Green in the Winter Woods

“And Adam named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living.”

Genesis 3:20

With Mike back at work, I’m going to try to contribute to the blog occasionally. I came upon the perfect topic while out on a “field day” with a coworker, Megan, last week. One of the things I never fail to notice in winter has always been the few small, ground-hugging plants that provide a flash of green in winter. One of the my favorites is cranefly orchid, Tipularia discolor.

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The cranefly orchid has a noticeable, single green leaf in winter. This one is dug up – more on that in a moment.

Just the other day Megan and I were at a school for a workshop. I was off by the creek, and she had the group of teachers in tow. All of a sudden, I heard a “wow” echo through the woods. Megan had just pointed out the somewhat-innocuous, green leaf of the cranefly orchid – and then flipped it over to show them the startling purple color of the backside of the leaf.

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I’m not in good practice taking pictures with a blog in mind, so this is the best shot I have of the back of the cranefly leaf – hopefully, you can notice the brilliant purple color, even if the details are a little fuzzy…!

I’ve heard a couple different theories to explain the purple color of the leaf’s underside. One idea is that it may help reflect light back into the leaf. This makes sense given that it is photosynthesizing in winter when sunlight hits the earth at a shallower angle, and therefore with less energy per unit area than in the summer.

Another theory is that the purple color acts kind of like sunscreen to protect the chloroplasts from too much sun – which also makes sense because with no leaves on trees in winter, there is certainly more sunlight! I’ve heard of something similar in Yellowstone in the microorganisms that thrive in the hot springs – in summer many are orange in color due to “sunscreen” carotenoids; in winter, the same microorganisms have a much more greenish cast (you can also see this in summer by carefully peering underneath the boardwalk where the shaded bacterial mats are much less orange-colored).

A final idea about the purple coloration in cranefly orchid is that perhaps the underside of the leaf is darker-colored to help it absorb more of the heat radiating from the ground to keep it just a little bit warmer in winter. I’m not sure why the leaves are purple underneath, maybe it’s a combination of factors, but it is certainly a beautiful color and a wonderful surprise in the winter woods.

Cranefly orchid has an interesting habit of producing a leaf in the fall that persists through winter, and producing a flower in the summer. The flower is not particularly showy (unless you take a very close look), and can even be hard to spot – especially because the bright green leaf is absent while the flower is in bloom. In fall, after the flower is done blooming, a single leaf grows. Typically in winter you will see only the leaves, but occasionally you may spot a plant that still has the flower stalk with seed capsules attached like a few we found on our walk. The seeds are beautiful small pods and worth a look with a magnifier.

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Close-up of cranefly orchid seed capsules

I remembered learning something interesting from Doug Elliot, a renowned naturalist in the mountains of NC, about the roots of this plant, so Megan and I decided to dig up one of the plants that still had its flower stalk and take a closer look (hence the earlier pictures of an unearthed plant).

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Two corms on root of cranefly orchid; the stalk on the right is last summer’s flower stalk

After some careful digging, we gently pulled the plant from the soil and cleaned off the roots and corms. As I suspected, we found two corms. Out of one sprouted the flower stalk; out of the other sprouted the leaf. Here’s how I think it goes: the leaf photosynthesizes through the winter and stores energy in the corm (the one it’s attached to in this picture). Come spring, the leaf will die and that same corm will sprout a flower stalk, using the energy stored from the winter sun. Sometime during or after blooming in summer/fall (guess I’ll need to dig up another plant at that time to figure out exactly when!), the plant produces a new corm from which another leaf will grow. Seems like a pretty smart strategy to take advantage of the open canopy in winter, when sunlight will hit its home on the forest floor much more so than in summer!

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Cranefly orchid is related to another plant called putty-root, Aplectrum hyemale. It has a larger leaf with thin white stripes running longitudinally down it. It’s another hint of green in winter, though much rarer than cranefly orchid, at least around here. The underside of putty-root can be purplish, but sometimes it is green; if purple, it is typically not as vibrant in color as cranefly orchid. Putty-root is known to be found in woods with sugar maple and American beech, and indeed, this plant was located in a beautiful beech grove.

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Puttyroot leaf

Another common name for putty-root is Adam-and-Eve root, in reference to the fact that it has paired corms like the cranefly orchid, though I’m not entirely sure which one is Adam and which one is Eve! A quick internet search on this turns up a wide variety of results – apparently, this plant is known for its ability to bring love your way, keep your lover true (the man carries the Adam root and woman the Eve root), and even encourage a marriage proposal. With a little wading through some interesting websites, I now suspect that the corm from which the leaf is growing is the Eve root: she will “give birth” to the new flower stalk in spring. That means the older corm with last year’s flower stalk is for Adam, poor guy.

Whether or not putty-root or cranefly orchid bring you love, they can at least bring you a moment of joy on your winter woods walk and remind you that the green of spring is never far away!

4 thoughts on “Green in the Winter Woods

  1. Great post, Melissa! If you hadn’t signed this post, it would be almost impossible to tell which of you wrote it – you and Mike are truly “birds of a feather”! Thank you both for these delightful and insightful tidbits. Such a wonderful way to start the day with eyes and hearts wide open!

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