One of the 18 species of orchid found on the Domain, the cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor) does not put out large showy flowers like other species of native orchid and the large ostentatious tropical varieties we often associate with the family, but it has its own, more subtle appeal, that has more to do with its life cycle than its aesthetic appeal. For most of the year, the orchid is identifiable by its solitary leaf, the only visible above-ground portion of the plant. The leaf, which emerges in September, is distinct insofar as it persists through the winter until mid-spring, coming alive just as most other angiosperms are settling into dormancy in anticipation of the warmer, sunnier weather to come in the spring.
Beyond being unique by its winter presence, the leaf is distinct in its coloration. The upper surface of the leaf is typically dark green, whereas the leaf underside is purple or can have a mottled green/purple appearance. The leaf is thick, allowing protection through the winter, when the plant relies on the sunshine reaching the forest floor unhindered by canopy above.
As that canopy fills in, the orchid’s leaf disappears, but gives rise to a solitary, leafless flower stalk. This stalk of subtle flowers can be difficult to spot, but lasts a number of months, as the flowers give way to fruit capsules that distribute seeds for up to a few months. At times the stalk with capsules will persist beyond the emergence of the leaves, and even into the winter, allowing one to observe both stages of the plant’s yearly cycle.
So as you hike around the Domain or elsewhere in the Southeast this winter–these orchids are found in many rich, deciduous forests–be aware of the forest below, and keep an eye out for the solitary, multi-colored leaves that are also braving the cold of the winter.