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.

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]

Cranefly Orchid

 

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aka elfin spur
Tipularia discolor
Orchidaceae

 

 

You may recall that I’m a little over the moon about orchids, and especially about cranefly orchid.  I know of three distinct patches near each other in one of my usual hunting areas, and I keep an eye on those areas year ’round.

Some time late this spring, I noticed that all the leaves had gone.  It seemed a little early for their annual disappearing act, but I’m not an expert so I shrugged it off and kept watching.

By the last week in July I was getting concerned.  The flower stalks should have been up, and at least in bud if not in bloom.  What was going on?  Did I miss the flowering altogether?  Were they poached?!

This happened with the puttyroot orchid, too.  I know exactly where to find two plants.  All I saw of them this spring was last year’s stalk with seed pods still on it.

I was feeling mighty bad about this.  Not at the thought that I might have missed them, but at the thought that something happened to them and they were gone forever.

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Then, one morning a few days later, in a completely unexpected place, something caught my eye: a single stem of this delicate, easy-to-miss wonder.

 

 

I admit, I literally fell to my knees with a sigh.

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Cranefly orchids grow a single hibernal leaf that dies before the plant flowers in mid summer.  It can be common in parts of its range, which extends from the the upper mid-Atlantic south through Florida and Texas, but is rare in Pennsylvania, threatened in Florida and Michigan, and endangered in Massachusetts and New York.

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