Winter is the best time to look for several orchid species that grow in the North Carolina piedmont. You can wander through the woods without worrying about ticks, spider webs and poison ivy. Just watch out for deer hunters.
1. Tipularia discolor (cranefly orchid)
Tipularia discolor is one of the most common woodland wildflowers in our region. They grow in almost every patch of woods, even where just a few trees have been left by developers. The plants grow as scattered individuals or small colonies., and the drifting seed will also sprout in mulched flowerbeds that are shaded and dryish in summer. T. discolor is very easy to find during the winter, when it bears a single leaf, and if you live almost anywhere in the piedmont, you could probably find a plant within a few minutes of stepping outside your front door.
They’re much more difficult to locate during the summer, because the foliage dies in spring and the midsummer flowers are small and dull. The best way to find T. discolor flowers is to mark a colony in winter and return in July (hopefully avoiding the aforementioned ticks and spider webs). You’ll be most likely to find flowers if you choose a colony that had the remains of inflorescences and dried seed capsules persisting in winter. The flowers are pollinated by moths, and the column is twisted slightly to one side so that the pollen is deposited on the moth’s compound eye.
Although the classic “textbook” description of T. discolor says that the leaves have dark purple spots on their upper surface and purple undersides (see above image), I have found considerable variation in the plants growing in central North Carolina. All of the following photos were taken in Orange County, NC, and I monitored the unusually colored forms for several years to be sure that their appearance wasn’t a temporary fluke.
2. Aplectrum hyemale (Adam and Eve, putty root orchid)
Aplectrum hyemale has a very similar growth habit, with a single leaf produced in autumn. The leaves are slightly larger than those of T. discolor and are green with distinctive white stripes. We are near the southern edge of its range, and it is much less common than T. discolor. I have only seen plants at two locations: once in Duke Forest and once along the Eno River near downtown Hillsborough.
3. Goodyera pubescens (downy rattlesnake plantain)
Goodyera pubescens is evergreen, not deciduous, but like T. discolor it is easier to find in the winter. It grows in the same habitat as T. discolor but seems to be somewhat less common. Its foliage is very beautiful, and various sources report that it has suffered from over-collection for gardens, terrariums, and flower arrangements. For terrariums, at least, its tropical relatives are much better suited. Just be sure to seek out artificially propagated plants. Several G. pubescens seedlings have sprouted in the hardwood mulch that we spread on flower beds, so if you’re lucky that’s a possible way to obtain plants for your garden.