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What Time is it in Nature: Crane Fly Orchid

January 31, 2014

You can easily overlook one of the most interesting winter plants at Prairie Ridge!  They are found only in the forested areas and few people trek across the stream to the spots where they grow best, but the Cranefly Orchid is a great plant to observe in winter.

Cranefly Orchids have a fascinating life history.  The plant has two phases, a winter phase and a summer phase.  During the winter phase, the whole visible part of the plant is made up of a single deep green leaf, often with purple spots sprinkled across the surface:

Cranefly orchid

The underside of the leaf is deep purple.  The leaves typically appear in September and then disappear in the spring, concealing the plant entirely until the second stage begins.

During the summer, the second stage of the plant appears, the flowers:

Cranefly orchid

At this point, the entire visible part of the plant consists of a green stalk, up to 20 inches tall, lined with pale green flowers.  The flowers resemble crane flies, skinny and leggy flies in the family Tipulidae.  This resemblance gives the plant both its common name (Cranefly Orchid) and its genus name (Tipularia).  The flowers are also asymmetrical, leaning to one side or the other, giving the plants another common name, the Crippled Cranefly Orchid.  The flowers typically bloom in mid-July through August, then the stalk disappears and the plant hides underground for a month or two before the leaf is produced once more.

Cranefly Orchids reproduce in a couple of ways.  They spread vegetatively by growing their roots outward and developing new corms, a type of starchy and bulbous plant stem, periodically along their length.  Each corm will eventually produce a leaf and flowers, so you can often find multiple Cranefly Orchids growing together in a forested area.  The plants also reproduce sexually thanks to pollination by moths.  The flowers contain packets of pollen called pollinaria.  When the moths visit the flowers, one of the pollinaria detach from the flower and stick to one of the moth’s eyes.  When the moth visits another flower, the pollen is released from the pollinarium attached to its eye and fertilizes the flower.  Seeds are eventually produced and grow into new plants.

Cranefly Orchids are found throughout most of the eastern US.  They are fairly common in North Carolina, but are considered threatened or endangered in other areas of their range.  In those areas, the plants are protected by law.

The wonderful Cranefly Orchids prefer detritus-rich, forested areas along stream terraces or slopes.  At Prairie Ridge, the best place to see them is on the far side of the stream, but keep an eye out for large, green leaves growing in the forested areas alongside the near side of the stream as well.  You just might see a fascinating orchid on your next visit!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation.  Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

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