusetts and Vermont, and endangered in Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island. In Maryland it’s listed as S2S3/state rare.

Look for it in rich, moist woodlands. It should still be blooming in the Maryland piedmont. The purple/brown colors of the petals and pedicels make for good camouflage against the leaf litter, but the distinctive pair of basal leaves stands out.

 

“Tway” is an obsolete word meaning “two”.

Orchids in the Maryland Piedmont

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Aplectrum hyemale
Puttyroot or Adam-and-Eve is a hibernal perennial: a single leaf grows from a corm (an underground plant stem) in autumn, taking advantage of winter sunlight coming through the deciduous trees under which it grows, and then withers in spring. If conditions are right, it will then send up a flowering stem. In the Maryland piedmont that will be sometime in mid to late May. It’s native to eastern North America, and is on six northeastern states’ conservation lists (as endangered, threatened, etc.).
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seedpods

 

 

 


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Galearis spectabilis
Showy orchis has a similar range to puttyroot, and grows in similar habitats (rich, moist soils in deciduous woodlands). It’s not a hibernal, though: the two basal leaves of a mature plant appear in spring and persist until mid autumn (young plants have only one leaf). A single flowering raceme produces up to a dozen flowers; look for them in starting in mid April in the piedmont. The flowers are purple and white, but there is a form with all-white blossoms, as shown here. Showy orchis is on five states’ conservation lists.

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Cypripedium acaule
Pink lady’s slipper or moccasin flower grows in a wider range of habitats than the previous two orchids, including mixed deciduous-coniferous woodlands, and has a more northern and eastern range that includes the Appalachians, New England, the upper midwest, and parts of Canada. It’s listed in four states. Like showy orchis, the plant consists of two basal leaves and a single flowering stem, but this stem produces only one flower. It’s a spectacular one, though. Look for it in early to mid May in the piedmont.

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Goodyera pubescens
Downy rattlesnake plantain is yet another native of eastern North American woodlands. This orchid likes drier, more acidic soils than the others. The plant has a basal rosette of white-striped evergreen leaves, and produces a single flowering spike in mid to late July. The spike can be more than a foot tall, with dozens of flowers crowded along the topmost portion.
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Tipularia discolor
Like puttyroot, cranefly orchid has a single hibernal leaf that withers before the single flowering raceme emerges. This usually happens in mid to late July, and the flowers open roughly two weeks later. There can be four dozen or more tiny flowers on the spike. This is also an eastern North America native, but it’s found more to the south and west than the others. It’s listed in five states. Cranefly orchid grows in moist soils in deciduous and mixed deciduous-coniferous woodlands. At first glance the flowers seem to be bilaterally symmetrical, but they are actually a little torqued.
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The Orchidaceae

Few plants inspire passion like orchids do: we’ve been cultivating them for 3,000 years, despite the fact that they offer us little by way of food, clothing, medicine, or anything else people grow plants for.  In Europe orchid cultivation began about the time the Dutch tulip craze was waning, and now there are over 100,000 known cultivars and hybrids.

The number of species is impressive, too, estimated to be around 28,000 (some experts believe there may be as many as 35,000), in over 700 genera. This makes the Orchidaceae either the largest or second largest plant family (the other being Asteraceae), in terms of number of species. In both families the number of species is constantly changing, in accordance with both new discoveries and phylogenetic research.

In North America, there are 310 species of native orchids, making the Orchidaceae the 13th largest family on this continent*.

In Maryland, though, the news is sad. Although there are records for about 44 species (29 in the piedmont), of these…

  • 9 have been extirpated
  • 1 is a waif
  • 1 is alien
  • 12 are listed as endangered and/or S1 (highly state rare)
  • 1 is S1/S2 (highly state rare)
  • 4 are threatened and/or S2 (state rare)
  • 1 is S2/S3 (state rare)
  • 4 are vulnerable and/or S3 (watchlist)**

Orchids grow in almost every habitat, except in true deserts, open water, and glaciers***. Most of the species grow in tropical rainforests, but the family is cosmopolitan: orchids are found on every continent (and Oceania) except Antarctica.

They can be terrestrial or epiphytic. An epiphyte is a plant that grows on another plant for support, without causing the other plant harm (therefore not the same as a parasite). The epiphytic orchids have aerial roots that absorb water and nutrients from the air. They are mostly found in the tropics, while the terrestrial orchids are mostly found at higher lattitudes.

Terrestrial orchids grow with certain soil fungi in mutually beneficial associations termed mycorrhizae (singluar mycorrhiza). Because of this, our native terrestrial orchids are extremely hard to grow in the garden; if the correct fungi are not present in the soil, the orchid plants will likely die in a year or two, and seeds will not germinate.

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Orchids usually bear flowers on a spike, raceme, or panicle, or sometimes singly. A spike is a stem with single flowers along it (right); a raceme is a spike whose flowers have pedicels (below); and a panicle is a branched raceme.

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Although there is a huge variety of form, orchid flowers are easily recognized. They always have three sepals, which can be single or partly fused, and are either green or petal-colored; and three petals. Of the petals, the two lateral ones are usually identical, while the center one is formed into a lip or pouch. The flowers are usually bilaterally symmetrical.

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As for economic value, it’s entirely about the passion for ornamental flowers, with one exception: Vanilla planifolia, the only orchid species to produce an edible fruit. There are a few orchid species that produce edible tubers, but these have never been grown commercially.

next time: orchids in the Maryland piedmont


*BONAP
**Maryland Biodiversity Project
***Encyclopedia of Life

It’s Back!

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Another entry to my two year saga of monitoring a perennial favorite, an unusual (but not rare, threatened or endangered) find that’s inconveniently located in an area of high human and deer activity.

Yes, cranefly orchid is back! I reported last summer that it had disappeared from this spot, but then in October I found some new leaves. And last Tuesday I saw a dozen flowering spikes.

This species is hibernal: each plant grows a single leaf in autumn. The leaf persists through the winter and into late spring, then dies. In midsummer, the plant sends up a spike, which will flower for two to three weeks and then die. The cycle begins again the following autumn.

Last year I thought that maybe deer browse had killed the plants. But I recollect that it was also a dry year, so maybe drought had something to do with it? Then a very knowledgeable and experienced acquaintance told me that cranefly orchid doesn’t necessarily bloom every year. This got me to wondering why, so I did a little research.

Studies have shown that when cranefly orchids are successfully pollinated and fruit is set, there’s a subsequent decrease in root and leaf size*. As a result, plants take a year off, so to speak, because they have insufficient energy stores for another reproductive effort. And blooming can also be affected by deer browse (herbivory) and environmental stresses.

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Another interesting fact: the flowers are asymmetrical. Typically orchids show bilateral symmetry (capable of being divided along a plane into a pair of mirror images). It’s a little hard to tell from this picture, as I couldn’t get a straight-on shot of a flower, but these are not bilaterally symmetrical. (I’m going to have to go back and try shooting from a different angle.)

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This violet was kind enough to stand in for an orchid to demonstrate bilateral symmetry, the yellow line showing the plane of symmetry –>

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Also, check out those crazy long nectar tubes coming out the backs of the flowers! (Click on the image to see it larger.) The odd shape of the flowers allows pollinia to be deposited onto visiting moths.

Cranefly orchids are just neat.


*”Costs of Flower and Fruit Production in Tipularia discolor (Orchidaceae)” [abstract]

That’s Right, Orchids in Iceland

As far as I can tell, seven species of orchid grow in Iceland. I was lucky enough to spot three of them. Here are the other two.

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Dactylorhiza viridis
(formerly
Coeloglossum viride)
frog orchid
Icelandic: barnarót

 

What a delight to find this particular species, native not only to Iceland but also North America (as far south as North Carolina in the Appalachians and New Mexico in the Rocky Mountains) and northern Asia. In Iceland it’s fairly widespread, growing in heathlands and other rich soil areas at mid elevations. I’ve seen it once before, in Catoctin Mountain Park, a rare find since it’s listed S1/Endangered in Maryland, but it wasn’t blooming then.

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Platanthera hyperborea
northern green orchid,
butterfly orchid, bog orchid
Icelandic: friggjargras

 

Northern green orchid’s native range includes northern North America (Greenland, Canada, Alaska), parts of Asia (Korea, Japan), and of course Iceland. It’s a fairly common plant there in fertile soils, especially heathlands.

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Sorry I don’t have better pictures. Guess I’ll have to go back next year and do better.