Monday, 05 January 2015 18:47

Nature Journal: Identifying native orchids


Orchids are tricky, sometimes even deceitful. They have evolved seemingly endless strategies for attracting and manipulating insects, their dull-witted partners in reproduction. And curious as it may seem, winter is the prime time to locate and identify two of our native orchid species.

The basal leaves of puttyroot (Aplectrum hymale) and cranefly orchis (Tipularia discolor) emerge in late summer, after the flowering period, and are conspicuous from late November into early spring. Then as the flowering stems emerge in spring, the leaves wither and disappear. For this reason, they are sometimes described as “winter-green” or “summer-deciduous” or “winter-leaf” or “hibernal” orchids, but I think of them as “winter orchids.” Both are common in rocky moist-to-dry woodlands featuring acidic soils.

This strategy obviously evolved as an efficient way to collect the sun’s energy in hardwood forests when the leaf canopy is absent. Both have prominent bulb-shaped roots (corms) that store energy-generating carbohydrates. Once the canopy closes overhead in spring, the leaves die back and that energy is channeled directly into summer-flowering, fall-fruiting, and winter-leaf processes.

Puttyroot, also called Adam-and-Eve root, displays an attractive gray-green oval leaf up to seven inches long by three inches wide. As described by Doug Elliott in “Roots: An Underground Botany and Forager’s Guide” (1976): “This leaf has thin, white pinstripes, is folded like a pleated skirt, green on the top side, with a tinge of purple underneath.”

The name “puttyroot” derives from a mucilaginous fluid that can be extracted from the tubers when crushed. Numerous sources report that early settlers made a paste from this fluid used to mend broken crockery and similar items. Long before their arrival in the Smokies region, the Cherokees, according to Paul B. Hamel and Mary U. Chiltoskey in “Cherokee Plants and Their Uses” (1975), had discovered the high-energy content of this rootstock and fed it to their babies to make them fleshy and fat. They also speculated that consuming this fare might enable their babies to grow up and be eloquent orators.

Puttyroot’s other common name, Adam-and-Eve root, is derived from the fact that this year’s leaf-bearing corm (Eve) remains attached to last year’s corm (Adam) by a strand (stolon) of umbilical-like root filament. Elliott also notes, in passing, that the root system has “a cupid-like reputation for helping to maintain the bond between lovers (who) each receive one of the corms ... As the legend goes, so long as the pair maintains possession of their respective roots, their bond shall remain strong and true.”

Cranefly orchis derives its common name from the fancied resemblance of the delicate flowers to insects in the genus Tipula. The purplish-green flowers tend to be inconspicuous in the shaded habitats they favor, making the winter leaf its outstanding feature. The upper side is dark green and purple spotted with wart-like bumps, so that, in some ways, it resembles a toad’s back. The underside is a rich satiny purple.

In his always informative “Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont” (2011), Clemson University biologist Timothy Spira reports that “The flowers of cranefly orchis are pollinated by night-flying moths. As a moth inserts its head into the flower to obtain nectar, a pollinium (a tiny ball of pollen) is attached to the moth’s eye and may inadvertently be deposited on the stigma (female portion) of another flower. This may seem to be a strange way of doing business, but Spira notes, in passing, that “deposition of pollonia on insect eyes is a common mode of pollen transfer in temperate orchids.”

George Ellison is a naturalist and writer. His wife, Elizabeth Ellison, is a watercolor artist and paper-maker who has a gallery-studio in Bryson City. Contact them at or or write to P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, NC 28713.


George Ellison, Nature Journal 1:17 p.m. EST December 31, 2014


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