By Patty Gundrum
Two orchids are evident in West Virginia during the winter. Putty Root (Aplectrum hyemale) and Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor) produce a single leaf in autumn which persists all winter.
The leaves of both orchids are more conspicuous than the flowers. Putty root produces an elliptical and wrinkled green and white striped leaf while the cranefly orchid’s leaf often has distinctive dark purple spots above and bright purple below.
With both orchids, the persistence of the leaves in the winter affords the plants an advantage of greater available light during a time when the deciduous trees are leafless. The carbohydrate produced during photosynthesis supplies the underground corms with carbon rich nutrients for flower production in the late spring and summer. Two corms attached by a small rhizome are associated with each plant, one produces the flower, the other the leaf. As late spring and summer approach, the leaf withers and the flower stalks begin to appear.
Like many orchids, flowers will not occur every year. But when they do, cranefly orchids produce a flowering stem from July to September. The flowers are greenish-brown with a nectar spur and are numerous on the stem. The flowers are pollinated by moths which insert their proboscis into the nectar tube transferring pollen in the process.
Putty root’s flowering stem appears in May. The flowers are similar to that of the cranefly orchid but without the nectar spurs. Putty root is likely self-pollinating perhaps due to lack of nectar spur, thereby not attracting as many pollinators.
The common name of puttyroot is due to the sticky substance found in each corm which was historically used to mend pottery.
The primarily mode of reproduction by both orchids is through vegetative/clonal production of new corms each year. With infrequent seed capsules produced on the flowering stem through pollination, there is likely to be little genetic variability with both plants.